Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Doomsday Clock

Tonight I finished watching a show called The Doomsday Clock, on the best TV channel (the History Channel, of course). I was vaguely aware of the clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, but I didn't know the history of the project. According to Minutes to Midnight:
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction--the figurative midnight--and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences and nanotechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm.

Interesting -- you know what this is? It's a risk assessment. In my first book I defined risk as the probability of suffering harm or loss. The Doomsday Clock supposedly displays how close we are to world-ending catastrophe.

I find two aspects of the clock appealing.

First, as depicted by Information Aesthetics, the clock rapidly and clearly communicates its message. If you see fewer and fewer minutes until midnight, you sense something bad is about to happen. It's language-neutral and concise.

Second, the act of moving the hands and then tracking hand position over time provides a sense of risk trending. As depicted by Wikipedia above, you can get a historical reading of risk by watching the number of minutes to midnight rise and fall. The interval between the hand position changes is also significant.

The problem with the Doomsday Clock is the same problem found in many, if not most, risk assessments. It is more or less arbitrary. The creation of the clock and the initial position of its hands was completely arbitrary, in fact! The designer of the clock, artistic designer Martyl Langsdorf, invented the clock for the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin. She positioned the hands to be aesthetically pleasing, not to show how close we were to destruction. When you consider the amount of time she could have worked with (12 hours), limiting herself to a fifteen minute window set a precedent for the next sixty years. While the clock has moved outside this 15 minute window (for example, in 1991) the precedent was set too narrowly. What will the bulletin do when even greater threats exist -- move to second and then nano-second increments?

In response to the Soviet's 1949 detonation of their first atomic weapon, Bulletin founder and editor Eugene Rabinowitch told Langsdorf to move the hands from 7 minutes to midnight to 3 minutes to midnight. Again, this choice was basically to convey urgency. Only when the hands were moved on the magazine cover did readers start to appreciate the information conveyed by the clock.

From this point forward, the hands have moved back and forth as the Bulletin members and, more recently, outside parties have haggled about the position of the hands. I have a feeling these meetings would drive me crazy. It's a collection of people with opinions arguing about the location of hands on a clock created originally for artistic value. Still, as noted in my two "appealing" points, I think we can learn some lessons from the Doomsday Clock regarding the ability to quickly and powerfully communicate risk to others.

While researching this post I discovered that the ACLU jumped on the "clock bandwagon" with its Surveillance Society Clock. According to the ACLU, "It's six minutes before midnight as a surveillance society draws near within the United States." This is dumb for multiple reasons.

First, the ACLU chose a digital clock. I don't know about you, but for me a digital clock doesn't convey an amount of time as visually as an analog clock. It's like a speedometer; seeing it pegged to the right is more powerful than reading "101 MPH" or similar. Second, as Wired magazine astutely asked how do we know when we're there? It's tough to ignore Armageddon; it's easy to ignore a "surveillance state." Third, the ACLU painted itself into the same corner as the Bulletin did when it chose to set its initial time so close to midnight. What's the ACLU going to do with the clock when remote mind-reading is in use?


Steven Andrés said...

Interesting side note for those of you that don't follow alternative rock: The band Linkin Park (my all-time favorite and included in the acknowledgments of my book in fact) released an album in May 2007 titled "Minutes to Midnight" referring to the same Doomsday Clock. It was my first time even hearing about the clock, as I enjoyed the liner notes from the album.

LonerVamp said...

I liked the idea of the clock back when nuclear armageddon was a very real issue (these days, it doesn't feel quite so urgent). They could have started the clock at 8pm, but what sort of urgency would that have caused? None.

I think the possibility of moving to seconds or nano-seconds in order to still slowly creep up goes a bit beyond the point of the doomsday clock.

Anonymous said...

The Doomsday Clock was always a gamed system used, IMO, to reflect badly on certain political players and well on others. Note that the clock stays at 7 minutes to midnight during the friggin Cuban Missile Crisis! It also doesn't give you a good idea about where the threat is coming from. Note that the trend since the mid 90's is downward. Is that because of the U.S., terrorism, growing aggression from Russia? Did those pesky Swedes get the bomb? The clock does not say. The image is good for a cover sheet, but I would probably tear up a report that used the clock idea as a way to actually give me, you know, information.

Arthur said...

That's all well and good, except that the Doomsday Clock isn't actually a real risk assessment. It's a political statement with a brilliant graphic behind it, so it makes good press. That's all.

John Ward said...

I'm sure the DHARMA Initiative would dispute this whole argument.

or better yet, The Venture Bros.

Anonymous said...

When I saw the ACLU clock subtitle about time "running out" - I automatically looked at it as a countdown timer, not a digital clock.
So my visual interpretation says we have 23 hours and 54 minutes before surveillance society; which feels like a good long time.

It also looks a bit brain-dead, since the ":" activity bug is blinking, but the time doesn't move.