Skip to content
Technology & Innovation

What Will Your City Look Like in 1,000 Years? Jonathon Keats’ Millennium Camera

Thanks to Big Think’s favorite experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have a photographic record of how Tempe, Arizona, in 3015 ended up that way.

Will it be a smoldering cinder? A techno-utopia? Something in between? Unless you’re a self-biohacking billionaire, you may never know. But thanks to Big Think’s favorite experimental philosopher, Jonathon Keats, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have a photographic record of how Tempe, Arizona, in 3015 ended up that way.

Using a highly durable pinhole camera, Keats (well, his camera anyway) will document the changes in the skyline of Tempe over the next millennium. The project is sponsored by the Emerge Festival and Arizona State University Art Museum and will (we hope) culminate in an exhibition 1,000 years from now. If physical universities still exist in 3015, and if the camera is not destroyed by rampaging robots constructed by other robots that have long since acquired autonomous intelligence, it will provide our descendants a glimpse backward into “deep time.” Keats hopes that it will give them some perspective on how quickly and radically our cities change, often under our very noses and at the hands of a few ambitious developers and politicians.

Living as we do in a world that records everything, yet seems to have an increasingly limited memory, we can take Keats’ experiment as a reminder that even over massive time scales, some things endure.

Video: Director Nathan Broderick documents (the beginning of) the Millennium Camera Project.

I asked Jonathon a few questions about his farsighted experiment:

1) Do you have any expectations about what the Tempe image will show if it survives? Will it all be bad news?

Tempe is largely a product of population growth in Phoenix, and it’s representative of both the promise and the perils of urban expansion throughout the United States. One of theforemost questions of our time is whether cities can make civilization sustainable, and how populations can be optimally distributed for efficient and equitable use of resources. Thequestion is especially pressing in the American Southwest. Growth is constrained by theavailability of water, and the availability of water is likely to destabilize with the climate. SoI believe that Tempe provides a good vantage to scrutinize urbanization now and in athousand years. It’s a good place to examine our expectations about city life.

That said, urbanization is not the only worthy subject for a millennium-long photograph.For that reason, my deep-time photography is by no means limited to Tempe. At Amherst College next month, I’ll place a second millennium camera in a spire overseen by the Mead Art Museum, providing a thousand-year view of the Holyoke Mountain Range, recordinghow our changing climate impacts natural habitat.

In a thousand years, these photographs may provide our great-great-grandchildren’s greatgreat-grandchildren with evidence of our role in the decimation of the environment and thecollapse of civilization. Alternately, the fact that we’re being held accountable can helpinstill a sense of responsibility sufficient to overcome our present-day complacency. So Ican’t say whether it will be all bad news, all good news, or a mixture of the two. Today theimage inside each of the millennium cameras is blank. Through our actions, we can decidehow the pictures will develop.

2) Why 1,000 years?

Well, it started out at a hundred years. The first instantiation of my deep-time photographywas in Berlin last summer. Working with a local arts organization called Team Titanic, Imanufactured 100 pinhole cameras, each with a century-long exposure time.Anyone in the city could take a camera in exchange for a 10-euro deposit, refundable in acentury. Berliners hid the cameras in their neighborhoods. Eventually they’ll reveal thecameras’ whereabouts to children, who will be the ones to retrieve the cameras for a 2114exhibition of the city in transformation.

With my century camera, I deliberately made the duration of the exposure longer than ahuman lifespan: The audience will be those not yet born — the people most impacted bywhat we do to the world, with the least influence over our choices. The millennium cameraexponentially extends the timespan to a degree that we cannot even fathom the people or the civilization at the far end. Yet, as with the century cameras, I intend the millenniumcamera also to be experienced by those alive today. The experience will not be visual, but conceptual. The process of seeing change will be internalized, prompted by the awareness that we’re being watched.

One reason for extending the exposure time is that the camera can potentially serve as aconnection across multiple generations and even civilizations, potentially fosteringcooperation. Another reason for doing so is that the camera can serve as a means for us tothink in deep time.

Deep time is geological time, a timeframe that’s imperceptible to us because it’sexponentially more expansive than the human lifespan. Yet it’s highly relevant to our livesbecause our actions today can deeply affect the far future of our planet. (Our technology isas forceful as planetary geology.) So it’s essential that we make deep time experiential — even participatory — and that we’re able to see our activities in the context of the nextthousand years or more: to see ourselves from the perspective of the far future.

3) What advice would you give me if I wanted to do my own personal millennium camera project in my own town or city?

If I may, allow me to start by discussing the century camera. Anyone can easily make acentury camera and place it in the city or town where they live. You can make one out ofan old biscuit tin or beer can. All you have to do is place a sheet of black paper opposite apinhole puncture, seal the lid against light leaks, and remember where you hide thecamera. Over time, the paper will gradually fade, preserving the image projected throughthe pinhole. The technology is completely open source and free for anyone to adapt.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

That said, I think we can be much more ambitious. What would happen if the centurycamera were a birthright, and every child received one? Mass-produced in cardboard, thesecameras could be made very inexpensively, perhaps for less than a tenth of a cent apiece, and they could be freely distributed by UNESCO, which could also host a rolling globalexhibition of the photos. Every day, starting 100 years from now, a new worldwide deep time panorama would be revealed.

The millennium cameras could also be overseen by UNESCO. Imagine a millennium cameraprominently placed in every city, town, and village, all serving as elements in a globalnetwork observing our changing environment. The structures supporting these millenniumcameras could be as monumental as obelisks, each serving as a public counterpoint to theintensely personal experience of privately hiding a century camera.


If it’s spatiotemporally possible for you, catch these upcoming events with Jonathon Keats:

  • 4/7/15 — a lecture about the project at the Long Now Foundation, San Francisco, CA:
    • 4/15/15 — Keats unveils a similar project at Amherst College, Amherst, MA:
    • Follow Jason Gots @jgots on Twitter


      Up Next