Rob, while long term thinking is interesting, it is not really important to many engineering tasks. One of the issues is that basic technology and needs change over time. Sometimes over a short period of time. What the Long Now Foundation reminds me of is Japanese companies. When I was at a large company they sent us through a marketing management course of study. I was a product strategist at the time. The instructors were professors from business schools in Europe. Many of them also consulted on the side. They were always talking about the hundred year strategies of the Japanese companies they worked with. Where are those companies now? Most of them are floundering becuase of a number of external factors.
Another example of where creating a device or system for the long term that will not work is in computer controlled systems. I did the long term transition plan for a large military project. They had it right. They recognized that the technology was going to change and we worked to try to project it and then to come up with strategies to ensure that the system evolved over time and that the new could work with the old while taking advantage of advances in technology.
Some projects and technologies just don't need to last a long time, and it might be better if they don't. Take the Space Shuttle. The computers are very old and not very powerful by today's standards. You might recall that the crew started using regular laptops on flights becuase they had much more power. The problem with a lot of NASA projects is that they are not used to long term use that can be modified. The expense in the acceptance testing. The Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) are examples of projects that differ from previous projects.
I own 2 grandfather clocks, one with a completely wooden movement and the other with a hard-brass movement. The wood movement clock has been in continuous operation except for moving and cleaning since the early 1800's and analysis suggests this should be able to run indefinitely with proper maintenance. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the modern brass movement, though getting parts is obviously much easier. I don't think the longevity of a device is necessarily a reflection of the quality of the components as much as it is a reflection of the mindset of the designer and builder.
In a line of ultra-futuristic projects, DARPA is developing a brain microchip that will help heal the bodies and minds of soldiers. A final product is far off, but preliminary chips are already being tested.
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