IEET > Vision > Staff > Mike Treder > Futurism
Temporal Powers of Ten
Mike Treder   Jun 15, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Many IEET readers probably are familiar with the famous (and famously brilliant) “Powers of Ten” film created in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames. What happens if we try a similar mental exercise with time instead of space?

The compelling Eames production takes the viewer exponentially outward from a picnic in Central Park—first one meter, then 10 meters, then 100 meters, and so on—to show humanity’s place in the universe, and then it reverses the process, going inward by powers of ten to look inside the human body and finally inside individual atoms. It’s a fascinating way to reevaluate our place in space.

But we can play the same kind of game with time.

Let’s try going back in time by powers of ten—beginning with 10 years, then 100 years, then 1000 years, etc.—and after that we’ll go forward. For simplicity, we’ll use the year 2000 as our starting point.

-101    1990

  • Ten years previous, which doesn’t seem like much, until you consider that this puts us before the invention of the World Wide Web and therefore before Web sites, before widespread use of email, and—GASP!—before Google.

-102    1900

  • One hundred years earlier than 2000, and now we’re back in the horse and buggy era, before the invention of the aeroplane, before radio, before TV, before plastics!

-103    1000

  • One thousand years back, and total human population is about 5% of what it is now. It’s the Middle Ages. Existence in many parts of the world is Hobbesian—poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

-104    8000 bce

  • Ten times further back, and we find the earliest glimmers of human civilization. Agriculture is beginning simultaneously—perhaps as a result of global climate changes—in the Fertile Crescent, in China, and in Mesoamerica.

-105    98,000 bce

  • It is perhaps around this time that human language first developed, and it is also thought to be around this time that Homo sapiens began to migrate out of Africa (the two events may be related).

-106    1 mya

  • One million years ago (mya). No modern humans yet, but several hominid species exist alongside one another in East Africa. One of them was your direct ancestor.

-107    10 mya

  • Again, ten times further back, and we’re in the Miocene era. Ramapithecus, our probable progenitor, is just evolving, likely from the Dryopithecus line. Giraffes, deer, and cattle are emerging too, along with seals and walruses. Many other animals already have roughly their present form.

-108    100 mya

  • The Cretaceous era, the time of the dinosaurs. Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex roam the land. Pterodactyls rule the sky. Continents are in different places than we know them, with North America still connected to Eurasia, South America just splitting apart from Africa, and India yet to ram into southern Asia.

-109    1 bya

  • One billion years ago, it’s the Precambrian, a shadowy time of which we know remarkably little. No land plants or animals yet exist, and, in fact, the first complex multicelled life forms are still perhaps 400 million years away. It’s a good time to be a bacteria.

-1010  10 bya

  • Moving back ten times further, and there is no Earth, no Sun, no Solar System. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, seems to have formed very early—along with the oldest galaxies in the universe—but our star and the planet we live on will not come into being for another five and a half billion years.

-1011  ?

  • Time, as we know it, does not yet exist, nor does anything else. Our universe, which is the only one we know of, appeared approximately 13.7 billion years before the present. Hence, the phrase “100 billion years ago” has no real meaning.

Now let’s go the other way, starting in the year 2000 and moving forward, by powers of ten.

101    2010

  • Only one year from now, so we can probably guess pretty closely what it will be like then. But here’s a good thought question: What would surprise a person from the year 2000 most about the year 2010?

102    2100

  • End of our current century and start of the next. Should we expect as much change going forward 100 years as we saw when going back the same distance? Or perhaps much more?

103    3000

  • Are you able to imagine, with any degree of confidence, what humans and human societies will be like a thousand years from now? I’m not.

104    12,000

  • Does the species Homo sapiens still exist? Have we changed beyond all recognition? Have we destroyed ourselves, or been wiped out by one of many possible existential threats?

105    102,000

  • Another ten times further into the future. At -105 human language was just emerging. What may emerge between now and a hundred millennia from now?

106    1 my

  • One million years forward. Earth still exists in its present form—unless, that is, posthumans have used technology to alter it beyond recognition.

107    10 my

  • Your guess is as good as mine.

108    100 my

  • Earth will still be here, presumably, although the continents will have drifted a bit.

109    1 by

  • By this time, the Sun will be about 10% brighter than today, meaning Earth is much warmer than now. Again, this is unless we or some other super-advanced intelligent civilization has taken control of our Solar System’s development.

1010  10 by

  • Oops, no more Earth, probably. The Sun has ballooned into a red giant and then shrunk again to a white dwarf. If Earth has not been swallowed up completely, it will likely be just a crispy cinder.

1011  100 by

  • The universe keeps expanding, galaxies racing ever farther apart, activity winding down.

1012  1 ty

  • Ditto. To say what might become of humans or any other form of intelligence at this point is pure speculation.

1013  10 ty

  • Ditto.

1014  100 ty

  • Assuming we live in an open universe, and unless someone or something intervenes, this is when the protracted “heat death” of the universe is expected to begin.


  • We’ve skipped past 25 powers of ten because it takes a loooong time for things to happen in this stage of the universe’s slow decline. By this time, though, planets, stars, and galaxies are no more, as all protons have decayed.


  • Skipping ahead another 60 exponents, this is the darkest of dark ages, when black holes—the only things remaining in the universe—begin to evaporate.


  • Photons are all that is left.


  • Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

This article was originally published at the Responsible Nanotechnology blog on May 21, 2008.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


“10 bya   ... there is no Earth, no Sun, no Solar System. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, seems to have formed very early:along with the oldest galaxies in the universe: but our star and the planet we live on will not come into being for another five and a half billion years.”

I suppose I should ask this question to an astronomer, but this question has been bugging me for a long time: What does it mean by “the sun came into being?” Does it mean that before that point, it burst out of, or morphed from, something else? If so, how can we know that we’re dating from the right point?

For 10^1, I’d say the biggest surprise to a layperson (but not so much to a futurist) is the prevalence and ubiquity of the internet and cell phones.

Here’s a new homage to Powers of Ten by IBM

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Can Synthetic Biology Cure Bad Air? (It’s not what you think)

Previous entry: Geoengineering Debate Heats Up