So, could researchers find clear evidence that an ancient species built a relatively short-lived industrial civilization long before our own? Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that only lasted 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.
A run-down of digital preservation technologies for very, very long-term storage …in space.
I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:
No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.
As installation begins, it feels like a good time to revisit this twelve year old essay by Michael Chabon on The Clock Of The Long Now. It’s a remarkable piece of writing about our relationship to the very idea of The Future, and how that relationship has changed in just one lifetime.
Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?
There’s a running joke at just about any gathering at Clearleft where we measure TTPL—Time To Pace Layers—a measurement of how long we can discuss anything before making an inevitable reference to Stewart Brand’s framing.
It’s one of those concepts that, once your brain has been exposed, you start seeing everywhere. Like bad kerning or sexism.
Off-site backups of humanity’s knowledge and culture, stored in different media (including pyramidal crystals) placed in near-Earth orbit, the moon, and Mars.
We are developing specialized next-generation devices that we call Archs™ (pronounced “Arks”), which are designed to hold and transmit large amounts of data over long periods of time in extreme environments, including outer space and on the surfaces of other planetary bodies.
Our goal is to collect and curate important data sets and to install them on Archs™ that will be delivered to as many locations as possible for safekeeping.
To increase the chances that Archs™ will be found in the future, we aim for durability and massive redundancy across a broad diversity of locations and materials – a strategy that nature itself has successfully employed.
From the library of Alexandria to the imagined canals of mars to the spots on the sun, this is a beautifully written examination of the chronology contained within the bristlecone pine.
The oldest of the living bristlecones were just saplings when the pyramids were raised. The most ancient, called Methuselah, is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old; with luck, it will soon enter its sixth millennium as a living, reproducing organism. Because we conceive of time in terms of experience, a life spanning millennia can seem alien or even eternal to the human mind. It is hard to grasp what it would be like to see hundreds of generations flow out from under you in the stream of time, hard to imagine how rich and varied the mind might become if seasoned by five thousand years of experience and culture.
There is only the briefest passing mention of the sad story of Don Currey.
An interesting approach to digital preservation: storing digital video in the DNA of bacteria.
Steven Johnson dives deep into the METI project, starting with the Arecibo message and covering Lincos, the Drake equation, and the Fermi paradox.
He also wrote about what he left out of the article and mentions that he’s writing a book on long-term decision making.
In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.
A conference in my old stomping grounds of Freiburg on archives, preservation, and long-term thinking:
It will present the state of art in long-term archiving as well as the present problems in preservation of information and scientific data in archives and libraries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that, since all conceivable systems are finite but can be quite large, a choice on the contents has to be made. This requires thinking of the human condition: Who we are, what we are and what do we find worth to preserve.
Cancelling the future.
The future lives and dies by the state of the archives. To look hard at this world and honestly, diligently articulate what happened and what it was like in the present is a sort of promise to the future, a new layer to the palimpsest of history that can become someone else’s foundation.
The Long Now Foundation has been posting some great stuff on their blog lately. The latest is a look at orreries, clocks, and computers throughout history …and into the future.
An even thornier problem than the Clock of the Long Now.
A website dedicated to one of the most, um, interesting solutions to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage problem:
- Engineer cats that change colour in response to radiation.
- Create the culture/legend/history that if your cat changes colour, you should move some place else.
There are T-shirts!
An unfolding series of vignettes written by Danny Hillis back in 2010. It’s all very Borgesian.
If you’re in need of some long-term perspective right now—because, let’s face it, the short-term outlook is looking pretty damn bleak—then why not explore some of Max Roser’s data visualisations? Have a look at some of the global trends in inequality, disease, hunger, and conflict.
It’s still many years away from being a viable storage option, but here’s the latest on using DNA to back up our collective data.
Magnetic tape may survive a few decades, and DVDs even longer, but they are by no means immortal. Data stored in DNA, provided it’s kept cold and dry, could last for thousands of years.
Prompted by the way Craig is handling the shutdown of hi.co, Glenn Fleishman takes a look at other digital preservation efforts and talk to Laura Welcher at the Long Now Foundation.
A time capsule is bottled optimism. It makes material the belief that human beings will survive long enough to retrieve and decode artifacts of the distant past.
Now this is how you shut down a service:
- Maintain read-only URLs for at least ten years.
- Create physical copies etched in metal held by cultural institutions for ten thousand years.
- Allow users to export their data (of course).
Web projects often lack hard edges. They begin with clarity but end without. We want to close Hi.co with clarity. To properly bookend the website.
And nary a trace of “We are excited to announce…” or “Thank you for joining us on our incredible journey…”
(Such a shame that the actual shut-down notice is only on Ev’s blog, but hopefully Craig will write something on his own site too.)
This is my kind of talk—John Snow’s cholera map, the Yucca Mountain think-tank, the Pioneer plaque, the Voyager record, the Drake equation, the Arecibo signal, and the love song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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