On one hand, it shows optimism, hope and compassion for the future of the planet. On the other hand, it shows the ever lasting detriment of our actions when it comes to single-use plastic.
I should emphasize that rejecting longtermism does not mean that one must reject long-term thinking. You ought to care equally about people no matter when they exist, whether today, next year, or in a couple billion years henceforth. If we shouldn’t discriminate against people based on their spatial distance from us, we shouldn’t discriminate against them based on their temporal distance, either. Many of the problems we face today, such as climate change, will have devastating consequences for future generations hundreds or thousands of years in the future. That should matter. We should be willing to make sacrifices for their wellbeing, just as we make sacrifices for those alive today by donating to charities that fight global poverty. But this does not mean that one must genuflect before the altar of “future value” or “our potential,” understood in techno-Utopian terms of colonizing space, becoming posthuman, subjugating the natural world, maximizing economic productivity, and creating massive computer simulations stuffed with 1045 digital beings.
How do you keep knowledge alive over centuries? Stuff that seems big enough for a group of people to worry about at the time, but not so big it makes world news. Not the information that gets in all the textbooks, but just the stuff that makes the world gently tick over.
The World Wide Web at its best is a mechanism for people to share what they know, almost always for free, and to find one’s community no matter where you are in the world.
When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of such dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation.
A terrific piece by Jonathan Zittrain on bitrot and online digital preservation:
Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.
Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.
I like this Long Now view of our dataome:
We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.
In 1990, the science fiction writer Douglas Adams produced a “fantasy documentary” for the BBC called Hyperland. It’s a magnificent paleo-futuristic artifact, rich in sideways predictions about the technologies of tomorrow.
I remember coming across a repeating loop of this documentary playing in a dusty corner of a Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. Douglas Adams wasn’t credited but I recognised his voice.
Hyperland aired on the BBC a full year before the World Wide Web. It is a prophecy waylaid in time: the technology it predicts is not the Web. It’s what William Gibson might call a “stub,” evidence of a dead node in the timeline, a three-point turn where history took a pause and backed out before heading elsewhere.
Here, Claire L. Evans uses Adams’s documentary as an opening to dive into the history of hypertext starting with Bush’s Memex, Nelson’s Xanadu and Engelbart’s oNLine System. But then she describes some lesser-known hypertext systems…
In 1985, the students at Brown who encountered Intermedia had never seen anything like it before in their lives. The system laid a world of information at their fingertips, saved them hours at the library, and helped them work through tangles of thought.
A forthcoming documentary about Stewart Brand (with music by Brian Eno).
A 2015 paper by Long Tien Nguyen and Alan Kay with a proposal for digital preservation.
We discuss the problem of running today’s software decades,centuries, or even millennia into the future.
Human consciousness is the most astonishing thing, and most of it happened in deep time, beyond the reach of any writing and most legends. Human experience, in general, is prehistoric. And prehistoric experience was just as full as yours and mine: just as deeply felt, just as intelligent, just as real. What we know of it is mostly from durable artifacts and graves. I’m thinking of the woman found near the Snake River, buried at the end of the ice age with a perfectly crafted and unused stone knife tucked under her head. I’m thinking of the huge conical hats, beaten from single pieces of gold and inscribed with calendars, found north of the Alps. I’m thinking of Grave 8 at Vedbæk, where a woman held her premature baby on the spread wing of a swan. These are snapshot that experts can assemble into larger ideas, but what they tell all of us is that we’ve been people, not just humans, for a very long time.
Doomsday vs. the Long Now.
This is quite remarkable. On the surface, it’s a short article about the Y2K bug, but the hypertextual footnotes go deeper and deeper into memory, loss, grief …I’m very moved by the rawness and honesty nested within.
If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.
A deep dive into deep time:
Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.
The GitHub Archive Program will safely store every public GitHub repo for 1,000 years in the Arctic World Archive in Svalbard, Norway.
This is a fascinating project from Github, the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Bodleian Library and others. All of the public code on Github on February 2nd, 2020 will be archived for 1000 years in a vault in Svalbard.
Mind you, given the amount of dependencies that most “modern” code projects rely on, I can’t foresee the code working after 1000 days.
If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell.
A nice steaming cup of perspective.
If there were a nuclear holocaust in the Triassic, among warring prosauropods, we wouldn’t know about it.
The Hiding Place: Inside the World’s First Long-Term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste - Pacific Standard
Robert McFarlane’s new book is an exploration of deep time. In this extract, he visits the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility in Finland.
Sometimes we bury materials in order that they may be preserved for the future. Sometimes we bury materials in order to preserve the future from them.
As part of the BBC’s ongoing series on deep time, Alexander Rose describes the research he’s been doing for the clock of the long now—materials, locations, ideas …all the pieces that have historically combined to allow artifacts to survive.
Running an experiment for 500 years is hard enough. Then there’s the documentation…
The hard part is ensuring someone will continue doing this on schedule well into the future. The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete. They also left a hard copy, on paper. “But think about 500-year-old paper,” he says, how it would yellow and crumble. “Should we carve it in stone? Do we have to carve it in a metal plate?” But what if someone who cannot read the writing comes along and decides to take the metal plate as a cool, shiny relic, as tomb raiders once did when looting ancient tombs?
No strategy is likely to be completely foolproof 500 years later. So the team asks that researchers at each 25-year time point copy the instructions so that they remain linguistically and technologically up to date.