Not only was fire always dangerous as well as beneficial, so was the wheel. A spear could injure or kill your friends, not only your dinner. With clothes came not only protection but also body lice. With farming came not only a more reliable food supply but also hard, repetitive work – and plunder by hungry bandits.
Every solution creates new problems. But they can be better problems. Lesser evils. More and greater delights.
That’s what progress is. That is what is most visible today. And that is what cynicism must therefore besmirch, obfuscate and argue away if it is to make itself, and pessimism, superficially plausible.
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.
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.
Even more radically, your time at the library comes with absolutely no expectation that you buy anything. Or even that you transact at all. And there’s certainly no implication that your data or your rights are being surrendered in return for the services you partake in.
This rare openness and neutrality imbues libraries with a distinct sense of community, of us, of everyone having come together to fund and build and participate in this collective sharing of knowledge and space. All of that seems exceedingly rare in this increasingly commercial, exposed world of ours. In a way it’s quite amazing that the concept continues to persist at all.
And when we look at it this way, as a startlingly, almost defiantly civilized institution, it seems even more urgent that we make sure it not only continues to survive, but that it should also thrive, too.
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.
Kim Stanley Robinson explores the practicalities of E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth proposal.
There is no alternative way; there is no planet B. We have only this planet, and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. That’s the meaning of life, in case you were looking for a meaning.
Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?
This thought experiment leads to some fascinating conclusions.
So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?
This wide-ranging essay by Nick Nielsen on Centauri Dreams has a proposition that resonates with my current talk about evaluating technology:
Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses.
Then there’s this:
The most remarkable feature of how we got from the origins of our species to the complex and sophisticated civilization we have today is that, with few exceptions, none of it was planned. Technology was not planned; civilization was not planned; industrialization was not planned; the internet was not planned.
Exemplars proposing various solutions for the resilience of digital data and computation over long timeframes include the Internet Archive; redundantly distributed storage platforms such GlusterFS, LOCKSS, and BitTorrent Sync; and the Lunar supercomputer proposal of Ouliang Chang.
Each of these differs in its approach and its focus; yet each shares with Vessel and with one another a key understanding: The prospects of Earth-originating life in the future, whether vast or diminishing, depend upon our actions and our foresight in this current cultural moment of opportunity, agency, awareness, ability, capability, and willpower.
There is much hand-wringing in the media about the impending death of journalism, usually blamed on the rise of the web or more specifically bloggers. I’m sympathetic to their plight, but sometimes journalists are their own worst enemy, especially when they publish badly-researched articles that fuel moral panic with little regard for facts (if you’ve ever been in a newspaper article yourself, you’ll know that you’re lucky if they manage to spell your name right).
Exhibit A: an article published in The Guardian called How I became a Foursquare cyberstalker. Actually, the article isn’t nearly as bad as the comments, which take ignorance and narrow-mindedness to a new level.
Fortunately Ben is on hand to set the record straight. He wrote Concerning Foursquare and communicating privacy. Far from being a lesser form of writing, this blog post is more accurate than the article it is referencing, helping to balance the situation with a different perspective …and a nice big dollop of facts and research. Ben is actually quite kind to The Guardian article but, in my opinion, his own piece is more interesting and thoughtful.
Exhibit B: an article by Jeffrey Rosen in The New York Times called The Web Means the End of Forgetting. That’s a bold title. It’s also completely unsupported by the contents of the article. The article contains anecdotes about people getting into trouble about something they put on the web, and—even though the consequences for that action played out in the present—he talks about the permanent memory bank of the Web and writes:
The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities.
Bollocks. Or, to use the terminology of Wikipedia, citation needed.
Rosen presents his premise — that information once posted to the Web is permanent and indelible — as a given. But it’s highly debatable. In the near future, we are, I’d argue, far more likely to find ourselves trying to cope with the opposite problem: the Web “forgets” far too easily.
Exactly! I get irate whenever I hear the truism that the web never forgets presented without any supporting data. It’s right up there with eskimos have fifty words for snow and people in the middle ages thought that the world was flat. These falsehoods are irritating at best. At worst, as is the case with the myth of the never-forgetting web, the lie is downright dangerous. As Rosenberg puts it:
I’m a lot less worried about the Web that never forgets than I am about the Web that can’t remember.
That’s a real problem. And yet there’s no moral panic about the very real threat that, once digitised, our culture could be in more danger of being destroyed. I guess that story doesn’t sell papers.
This problem has a number of thorns. At the most basic level, there’s the issue of link rot. I love the fact that the web makes it so easy for people to publish anything they want. I love that anybody else can easily link to what has been published. I hope that the people doing the publishing consider the commitment they are making by putting a linkable resource on the web.
Domain names aren’t bought, they are rented. Nobody owns domain names, except ICANN.
I’m not saying that we should ditch domain names. But there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that thinks about domain names in time periods as short as a year or two.
Then there’s the fact that so much of our data is entrusted to third-party sites. There’s no guarantee that those third-party sites give a rat’s ass about the long-term future of our data. Quite the opposite. The callous destruction of Geocities by Yahoo is a testament to how little our hopes and dreams mean to a company concerned with the bottom line.
We can host our own data but that isn’t quite as easy as it should be. And even with the best of intentions, it’s possible to have the canonical copies wiped from the web by accident. I’m very happy to see services like Vaultpress come on the scene:
Your WordPress site or blog is your connection to the world. But hosting issues, server errors, and hackers can wipe out in seconds what took years to build. VaultPress is here to protect what’s most important to you.
We need one or more institutions that can manage electronic trusts over very long periods of time.
The institutions need to be long-lived and have the technical know-how to manage static archives. The organizations should need the service themselves, so they would be likely to advance the art over time. And the cost should be minimized, so that the most people could do it.
It’s what my technology friends call a non-trivial task, for all kinds of technical, social and legal reasons. But it’s about as important for our future as anything I can imagine. We are creating vast amounts of information, and a lot of it is not just worth preserving but downright essential to save.
There’s an even longer-term problem with digital preservation. The very formats that we use to store our most treasured memories can become obsolete over time. This goes to the very heart of why standards such as HTML—the format I’m betting on—are so important.
Their plan involves the storage, not just of data, but of data formats such as JPEG and PDF: the equivalent of a Rosetta stone for our current age. A box containing format-decoding documentation has been buried in a bunker under the Swiss Alps. That’s a good start.
As proved by the destruction of the Alexandria Library and of the literature of Mayans and Minoans, “knowledge is hard won but easily lost.”
I’m worried that we’re spending less and less time thinking about the long-term future of our data, our culture, and ultimately, our civilisation. Currently we are preoccupied with the real-time web: Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook …all services concerned with what’s happening right here, right now. The Long Now Foundation and Tau Zero Foundation offer a much-needed sense of perspective.
As with that other great challenge of our time—the alteration of our biosphere through climate change—the first step to confronting the destruction of our collective digital knowledge must be to think in terms greater than the local and the present.