How to send the best of our civilization into the future
When the library of Alexandria was accidentally torched by legionaries loyal to Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, a wealth of knowledge was lost. The continuous decline of the library over the next two centuries meant that more than 90% of knowledge known to classical scholars was lost forever.
Likewise we know nearly nothing about Egyptian civilization, Mesopotamian civilization, the Indus civilization, and even the more recent Aztec and Inca civilizations. When societies collapse the knowledge they amassed goes with them: their literature, their science, their history.
So imagine what would happen in the case of a worldwide collapse: nearly all our knowledge would be lost. Given the triumph of populism around the world the odds are that our global civilization will end within the next hundred years. It will be the first unified collapse in the history of our species. As such, the likelihood is that everything of value will be lost.
If our global civilization does fail in the next century or so, it could take more than a thousand years for humanity to regain the knowledge that makes today’s everyday miracles possible. As we are very likely indeed to tear ourselves apart in a mindless atavistic orgy of destruction, urged on by the infantile morons we’ve elected because we are just as stupid and vapid as they are, it may be wise to contemplate how to help our descendants rebuild.
To rebuild, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will need to be able to educate themselves. To do that, they’ll need the knowledge we take for granted. But if we’ve destroyed everything, how will they rediscover what we have so painstakingly amassed?
Today most of our knowledge is stored on hard drives in massive data centers around the world. But that actually makes our contemporary knowledge even more fragile than if it were stored on papyrus scrolls or on paper within leather-bound books. Today a file written in WordStar or in a file format for a proprietary IBM or DEC VAX system from the 1980s is essentially unreadable without specialist programs to interpret outmoded and forgotten code. Worse still, anything stored on one of the first huge floppy discs (and they really were floppy, even with their thin cardboard protective jackets) is lost to time. Imagine the difficulty presented to our illiterate and innumerate great-grandchildren as they stand and stare uncomprehendingly at an empty data center in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Chances are, at best, they’d scavenge what they could to help weatherproof their mud huts and thatch roofs. Ancient Rome wasn’t dismantled by the barbarian hordes; it was dismantled over centuries by the ignorant descendants of once-great Roman citizens looking for building materials that could make their hovels slightly less porous to the wind and the rain. There is precisely zero chance that our descendants will be able to glean any information whatsoever from whatever may be left on those RAID drives and optical discs.
So how can we try to help those who will come after and, standing amid ruins, are wondering how to rebuild?
We need to imagine a world utterly unlike our own, a world in which we’re starting from the very beginning again.
So the information we want to send into the distant future must begin at the very beginning too. We need a method of enabling illiterate and innumerate people to learn their way back to what we presently know. We need books that begin with the very basics of reading and writing, of numbers and operators, and carry forward from there.
But we need more. Pre-literate societies are verbal societies, so we need sounds, especially if we want our grand-children to be able to reconstruct the languages we use and one day perhaps access audiovisual records too.
This means simple mechanical hand-powered machines to connect written symbols to verbal sounds. In this way we can not only restore reading but also speaking. Today when we look at mid-period classical Greek we can only guess at much of the pronunciation by means of careful linguistic detective work. Many of our guesses are doubtless incorrect but we will never be able to know which ones, nor how to correct them.
But what if there was a Greek mechanical machine that when turned by hand rendered the sounds of Socrates and Archimedes speaking aloud the texts preserved next to that machine?
It’s a laborious business to begin with first principles and build up a corpus of knowledge but it’s not an intractable problem. We can amass the materials necessary for a person to learn to read and perform rudimentary arithmetic; from there we can move to chemistry and higher mathematics and thence to physics. We can provide some sort of history and we can convey what we know about evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and all the other wonders of today’s technological world. No individual human being could acquire all this knowledge but, to recap the analogy used by Alfred the Great, each person can be like an ant carrying back to the nest some small portion of knowledge whereby the whole colony becomes continually enriched.
We’ll need to use inks capable of lasting a thousand years on paper that will last just as long. Fortunately we have those materials today. We’ll need to seal everything in nitrogen, but that’s the technology we currently use to extend the shelf-life of tortillas and potato chips. Then we’ll need to replicate these materials in hundreds of buried sites around the globe, each site containing the location of all the other sites.
In order to prevent the equivalent of tomb-robbing we’ll need to protect these arks of knowledge. We’ll need to bury them underground and seal them with doors impregnable to primitive technologies. A manual mechanism to open them will be required as there will be no modern power sources when today’s civilization isn’t even a distant memory. My personal preference for an open-sesame mechanism is a mechanical keypad with a picture of the Fibonacci sequence engraved above it. Only descendants who’ve already begun to value understanding and knowledge would be able to understand the instruction and thereby gain access to the vault.
Forget about sci-fi dreams of “saving” humanity by running away to a billionaire’s panic room on Mars. Any Mars colony that could possibly be established within the next three hundred years will be utterly dependent on a highly sophisticated global civilization here on Earth. So pretending that driving Tesla CyberTruks across a barren red planet over fifty million kilometers distant is a “solution” to the collapse of civilization is the equivalent of pretending we’ll all just ride away on the backs of unicorns. Only really stupid rich people, and folk who don’t understand the difference between Star Trek and General Relativity, could possibly believe for even a fraction of a nanosecond that “Lifeboat Mars” is anything other than an infantile fantasy.
But saving our knowledge for future generations is eminently achievable. It doesn’t need any new technologies at all. We can do it here on Earth today for about what it costs to send two ISS payloads into orbit. One hundred repositories positioned around the world can genuinely preserve all that’s best of our civilization, along with explanations of why we destroyed ourselves, in the hope that our great-grandchildren will be wise enough to take heed of our cognitive limitations as a species and look for ways to mitigate our folly and our short-sightedness and our vulnerability to atavistic impulses we can’t control.
I don’t know how we do this. 99% of the population of the planet is fast asleep, unable to see the most obvious warning signs of impending doom. We’re largely unable to see the obvious consequences of our actions, forever doomed to be surprised by the gap between expectation and outcome. Most people will cling to hope that magically tomorrow will be better than today, even as they rush to vote for the next blustering moron who pours egregious nonsense into their welcoming ears.
I don’t know how we persuade people that spending $400 billion on a pointless Mars colony is moronic, but spending $100 million to create a series of global knowledge repositories makes eminent sense.
But I do hope that someone can figure out how to go from vision to reality, because our great-grandchildren are depending on it.