It’s called So Now You’re a Time Traveler. It was pretty fun when we tried it out.
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My father-in-law asked me as a thought experiment what technologies I’d use to preserve civilization in the face of an apocalypse or societal collapse. This is the answer I gave him, which may have gotten out of hand. If nothing else, it was entertaining to me to write and gave me a few cool seeds for science fiction ideas.
By far, the best way to preserve civilization from a disaster is to prevent or avoid the disaster. No preservation technologies will keep safe all the data available to our culture presently. So Plan A for preserving our culture would be sustainable technologies that prevent environmental collapse paired with the legal, diplomatic and peacekeeping tools needed to prevent any wars or terrorists from escalating to thermonuclear levels.
Assuming that Plan A fails, then you’d need to preserve knowledge following a societal collapse of unpredictable levels. We can’t know in advance exactly how far society collapses, so I’ll just assume humanity survives but is basically reduced to Stone Age tech levels.
The preservation plan (Plan B)
Bury 4-6 depositories of digital information on the Moon, with huge quantities of data stored in programmable read-only memory These depositories are equipped with solar arrays to power a radio beacon that can communicate data from their archives back to earth when signaled. They’ll also have as much information as is feasible backed up in hardcopy on plastic scrolls, should future humans eventually visit in person.
On earth, there is an array of smaller depositories full of non-digitized materials. These terrestrial information depots would begin with a series pictograms printed on plastic scrolls designed to teach English to illiterate future humans. This would then segue into more advanced texts on radio transmissions, computer science, rocket science and the location of the lunar archives. (They’d also be outfitted with radio transmitters and the tools to repair them, so future humans could put this knowledge to use.) The goals of the the terrestrial depots is to survive as long as possible, to be as accessible as possible and to teach future humans the knowledge needed to contact the more complete digital archives on the Moon through one method or another. The lunar depositories aim to give as complete a picture of our modern society as we can make feasible.
There are many concerns involved here. Here are a few factors that need to be kept in mind.
The Vastness of Information
YouTube generates 72 hours of video every minute. There were roughly 15 million books published in the last year. And there are literally billions of electronic documents and records created every day. And innumerable bits of ephemera: restaurant menus, notes left for family members, flyers for raves, bills for replacing a septic tank. (These bits of ephemera are really quite useful to future archaeologists to understand our lives today, just as ancient Roman recipes and shopping lists tell us a lot about classical cultures.)
We can’t possibly save everything. So somebody would need to curate an insanely vast universe of total human knowledge and create a protocol on what to preserve and how. (I’d advise a ‘slice of life’ vertical system that keeps every document of a day of a representative sample of people’s lives, plus a selection of the most important books, movies, music, etc. chosen for inclusion due to their overall cultural impact.)
Access to the Information
You can easily read a book from 200 or more years ago (or a carving from thousands of years ago if you know the language), yet trying to get a floppy disk from the mid 90s to read seems nearly impossible. We need an encoding technology that can still be read in the distant future, regardless of what happens. In this case, the oldest technology is the best. Anyone with eyes can read a book. Any more complicated system of digitizing things will make information less accessible to future humanity.
Two conflicting goals
Already, a tension starts to form. Paper records are the preferred method of storing data, both for longevity and for accessibility. But paper is bulky and difficult to store. You can’t keep all the available information in paper form. Digital preservation lets you store vast quantities of data in a small space, but is harder to access and potentially has a shorter half-life. The best solution will likely use a hybrid solution: store as much as is feasible in physical form, plus as large a digital archive as possible for everything else.
For about two thousand years, no one could read Egyptian. Despite the best efforts of numerous historians and archaeologists, Egyptian was a mystery until the Rosetta stone was decoded. Quipu, Crypto-Minoan, Linear A and a dozen other ancient writing systems are still undecipherable to modern culture. It is vital to include instructions on how to read English. You don’t know what languages will survive the collapse (if any), so the instructions would have to start from scratch. A group of linguists and educators could create a series of visual images and words (like children’s books or comic books) designed specifically to teach future humans to read modern English.
Similarly, any documents that have been digitized or otherwise encoded need to have instructions on decoding them stored in a more accessible format. The overall plan would involve using a series of pictograms to teach how to read English, then a series of more advanced texts on computer science, radio communications and rocket science. These more advance texts would teach the skills needed to access the complete lunar archives, even in cases where the lunar archives have been compromised. (First, learn to send the appropriate radio signal, then learn to decode the digital information, finally learn to travel to the Moon in person if the radio contact fails.)
You can’t trust human being to do it for very long
Cultural institutions created for one purpose might be doing something entirely different in a generation or two. Creating a priest class (like in Canticle for Liebowitz) might work for a few generations, but you have no way to guarantee that the priests will keep to that purpose as society around them changes. People have that fickle thing called free will. Culture evolves over time. And like with genetic evolution, cultural evolution is a system of punctuated equilibrium: slow change for long periods, then sudden quick changes when the environment around them changes. An apocalypse would be a massive punctuation in the equilibrium, leading to unpredictable changes to any societal institutions that survived it. There’s no way to know that your cult of scribes will still be scribing in a couple centuries. Perhaps they’ll develop into something entirely different. (In 1848, John Humphrey Noyes started a religious institution to live free from sin, practicing communalism and polyamory. Now that same organization is the world’s largest seller of silverware, with no religious nature.) To preserve cultural information after an apocalypse, you’ll need preservation technologies that require minimal or no human action.
The worst factors for preservation are environmental ones. Humidity, sunlight, temperature changes and environmental catastrophe are all factors of concern here. Any changes in the air around material accelerates the rate of decay, shortening the length of time that our depository will survive for future civilizations. The current best practice is to store items in abandoned coal mines, which provides constant environmental variables and protects against most catastrophes. This would preserve materials as long as possible, though it may still be susceptible to destruction in the case of an earthquake. (Deserts, the himalaya mountains and under Antarctic ice are also good places to put earthly storage facilities for maximum preservation.)
An actual vacuum would be even better for many purposes. The amount of change of a vacuum would be smaller than even the stillest atmosphere. But a vacuum chamber left on Earth without human maintenance would eventually leak atmosphere in. (Terrestrial depositories would maintain a layer of vacuum between themselves and the rest of the world, but still would plan on this eventually failing.)
Placing depositories on the Moon provides a natural vacuum environment. The Moon also has some other convenient features, like how one side always faces the Earth. This means that the depositories would always be contactable by radio if the Moon were visible in the sky. The visible side of the Moon is also less likely to be hit by meteors than the far side is, reducing the chance of a meteorite destroying an archive prematurely.
Any disaster plan should include redundancy. In this case, you need to have multiple repositories of the data, in case some are destroyed in the catastrophe or by anti-intellectual forces in the newly created post-apocalyptic culture. In each depository, multiple copies of each document would exist as well. Earth is more volatile, so you’d want more information depots on Earth, but you’d still want multiple archives on the Moon in case one’s radio systems fail or their batteries fail or the like.
We don’t know how long it will be until humanity is ready or able to access our collected knowledge. So we want the records to survive as long as possible. Systems should involve the least amount of activity or maintenance.
A scroll made out of proper materials can survive for centuries or millennia. Books involve binding material, which can expand or contract differently than the paper the books are printed on, thereby reducing the book’s shelf life compared to a single stack of looseleaf paper or a single, long scroll. Plastic should decay slower than paper, so it is the preferred material for long term storage. This will be the standard for hardcopies of documents.
Programmable read-only memory (PROM) appears to be the best way to store digital information, as it stores information by permanently physically altering the physical storage medium. I’m not a computer scientist, though, so I can’t evaluate the full potential longevity of specific digital storage media. What we want is an ultra-long term write once, read many (WORM) storage medium.
PROM might be inferior to other more exotic alternatives, such as holographic data storage or storing data inside the DNA of a living species. But those methods are still cutting edge at best and insufficiently tested to be relied on for preserving our complete civilization. I want to focus on technologies that exist today. Similarly, the plan outlined would be costly, but could be conceivably accomplished with a few billion dollars (well within the range of a US government program provided that there was political support).