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Preserving Knowledge in Deep Time

Iíve often thought about the problem of how knowledge can be preserved over the long term.

Thereís a lot of information out there on the subject of preserving short term knowledge. Thatís mainly of interest to corporate executives worrying about the loss of "tribal knowledge" as their older, more experienced workers retire  -- or as they downsize or "rationalize" them into oblivion. I frankly have little sympathy for any businessperson whoís failed to put a priority on capturing and perpetuating essential knowledge while they had a chance to do so. If you donít put a continuing value on what your employees do -- and specifically reward the behavior of documenting it and passing it on -- then you damn well deserve to descend into corporate ruin when those valuable folks are no longer around to carry your sorry ass.

No, the data preservation Iím talking about here deals with deep time Ė thousands and thousands of years into the future. Itís a concept that doesnít make much of a dent in anybody's brain, save a few minds at the Department of Energy. The DOE guys responsible for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility have been worrying about how to keep people from poking around that site for at least 10,000 years -- given that the material stored there will be extremely lethal for at least that long.

Actually, the half-life of some of these wastes will run a lot longer than that, to 100,000 years or more. As Iím sure I neednít remind you, thatís roughly 20 times the age of human written language. In point of fact, itís longer than the age of the homo sapiens species itself.

But I guess you have to draw the line somewhere, and 10,000 years is certainly challenging enough. Thatís way, way beyond the age of the pyramids. The DOE has solicited proposals from architects, artists, sociologists, philosophers, engineers and other creative types as to what kind of "warning sign" can be erected that will effectively convey the intended message to future denizens of the world -- and how to design it to hold up long into deep time. When I read about some of the utterly ridiculous ideas for "marking" this site as lethally dangerous, I wonder about the operative philosophy that led to the question in the first place -- which is the notion that people will become mighty stupid over the next few thousand years.  I can only conclude that these DOE folks have spent too much time watching Road Warrior reruns on TV.

Now donít get me wrong. I do appreciate our governmentís concern for the poor shmucks whoíll be scrounging around in the desert thousands of years from now, scratching in the dirt to find anything of potential value. But I have to question the wisdom of erecting some monumental edifice that acts as an "attractive nuisance". (For those who arenít familiar with the term, one example of an "attractive nuisance" is a sign around a private swimming pool saying "Keep Out". Has there ever been a kid born who could resist violating that command?) 

Letís face it, there are only two possible scenarios out there. One (which I rather prefer) is that people in the far future will be a hell of a lot smarter than we are. They'll really scratch their heads over why we took the most valuable commodity ever created by our civilization -- transuranic elements -- and stuck them in a hole. But of course theyíll dig Ďem up and use them as they ought to be used -- to produce oodles of energy, immortality juice, dilithium crystals for faster-than-light drives, or whatever magic it is that will describe the future technological glory of man. Maybe theyíll think we buried that treasure as some kind of time-shifted religious offering to them -- since they will be as gods compared to us. Itís just a shame that we arenít using the stuff like it ought be used: reprocessing it into energy from nuclear fuel that's already been bought and paid for.

The other scenario is the well-worn, shlock Sci-Fi one: that mankind will devolve into a bunch of ragged-assed, club-bearing semi-simians -- perhaps wearing leather duds and mirror shades. Now really: who the hell cares about them? Running across a pile of lethal radioactive waste will pale in comparison with the troubles theyíll face staying alive. It wonít take too awfully many cases of tribal members returning home with their flesh falling off, to keep the others away from the site. If thatís the future of mankind, then Iíd just as soon they did all expire Ė stat!

If you consider historically the media used for recording knowledge, it seems that theyíve become more and more ephemeral as time has progressed. We know about the ancient Sumerians from their inscribed clay tablets. In the dry conditions of the region, these ceramic objects have stood up well. The Egyptians did a lot of stone incising and indelible painting on well-protected walls. Much of that information has survived. But eventually people gravitated to using papyrus for recording their knowledge. Definitely not the best medium to survive into deep time. Same for parchment, which took us up through the Middle Ages. Beyond that, paper. Even worse. I still shudder every time I watch the Dominican library burn down in The Name of the Rose.

With the advent of computers, we started using different kinds of media for storing data. First, magnetic-based tape, floppies and hard drives. What could be worse than those? Can you imagine any medium that's as susceptible to data loss? The transition to optically recorded CDs was perhaps a backstep in the right direction Ė but hell, theyíre only plastic, right? Iíd even put my old vinyl LPs against your floppies and CDs any day, when it comes to longevity. Fact is, thereís nothing of our present civilizationís knowledge -- aside from our porcelain toilets -- thatís set up to last for the long haul.

Are you going to rely on our kids to pass it all on by word of mouth? Ever listen to what kids say these days? Get real!

Or perhaps weíll leave it to our Shamans to remember and to pass on what we know, like they did in the old days. Seen any around lately? More particularly -- seen any that are versed in quantum mechanics, or biogenetics?

Evidence shows that religion is the one of the most successful mechanisms for preserving pieces of human knowledge.  (See the Seventh Heaven page for an example.)  If you want an idea to last, you should attempt to turn it into a religion.  Trouble is, what survives at the other end of time is something that's devoid of context.  People will say the words, but they won't assign them the proper meaning or understanding.  If the religion is burdened with excessive layers of dogma and promulgated by fiat, this loss of meaning happens very quickly.  The trick is to somehow embed the data into the prevailing religious framework as an archetypal myth, one that strikes a natural chord with the deeper human emotions.

Iíve long had a notion that the only medium that's guaranteed to survive into deep time is DNA. Here you have an automatically regenerating medium that can preserve information for millions (or even billions) of years. There are many, many copies extant at any given time. Much of our DNA is said to be "trash"; strings of unused or obsolete "waste" information. So even a biologically useless DNA snippet can be passed on en perpetuity. We have the tools to insert information into DNA strands right now.

It's probably too difficult to figure out how to encode the entire knowledge of the human race into a single genetic strand. (Maybe you could break the data up and write it onto the DNA of different strains of bacteria or custom engineered "data viruses" -- akin to the many small packets that comprise a long email message, which all fly off separately into the ether and are eventually reassembled in correct order at the receiving end.)  On the other hand, maybe we would be better served by condensing all our human knowledge into just one single important piece.

I canít imagine any specific thing we know that might be valuable to intelligent species a million years from now. Surely the future races and species that follow us will have moved far beyond our puny understanding of things. Even in the course of my own short life Iíve realized that most of what I thought I knew in my youth has turned out to be dead wrong. (Thank God I never had any kids to pass all that bad information on to.) Perhaps itíd be more appropriate to merely encode a simple message that says we were here; that despite our foibles and bumblings and pathetic strivings, we had a sense of presence, a sense of the ridiculousness of our existence, a sense of humor.

This turns out to be a no-brainer.  For deep time posterity, we should encode the image of a "smiley face" into our DNA:

 

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See http://www.salon.com/people/feature/2002/05/10/yucca_mountain/index.html for an amusing take on the Yucca Mountain sign proposals.

See also Gregory Benford's book Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. Haven't read it, but I might.   http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0380975378/103-4628963-8929439?v=glance

Harvey Ball (1921-2001), a commercial graphic artist, created the original "smiley face" for an insurance company in 1963.  All he ever made from it was the original contracted sum of $45. He spent about 10 minutes drawing it.

See also The Clock of the Long Now at http://www.longnow.org/10kclock/clkPurpose.htm. An utterly fascinating project, being driven by Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis.

Isaac Asimov explored the problems of preserving knowledge in deep time in his wonderful Foundation series.  The initial work in this series was originally published in 1952.  One of the greater Sci-Fi classics.

Turns out my notion of using biogenetic material to store human information is beginning to be explored.  See http://home.tiscali.nl/~t094540/bionanoartikel.htm and http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3243 and http://www.optics.arizona.edu/ODSCsponsors/03-01-31-417-Semi-AnnualReport/B%20-%20Mansuripur.pdf for examples.  See also www.harvardsciencereview.org/Issues/fall2004/pages_18_21.pdf about encrypting coded messages onto DNA, a technique known as DNA steganography.

 

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