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
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
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
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: