Friday, February 5, 2010
fragility of information
The Rosetta Stone, discovered by soldiers in Napoleon's army in 1799, was found to have three different bands of writing inscribed on it. The top band contained Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second an Egyptian script called demotic, and the third band was in ancient Greek. Since the Greek language was still in use, translation of the rest of the stone was possible. Both demotic and hieroglyphic languages had been lost to the Egyptians more than a thousand years earlier.
I realized a few weeks ago I'm going to have to take new digital pictures of the older paintings in my small collection because the originals were lost when the new computer crashed a while back. Now that's really not much of a problem but it made me wonder what would happen to society if all the computers went down? It's even possible that some catastrophe could strike, say a massive solar flare, that didn't kill us but did destroy the power grids. If something serious happened would we know how to put things back together?
Most of us have experienced losing access to music, movies and video games simply because the technology has changed so much in recent memory but we're generating more information than ever before and storing it on ever more transient media. Much of what is being lost is hardly essential. I mean future generations aren't going to fail because you lost the family photo album when your hard drive died but it would be a very different story if all the bank and financial records disappeared, never mind medical records and technical manuals. Every time Amazon tries to sell me a Kindle I wonder what they have planned for books. Paper isn't manufactured to last for decades either but surely would outlive the plastic screens. Most of the digital storage media that's used in the world today has a short shelf life.
So far as I know they never figured out what they'd write on signs to warn people in the distant future about the dangers around nuclear waste sites. I haven't heard about that topic in a while but don't think it was resolved. I wonder what kind of Rosetta Stones we could develop for ourselves just in case things changed very suddenly? Is it even worth thinking about?
Maybe we should be leaving repositories of knowledge for our descendants. Perhaps we should be making copies of wikipedia printed on acid free paper or carving the basic ideas and history of our culture on clay tablets that we can fire and seal away somewhere. It wouldn't cost very much and someday might prove helpful. It would be a good idea too if education covered more practical skills and apprenticeship - a reasonable alternative to current pastimes designed to increase consumption.
Every civilization thinks it will last forever, and none of them do.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.