When was the last time you had photos printed? It’s probably a long time ago. Some people reading this never have and all of their memories, notes, and records are kept digitally either on a hard drive or in the cloud. Digital storing, however, is a lot more fragile and vulnerable than most like to think — and this is something that’s been on the mind of many scientists, philosophers and archivists. Taking hints from the most ancient civilizations, like the Sumerians, Egyptians or Maya, who left down inscriptions which survived for thousands of years for us to re-discover and learn about their ways, a new project aims to do the same for modern human knowledge.
The ultimate time capsule
Known as the Memory of Mankind, the project unites journalists, scientists, universities, publishers, and governments under the common objective of preserving human knowledge for future generations. Ultimately, the most important and critical works of human knowledge available today will be etched on special tablets and stored in the caverns of one of the oldest salt mine the world, located in Hallstatt, Austria.
This might sound like a futile effort. After all, we now produce and store more information than ever in the history of human civilization. But that’s also part of the problem, because most this data is meaningless for posterity — instagram photos, internet spam, pics of baby otters and so on. In all of this ocean of data, it’s important to select those works of human knowledge that are relevant for hundreds, maybe thousands of years from now.
Then, there’s the issue of vulnerability. A nuclear war could throw humanity back in the middle ages; it’s not like it would have been the first time. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the 6th century AD, its death also brought down culture and education. This was the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction, and, not least, the rule of written law. There would not be as many people who could know to read as there in the time of the Romans for another thousand years. Concrete, a basic and essential construction material, was also lost and had to be rediscovered centuries later, and other examples abound. There are many other skills and knowledge that were lost and will likely never be found because written records, if there were any in the first place, have been lost. The same can be said about every other civilization that collapsed.
In the end, at least we still know something about ancient life — and that’s only thanks to the diligent and forward thinking of some individuals. Sumerian clay tablets, for instance, which paint life in ancient Mesopotamia are still viable today, more than 5,000 years since they were first etched.
The Memory of Mankind plans to store knowledge in a similar, albeit more up to date, manner. While there are storage mediums which are vastly superior for archiving, like thumb-sized quartz disks that can store 360 terabytes of data for billions of years without losing their contents, these don’t work well as a time capsule. That’s because a time capsule is only valuable if 1) it can be found 2) it can be deciphered. To read quartz disks, hard drives or CDs, you need fairly sophisticated technology to access their contents. The humans belonging to a new civilization
The humans belonging to a new civilization who will discover this tomb of human knowledge might not even have mastered electricity. This is why the organizers are using a basic analog approach. Yet make no mistake, the manufacturing is still 21st century.
That which can never be forgotten
Using a special technique called “ceramic microfilm”, flat ceramic plates are covered in a coating that’s supposed to enhance durability against the elements of time. The tablets can withstand alkali and acid environments, but also temperatures up to 1300 degrees Celsius. A laser is then used to etch character, full-colour graphics.
One tablet is big enough to hold five million characters or roughly the size of a typical 400-page book. The tablets are then stacked in special containers and deposited in an Austrian salt mine. This environment is ideal for a time capsule as it extracts moisture and dessicates the air. Thousands of feet belong ground, these tablets could survive multiple ice ages.
“We are trying to create something that will not only be a collection of information for a distant future, but it will also be a gift for our grandchildren,” said Martin Kunze, one of the curators of the project, for the BBC. “Memory of Mankind can serve as a backup of knowledge in case of an event like war, a pandemic or a meteorite that throws us back centuries within two or three generations. A society can lose skills and knowledge very quickly – in the 6th Century, Europe largely lost the ability to read and write within three generations.”
There are already some books and records etched in these kind of tablets. These include a thousand of the most important books in history, selected by a custom-made algorithm, but also the summarized history of countries and towns around the world. Next year, in November, a conference where some of the leading historians and scholars of the world will meet aims to create a blueprint for selecting valuable content for the project.
Of course, being so well guarded against the elements means that future generations might never discover the time capsule. This why Kunze and colleagues have devised a sort of Easter egg hunt framework. Small tokens which contains maps guiding people towards the salt mine will be buried in strategic locations around the world. Other tokens will be entrusted to 50 people who will be responsible for passing them down to future generations. Because, maybe a thousand years from now, humans might speak a totally alien language, the researchers also devised a sort of Rosetta Stone to help them decipher the language etched on the tablets, German and English mostly.
All of these efforts might be in vain. Maybe there will be no more humans left thousands of years from now. Maybe those humans that survive might never discover them. But at least we can sleep sound knowing we’ve tried. Perhaps we won’t be forgotten after all.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.