Monday, March 05, 2007

How Ideas Reach the Future

In preparing for an Eschaton event, it is sometimes useful to try to imagine just what the event will look like. Two possible categorizations:

  1. Instant population crash-type event (plague) versus an event that destroys systems and technologies while leaving population relatively stable in the extreme short term (well-coordinated widespread economic terrorism)

  2. Sudden event (nuclear war) versus slow reduction in standard of living resulting in generations-long collapse (what we are currently experiencing)

Leaving the first distinction for another post, I wish to address just the second for now. Many thinkers, including Chalmers Johnson and Jared Diamond, provide good evidence that we are currently sliding toward an end to our civilization of the second type - a gradual, generations-long reduction in the standard of living, accompanied by increasing chaos and decreasing availability of the benefits of civilization. In this scenario, information about rebuilding after the end of civilization would need to survive and be passed down through generations. A physical book or electronic information may not be enough to guarantee the survival of the information until it is needed.

Historically, how has complex information been preserved across generations? Very few books have survived more than two or three generations, and those that have survived have done so in successive editions, being copied and re-printed frequently. Most books printed today will not survive in any form - paper or content - beyond a few decades. The survival of printed information is also dependent on the technology of literacy in the language of printing. Research into the books that have survived may yield answers for how to preserve foundational technologies for future generations.

The amount of oral information that can be transmitted between generations is extremely limited. However, this has been the primary mode for passing information throughout human existence. Oral transmission may be a very viable way for passing foundational technologies to later generations, if the content were packaged in a way conducive to memory and re-transmittal. Of course, the form most conducive to memory and re-transmittal is the story. (See, e.g., Schank, Roger. Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York: 1990.)

I would like to reproduce an example of a story that holds technical information conducive to re-starting civilization. The story is this. During World War II at Oxford, Florey and his team were hard at work trying to isolate and purify usable penicillin. They knew, however, that at any point the Germans could invade and take over the lab. They hatched elaborate plans to evacuate and destroy the laboratory so that their research would not fall into German hands. However, the wanted to ensure that their research could continue once they reached safety. Toward this goal, they rubbed their clothes with spores of the penicillin mold they were working with - spores are very hardy and are stable for a long time if kept dry. If forced to evacuate, they would take the precious P. notatum mold with them to restart their research elsewhere. (Lax 2004, full citation in previous post.)

This memorable story contains (or at least suggests) the following information:

  1. Mold that produces penicillin is not ubiquitous, but rare, and, once located, should be preserved.

  2. Mold spores are hardy and will survive in clothing, and anywhere the mold has been, spores will probably be.

  3. Contingency planning is admirable even if the plan is never implemented.

I am interested in figuring out whether this, and stories like this, could form the germ of a transmissible set of foundational technologies (an Iliad-length "Ballad of Florey and Chain"). It is difficult to imagine a set of stories so long that they encompass every detail of every technology (see previous post for an idea of just how technical it's going to get), but they can hold key information and could even serve as coded "pointers" to physical caches of printed information, treasure hunt style.


Anonymous jos boersema said...


This is exactly a problem that I'm trying to solve as well, to have the necessary laws and understanding survive to next time have a better society rather then more of the same.

I think one of the best ways information is traveled is by habbit, by traditions. If you have a people doing a good set of laws, even if simplified from a much more elaborate system, their activity itself initiates young people into it, and when they are older they will initiate their young into it.

When it is down to oral tradition, you can probably only preserve the most essential parts, and hope much later it will regrow into something more elaborate, when needed. So: simplification if needed, and an active tradition that works, that could move something forward. Something that is more complex then can be done at some point may be written in a book, but pretty soon nobody can read it anymore, unless they where doing it (but if they can't then that's the end of that).

I tried drawings too, but it is just too rough a language and too easy to misread.

July 10, 2010 8:36 AM  
Anonymous jos boersema said...

If I may, maybe this is fun because I have been attempting to make my material survive an 'Eschaton' for years now (real life example ?). What I did was I printed it in book form, and send it all over the world in the hope it might survive somewhere. In electronic form (total about 500 MB) I also send it around, and am always asking ppl to make electronic copies (some destruction forms allow electronics to survive, and it allows ppl to print it to paper lator too.)

So that means post-cards with a chip on it, books, hiding CDs some places, asking ppl if they would mind throwing a chip or CD in a corner in their home, embedding memory chip in concrete ...

Talking about it with you ppl is part of it too in fact. Because without a program ppl can agree too, the potential for death is really extreme, and worse still: the threat of high tech tyranny.

I'm sorry if you feel your comment space is being abused, just trying to make honest conversation about an important topic. Gbye & gluck.

An example of a tradition that has persisted over thousands of years: the Torah, the jews. At one point they reportedly forgot everything, and then found an old scroll. Things can get preserved a long time, even when written down. Note how ancient writings are slowly being made readable, for example Egyptian hieroglyphs. Don't lose hope I guess :-).

July 10, 2010 9:28 AM  

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