Back what now itself seems a millennium ago, when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college, I used to go to yard sales. I wasn’t looking for knickknacks or used appliances, but for cheap music and mostly for books. If memory serves me you could usually get a paperback for 50 cents, four of them for a dollar, and a hard cover for a buck.
I have no idea what made me purchase the particular books I did, and especially works of fiction. At that point in my life I didn’t so much know what literature was as I had heard rumors that there was something out there called literature I’d likely be interested in. Unlike Stephen Greenblatt, who I wrote about last time, I certainly didn’t buy books for the sexually suggestive covers, and thankfully, for given the area I was living at the time, I would now be surrounded by shelves of harlequin romances- though, come to think of it, it might have made me more skillful in love.
I don’t buy so many books anymore, having become a Kindle man where I press a button and wallah a work I’m after appears magically on my little screen. I also live in an area with very good libraries- both public and university- which for a bibliophile like myself is about as good as Florida for a person who worships the sun.
Yet, I still have maybe a hundred books surrounding me that I own but have never read. Sometimes, I’ll rummage through my shelves to pick out a book I probably haven’t even opened since I bought it, and the untouched pages will be brittle and break under my clumsy fingers. The other day, I came across Walter M. Miller, Jrs’ novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. I’ve been working on a story with Catholic and dystopian/utopian technological themes and thought it might be a good idea to read this science-fiction classic before I proceeded any further into the labyrinth of the tale I was crafting because I knew it dealt with similar ideas.
I did not anticipate the power for me of this wonderful little novel. It touched on themes I had been thinking about for sometime- the search for a long range view that looked to the past as well as the future, the tension between knowledge and power, and the understanding that this tension was an existential component of the human condition, the brake on all our utopian aspirations, and perhaps the “original sin” that would ultimately sink us.
I will look at the deeper lessons of A Canticle for Leibowitz sometime in the future, for now I just want to talk about its suggestions for the long range human future and specifically one aspect of that long range future- how do we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age?
A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1960. Had Miller sketched out rather than merely stated the apocalyptic conditions that precede the world portrayed in the novel it would have certainly given our own generations versions of the apocalypse with shows like The Walking Dead a run for their money. The novel occurs after the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust known as The Flame Deluge. After the horrors unleashed by the war, including the creation hordes of radioactive mutants from “the demon Fall Out” , the masses seek revenge on the holders of knowledge they deem responsible- murdering them and destroying their works Khmer Rouge style in a world-wide intellectual genocide known as the Simplification.
A Jewish electrical engineer, Isaac Edward Leibowitz,,who had been working for the US military in the run up to the war joins the Catholic Church, perhaps the only long lived institution able to survive the Simplification, and founds a monastic order and monastery known as the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The order is committed to preserving human knowledge from the Simplification by book smuggling (booklegging) and afterwards aims to store and preserve this knowledge in their Utah desert monastery, a collection of thoughts from the past which they call the Memorabilia.
Unlike our own apocalyptic anxieties which seem so artificial, as if we’ve become addicted to the adrenaline high of scarring ourselves nearly to death, the fears Miller was giving voice to were frighteningly real. Three years after his novel’s publication we really did almost destroy ourselves in a Flame Deluge with the Cuban Missile Crisis and only escaped our own destruction by a hair’s breath.
Yet, even with these real world anxieties, or perhaps because they were so real, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a rip-roaring funny book, Canterbury Tales funny or even Monty Python funny. Especially the first part, which deals with a hapless monk- Francis- who discovers original manuscripts of the soon to be sainted Lebowitz himself. The rest of the book is not as humorous, much more tragic, as we watch humanity make the same mistake over again with knowledge being used in the name of the lust for power, and that lust for power enabled by knowledge again nearly destroying us.
Miller, of course, was playing with real history, the way the Christian monasteries had preserved knowledge in Western Europe after the fall of Rome. It was a theme explored, though from a much different angle, by Isaac Asimov some years earlier in his Foundation Series where the preservation of knowledge through the establishment of two different “foundations” at the ends of the galaxy is a deliberate effort to shorten a galactic dark age from tens of thousands to a “mere” thousand years.
Monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz risked themselves to gather and preserve their Memorabilia, knowledge which they did not understand, willing to wait thousands of years if necessary for the day when “an Interrogator would come, and things would be fitted together again.” (62)
If I take the picture presented by Stephen Greenblatt in his The Swerve: How the World Became Modern as historically accurate, the reasons our historical monks ended up preserving knowledge was much more accidental than their analogous novelization by Miller. According to Greenblatt, the monasteries ended up preserving knowledge due to a contingent rule of some orders that monks spend some of their time reading. To read, of course, requires something written and monasteries became one of the few places in the early middle ages to not only collect but preserve books through copying.
Still, according to Greenblatt, we shouldn’t be confused that they were doing so in anticipation of a rebirth of learning, and weren’t all that intellectually engaged with the books they preserved and copied. During reading or copying monks were forbidden to discuss the books they had in front of them, which is probably good for us. They became instead immense hive-mind photocopiers cloning and shelving a hodge podge of surviving works from the ancients, a task which had someone not done with detail and regularity would have quickly led to the disappearance of the vast intellectual heritage of the classical world. The thoughts preserved on papyrus and animals skins would have in a short time been eaten away by literal book worms.
There is an argument out there, Francis Fukuyama’s is the one that comes to mind, that we are unlikely to experience the kinds of cyclical declines and dark ages seen in prior periods of human history because knowledge is now global. I think there are some other holes in that argument, but for now I won’t quibble, and want to focus on only one chasm- the possibility that the entire globe could experience some hammer blow that would shatter civilization everywhere all at one go.
These are catastrophic risks, things that we should be intensely focused on avoiding in the first place, as The Global Catastrophic Risks Institute, and Future of Humanity Institute among others, have been urging us to, but which we should also implement ways of absorbing the hit should it come. Basically catastrophic risks are disasters, natural or man-made that would have the effect of devastating human civilization on a global not just a local scale. They are not likely but have a chance that is less than zero.
Though we dogged the bullet that haunted Miller, we might still be faced with the threat of global thermonuclear war at some point in the future. Current saber rattling in the Pacific is not a good sign. We could be whacked by a massive object from outer space such as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs, or zapped by a gamma-ray burst, or crushed by the super-intelligences we are trying to build in an AI apocalypse, there could be a super-pandemic, perhaps created deliberately by some group of technologically proficient, nihilistic maniacs trying to kill us all, or a truly runaway greenhouse effect triggered by a methane release in the warming artic. In other words, there are a lot of things that might near push us back to the stone age even if no one of them are particularly likely.
To return to my question above: in the face of a catastrophic scenario how could we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age? The first issue that strikes me when I start thinking about this is the quite practical one of what medium would be best to store information for the long haul?
Right now, of course, we are all about digital copying and storage. Google has so far scanned a little over 20 million books, a service I love, and that has kept my acidic fingers off of a gem like the first publication of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, though the company’s public service in doing this has not been without controversy.
You’ve also got to hand it to the scandinavians who seem to do everything with meditative forethought. (I credit the six months of darkness.) The Norwegians not only have the Svalbard global seed bank which preserves the world’s agricultural inheritance in a Norad like facility in the icy north near the north pole, but are now aiming to digitize and make available all the world’s books in Norwegian. Should a global catastrophe occur having done so might have cause in the words of Alexis Madrigal:
…Norwegians become to 27th-century humans what the Greeks were to the Renaissance. Everyone names the children of the space colonies Per and Henrik, Amalie and Sigrid. The capital of our new home planet will be christened Oslo.
Even absent Google, Americans aren’t totally left in the dust as archivers by our polar- bear- pale brethren up north. We have the quite respectable Internet Archive and the world oldest (although the word “old” seems strange here) digital library, Project Guttenberg.
Yet, there are a number of possible catastrophic scenarios, such as an AI Apocalypse, where this capacity to easily store and recover digitized information might be irrevocably lost. You also need functioning electricity grids and/or battery production manufacturing capacity both of which seem at danger should a truly big-one occur. Disturbing on this score is the fact that a number of libraries are eliminating their physical collections as they embrace digitization, something that the Internet Archive is now trying to rectify by collecting actual physical copies of books.
Venerable institutions such as The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian Institution already have extensive physical collections, not just of books, but of physical artifacts as well, and should they somehow survive a global catastrophe, I picture them being our equivalent of the Library of Alexandria where people will flock to access not just books but working versions of vital technologies that might otherwise have been lost, such as electrical lighting, which the monk, Brother Kornhoer, in A Canticle for Leibowitz has to jerry- rig back into existence almost from scratch.
The use of paper as a medium to store our books and blueprints at first seems like the tried and true option, after all it served us so well in the past, but as anyone knows who has a book more than 50 years old, modern paper decays very fast. And using paper as our medium of storage also assumes that whatever catastrophic event has happened has left us with enough trees. Even the antique version of paper, sometimes made from animal skins, succumbs after a few centuries to the literal “book worm”, and you also need either printing presses or whole human institutions of scriveners such as the monasteries and monks to make copies.
The late classical world already had monastic institutions that were widespread before the loss of knowledge- a loss which took a long time to unfold. Our own loss of knowledge, should it (however unlikely) occur, seems less likely to creep into being then come along with a bang, and in the age of Scarlett Johansson who wants to be a monk?
As always thinking about the deep future, the The Long Now Foundation has its Rosetta Project where it preserves the world’s languages on electroformed solid-nickel disk, a model which might serve as a template for long-term information storage. Here’s their description:
The Rosetta Disk fits in the palm of your hand, yet it contains over 13,000 pages of information on over 1,500 human languages. The pages are microscopically etched and then electroformed in solid nickel, a process that raises the text very slightly – about 100 nanometers – off of the surface of the disk. Each page is only 400 microns across – about the width of 5 human hairs – and can be read through a microscope at 650X as clearly as you would from print in a book. Individual pages are visible at a much lower magnification of 100X.
Something like the Rosetta Disk avoids the ravages of the book worm, and will certainly last a long time, but you do need a microscope to read it, and it’s pretty easy to imagine a future where microscopes are a rare or even non-existent tool. We could make larger versions of the Rosetta Disk so that the text is readable to the naked eye, but then we run into the limitations of cost: we can’t very well copy even more than a handful of the books in existence using this method. And they would only be reproducible on a large scale basis it seems by using one of the other methods.
Then again, we could always look to nature. Life on earth has over 3 billion year leg up on human beings when it comes to storing and passing along information- it’s called DNA. You can put an amazingly large amount of information on an equally amazingly small segment of DNA as in about half a million DVDs of storage on half a gram! In the beginning of 2013 researchers in the UK were able to encode Shakespeare’s sonnets, and MLK’s “I have a dream!” speech among other things on DNA. Much more than any medieval abbot, nature abhors copying errors, and therefore DNA makes not merely a great storage medium, as long as where it is stored is cool and dry it can last for thousands of years, but a means to make copies with near hundred percent fidelity.
DNA exceeds digital media for storage and copying and matches something like the Rosetta Disk for longevity, the problem is the technology to make, store, and read such DNA texts is relatively high tech, and therefore vulnerable or unworkable in many catastrophic scenarios. It’s also much less readily searchable than digital media or even indexed paper texts.
Perhaps what we need to make sure a good bulk of the world’s knowledge survives a global catastrophe is a tiered system of preservation with only the most essential technical and scientific information, including how to build and use other forms of information dissemination and storage, put on something like large Rosetta Disks, a second level of not as essential but important and culturally significant knowledge being stored on long-lasting paper, almost everything on digital media, and absolutely everything we could get our hands on stored on DNA.
All of these things would have to be done before the occurrence of any catastrophic event that lunged us backward into a new dark age. Once the lights went out we certainly shouldn’t expect, like Miller, that the Catholic Church would play the same role in preserving knowledge as it had in the past, for, as Mark Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”. Indeed, should we create the kinds of information preservation mechanisms I outlined above, we would need an organization already dedicated to those mechanisms to manage those efforts, and in today’s world such an organization seems likely to be secular.
I can imagine a type of global organization whose members were in their day-to-day reality scattered across differing organizations we have in place today for disseminating and storing knowledge: universities, major libraries, scientific institutions such as the Royal Society a small number of whom would in a pre-catastrophe world run the types of information preservation efforts I have sketched out who, in the unlikely case that a global catastrophic event occurred, would work slowly and over generations to re-establish the world’s learning.
The great bulk of what we would need to re-establish should a large chunk of the world’s knowledge be destroyed would be technological and scientific. Knowledge that would be essential would be things like, agricultural techniques and science, the Germ theory of disease and the techniques behind vaccinations, how to build and maintain infrastructure such as sewage and plumbing disposal, energy utilizing systems including electrical grids, civil engineering, and the technology behind knowledge behind storing and sharing information. Above all, the scientific method would need to be put firmly back in place.
One of the problems I foresee should an almost complete blackout occur are gaps in knowledge domains that are essentially unpredictable before hand. That is, it seems a safer bet to assume that not only will knowledge have been lost but the knowledge of how to understand whatever knowledge has remained might be lost as well.
It would certainly be an interesting interdisciplinary project to design the kinds of texts that would be necessary to re-establish some field of science should it almost completely disappear. To do so would probably require philosophers and historians of science, mathematicians, practitioners of the science itself, linguists, cultural anthropologists, and instructional designers who were adept at teaching complex ideas to those with minimum starting points in terms of literacy and numeracy.
Given that the source of a global catastrophe is perhaps most likely to come via our own scientifically induced prowess it’s quite sensible to ask if we should be making all this effort to salvage our scientific and technological capacity in the first place? This relationship between our knowledge and our possible destruction is a question dealt with on a profound level in A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’ll turn to it next time. Yet, as we know man does not live on bread alone, so what of the preservation less material knowledge, the art and wisdom that is the legacy of our global civilization?
Hopefully we would be able to preserve at least some of our human cultural legacy. Thinking about what we might save from our culture under severe constraints in terms of number might be an interesting and perhaps even revealing parlor game ,so I’ll end this post by inviting you to play.
If you could save only 10 books, 10 songs, and 10 artworks from all of human history that should make it through a catastrophic event which would you choose?