Friday, February 20, 2015

Too Much Magic

Low tech, FTW
Even those convinced the technological world is dying can't seem to let it go:
We’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century within decades. For the last twenty years, many books and journals have been printed on non-acidic paper and put on microfiche.  Both can last for centuries if kept at an ideal temperature and humidity.  But that isn’t permanent enough...

If it is possible to etch words into metallic or other extremely durable substances, we ought to do it, not only for the coming dark ages, but to enable some knowledge to survive through future climate changes.

After all, we once put a disk on a space probe to explain humanity to potential aliens, why can’t we do that for our descendants?
We can, but that doesn't save it from being a really stupid idea.

Imagine, if you will, mankind passing through a 500-year dark age featuring not only the end of fossil fuels, but global warming climate change of such magnitude that Al Gore himself must change his rather sizable skivvies. World populations are reduced by 90%, individual lifespans by 50%. Agriculture, while it allows people to survive brutal winters, also makes them targets of ubiquitous bands of hairy horsemen, and is thus hidden where it is not outright eschewed. There is not a single bus, train, tram, car, or computer running, and has not been for centuries. In short, the year 2491 looks a lot more like 1491 in New York than it does 1991.  On Summer Solstice of that year, a wandering tribe of hunter gatherers, their asses painted blue in the most noble pagan tradition, discovers somewhere near Lake Erie a metallic strongbox containing a half dozen late 20th-century academic journals printed on rolled sheets of aluminum.

What good could such a preservation of knowledge possibly do them?

The first likelihood is that they would not be able to read it anyway. The average college student today, even after $150,000 worth of education, cannot read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English, much less Bede or Caesar in Latin. And dark ages are not known for their universal literacy.  But even if they could read it, how much value could these hairy horsemen possibly get from a technical treatise filled with 21st century, politically-correct academic jargon?  Such 'knowledge' as preserved by us would likely avail the future nothing.*

Here's a better idea: we should rediscover how to make paper and ink and the block printing press using low technology, and pass our knowledge on that way.

Books don't have to last 500 years: they need only last long enough to share their contents with lots of people and to be copied. The proof is that despite the fact that books have never lasted 500 years, we possess the 3500-year-old book of Genesis today.  Far better to have 20 generations of Common Sense block-printed on sheep skin than to save a single copy stamped into copper that no one will ever read.**  Passing books by hand - people writing them and printing them and binding them and trading them - assures that the people living in the 'dark ages' can actually profit from their contents.

But there's a second reason why relying on the ephemeral is in this case wiser than relying on the permanent: we don't know what knowledge will prove useful in 500 years. Gauging by history, we humans don't even know what will be valuable in 50.  So who should decide what is worthy of saving?  I propose that it's the very people for whom such knowledge will prove a lifesaver. Since we cannot do it, our children should be the ones who jettison forever the riffraff of our modern, narcissistic culture-circus.

As the author sagely notes, we cannot save everything, nor should we. But based on how humans collectively act here in post-modernism's dotage, we are far more likely to preserve what strikes our fancy and strokes our ego than anything actually useful to our descendants. We would surely save Vonnegut, because his work so masterfully distills the essence of our generation. Those in a future dark age, like those in the last one, will preserve Aristotle.

Considering ourselves in any sense the saviors of society a half a millennium in the future may be a very Boomer way to see the world. But that doesn't make it desirable, feasible, or wise.  It's not our job to preserve knowledge for people 5 centuries into the future. Rather it's our charge to pass wisdom and ability to those 20 years in the future, from which the next transfer becomes their responsibility.

* Just as 99% of it avails us nothing. And we're the ones writing it.

** I'm not sure some future discoverer would not a) turn it into an idol or b) pound it into a necklace, anyway.