Friday, May 28, 2010

Gilgamesh, Ish, and the Post-Apocalyptic Information Age

He had been in the library hundreds of times before, as a matter of course, during his years at the university. But now under the changed conditions, he felt a strange new sense of awe. Here rested in storage the wisdom by which civilization had been built, and could be rebuilt. … Everything was here. All the knowledge!
George R. Stewart
Earth Abides

Literate societies value aggregated, ordered, and accessible information and create temple warehouse structures to house it. Their architecture conveys the message that our information will be well-protected and safely delivered to the future.

If the past is a guide, it won’t be. Ebla. Ugarit. Ctesiphon. Alexandria and Pergamum. The Imperial Library of Constantinople. The Library of Celsus. None of them lasted. They fell to Babylonians, Akkadians, Medes, Sea Peoples, Turkik Muslims and Arabs, Copts and European Crusaders, people with different priorities who valued different information.

The information that did make to their future/our present is mostly fragmentary and accidental. The clay tablets stored in Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh were fired as if in a kiln when the building burned in 612 BCE, making them durable enough for the two-millennium-plus journey to the British Museum. The destruction and preservation of the library at Ebla was even more remarkable, because the burning wooden racks holding the tablets collapsed in a systematic way, preserving not only the tablets, but their librarians’ careful ordering. Whatever information was stored on less durable media—calfskin and papyrus scrolls, palm leaves, waxed boards—and even on clay tablets unfortunate enough not to have been burned, is gone forever.

Ice stores a surprising amount of information encoded in molecules, specks of dust, and bits of animals. Where it has been preserved in orderly layers, as in parts of Antarctica, Greenland, and tropical mountain glaciers, it forms a kind of library that can be read with the help of mass spectrometers and other esoteric instruments. The story it tells is about changing environments, and the news is fascinating and troubling. Seal hairs recovered from Antarctic ice tell of global heavy metal pollution from Chinese and Roman and Mesoamerican smelting centuries ago. Antarctic ice cores tell a story of Ice Age comings and goings stretching back 800,000 years. The finely banded ice pulled from the summit of Greenland tell a shorter story in much greater detail, and the plot is not an entirely happy one.

The good news is that the past 10,000 years have been a remarkably stable time in Earth history. Global temperatures have varied little. Freed from the necessity of constantly having to move (or die) every time the climate shifted, we humans were able to settle down, figure out how to grow our own food, tinker with the material world, figure out how to live in dense concentrations, develop civilizations, and to store and retrieve information. But the longer term record tells us that this probably won’t last for long. We can probably expect our long summer to end eventually, and that sometime in the coming millennia we’ll have to abandon locales like New York, Montreal, Chicago, London and Moscow, give them back to the ice, and relocate further south. Plot spoiler alert: climate will change.

The bad news from Greenland is that the change isn’t always gentle. There are thresholds in the system that generate surprises that must have caused problems for our distant ancestors, and very likely will cause problems for us sooner rather than later. We’re very likely pushing the climate system towards such a threshold now, poking the beast with sticks, as one climatologist put it. And the surprise, when it comes, won’t be pleasant. What will happen to our information then?

George R. Stewart’s classic post-apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides tells the story of a young graduate student, Ish Williams, who survives a devastating plague that wipes out most of his fellow humans while he was up in the mountains doing fieldwork and recovering from a rattlesnake bite. He makes a new life for himself amidst the decaying infrastructure, the family and community he gathers around him meeting their needs mostly by scavenging leftovers from the former world’s bounty. Scholar that he is, one of Ish’s high priorities is protecting the Berkeley University library. He tries and fails to pass on the skill of reading and a reverence for the information stored in the libraries. He comes to recognize that the task of passing on the light of knowledge is futile and teaches the younger generations something that will become truly useful: how to make bows and arrows. Different information for different priorities.

I read Earth Abides as a graduate student while doing fieldwork in and around the rattlesnake-studded landscape of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Its infrastructure was decaying in the wake of the military-industrial complex’s own short-lived apocalypse, defunding after the Cold War ended. It was impossible not to identify with Ish in that lonely setting. I think about him now in the context of the ice-bound messages and wonder, if worse comes to worst and things fall apart, what will happen to our information, and will it really matter?

As in the past, what survives and what perishes when the symbiotic relationship between information and system falls apart will depend on the nature of the storage media and the particular mode of destruction. Fire will be unkind to paper, as will water. So will mold, mildew, insects, and furry little mammals that will find nourishment, substrates, and perfect nesting material in our books. Still, the sheer bulk of printed matter in the world today will probably confer a fair amount of momentum. It’s easy enough to imagine old encyclopedias, textbooks, forgotten boxes of self-help books, romance novels, instruction manuals, and magazines buried in the collapsed ruins of self a storage facility out in the Mohave that might last for centuries. Our landfills, sealed off from rainfall above and groundwater below will also be rich mines for future archeologists, if such a role ever evolves again.

And what of our global store of digital information? What if, by the time things fall apart, the vast bulk of our fiberware has been converted to digits and stored in utilitarian temple warehouses scattered all over the world and no more glamorous than server farms or thumb drives? The vastly distributed and redundant nature of the medium will greatly increase the odds that more and larger fragments will persist into the future. Except that it won’t.

Digital storage is enormously efficient and convenient, but it is also enormously brittle. Hard storage media, like magnetic and optical disks, are probably nowhere near as stable as fired clay tablets. Data stored in electronic memory will fare even worse. Its continued viability depends on a continuous flow of electrons through the devices that store them. And that electron flow is utterly dependant on the continual functioning of a immensely complex social and technological system that, more than likely, has little resilience beyond some critical point. In Earth Abides, the hydroelectric plant continues to pump out electrons until, its babysitters and minders all dead, some small problem spins out of control and it simply stops working. The same fate will befall whatever generating systems we come up with in the future if the system becomes wobbly and begins to unravel, then reaches the critical thread that holds the cloth together. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is probably a more likely prophesy than the relatively gentle apocalypse Stewart envisioned.

Even if we are lucky, even if we find ways to permanently store our digits cold, accessing them will depend on the survival of at least a few of the complex machine intermediaries that translate them from stored 1’s and stored 0’s into something the human eye or ear and mind can take in. It will also require the survival of at least a few human beings who know how to make them work. Will they bother? If things fall apart, priorities will have changed so drastically that little of the information we cherish today will have any use, value, or interest at all.

Perhaps millennia from now, complex society evolves anew and spawns a class of citizens with the ability, the leisure, and the interest to excavate the rubble and find ways to decode and decipher once again the stored 1’s and 0’s. What then? Will they be willing to wade through the cosmic heaps of informational garbage that we are piling up at an exponential rate in search of a digital copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Or will it be easier just to start with the clay tablets themselves, and bypass our era altogether?

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