Sunday, November 29, 2009

Communicating with folk 500 generations hence

Via Matthew Yglesias, I found this Salon article about communicating with people 10,000 years in the future about the dangers of nuclear waste via Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms.

The main basis of the article is the government report Sandia Report SAND92-1382: Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, from November 1993, concerning the WIPP, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It really is quite an interesting report.

I've been thinking about these issues mostly in terms of computer obsolescence and digital decay. In the very long run, it seems that the best way to preserve data for a long time or communicate with the people of the future would be through aluminum (or rather, minimally reactive durable) punch cards, or well-labelled ceramic or stone tiles that contain images, text, and clearly visualized pictographic instruction on binary or base-16 mathematics, to provide multiple points of reference for future archaeologists to decrypt the text. It's easier with the assumption that you're communicating with the kinds of people who deciphered Maya hieroglyphs, the Rosetta stone, and Sumerian cuneiform.

Charles Piller's 2006 LA Times story doesn't appear to have a durable URL, but it was carried in the Cincinnati Post and the Edmonton Journal. Here's from the Cincinnati Post, May 10, 2006:
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, [Roger] Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for what he calls the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.

Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.

But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long -- an unsettling reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The so-called "forever problem," unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and "Star Trek."

Communicating danger might seem relatively straightforward, but countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.

... The U.S. Energy Department predicted such a problem when it began planning for the $9-billion waste dump, dubbed WIPP, in 1974 and for a similar repository in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. That site is not yet open. Eventually it will store highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants as well as high- level waste from the weapons program.

Trying to communicate across 500 generations posed an unprecedented challenge of linguistics, semiotics and materials science, so the government first asked scientists, futurists and historians to envision what the far-distant future might be like.

Their report combines dry analysis and projections worthy of sci- fi disaster films, including massive climate change and feminist corporations that disbelieve WIPP warnings because they were written by men. Civilization is so interdependent and fragile, one panelist grimly noted, "that any massive global catastrophe might lead to reversion to at least a pre-industrial era." Greed or desperation could give rise to legends that WIPP holds buried treasure -- apparently confirmed by surface warnings to keep out.

...If Egyptian pyramids have lasted more than 5,000 years, today's monuments should fare better. ...To grasp the scale of the warnings, start with the Great Pyramid in Egypt, built from more than 6.5 million tons of stone covering 13 acres. Multiply that mass by five, and you have the first warning layer of this contemporary construction: a 98-foot-wide, 33-foot- tall, 2-mile-long berm surrounding the site. That's just to get the attention of anyone who happens by.

Ten thousand years, of course, twice as long as it took for Proto-Indo-European to change and diversify into Latin and Sanskrit, and then to Hindi, Farsi, Italian, Russian, Icelandic, and contemporary English.

Such warnings could indeed become the Rosetta stones of the future, with warnings on carved stone slabs in the contemporary UN languages English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, local languages such as Navajo, and space for the languages of the future when contemporary languages become obsolete and unintelligible. The report also includes a number of proposed warnings.

The monuments themselves, proposed in the report, are indeed interesting. I was most intrigued by Forbidding Blocks (for all the wrong reasons, of course). Despite a massive effort to deny use, it seems like the most likely for future civilizations to take an interest in. Such a site seems less likely to be investigated by future scholars and archaeologists than bored adolescents, clever seekers of shelter, and get-rich-quick looters.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this too. i was a bit surprised by the linguists on the panel too. I have tremendous respect for Frederick Newmeyer, yet somehow he seemed to much of a syn tactician. but then again, I'm not sure whom I would have nominated for such a weird, even if crucial, task. Labov?