Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A response to Will We Endure?

This is my response to Bob Moore's recent post on his blog Culture World 21C.

Bob's piece grew out of a discussion of the nuclear crisis in Japan, its impact on the industry in the US and specifically the storage of nuclear waste and how to ensure that society retained and communicated the information about such storage over the very long term -- 10,000 years.

For an optimist like Bob this is easy because of, "widespread literacy, replicated texts, both electronic and in duplicable hard copies, and an international political/economic system that has apparently eliminated the kinds of catastrophic wars that in the past routinely toppled civilizations (e.g., Sumeria, Rome, Ming China). It is, after all, wars like these that resulted in the trashing of the information of the deposed civilizations making them largely lost to future generations. (I did not get to make all of these points last night, but they are still very, very valid.)"

Let's set aside for a moment the idea that, "catastrophic wars ... routinely toppled civilization" and instead address the issue of widespread literacy and replicated texts.

Obviously, as a librarian this is what I am most concerned with. We have developed robust systems for the preservation and replication of texts over the last 500 hundred years since the invention of printing in Europe. In some part as a result of printing, but also with the Protestant Reformation, and later the Industrial Revolution, we have also developed widespread literacy. I am confident that, as we continue to migrate texts and communication to the digital environment, we will continue to develop robust systems for the preservation and replication of texts and literacy will become even more widespread. But even within this single era -- let's call it the Gutenberg Era -- we have irretrievably lost significant bodies of work. The one that come to mind most readily is early film. I understand that we no longer have copies of about 50% of the films produced before 1930. That is just eighty years ago, in a medium we still use, during a period of unprecedented economic growth, in a society which makes a fetish of preservation. So I am not optimistic that all texts (and information) that future generations regard as important will be available to them.

10,000 years include twenty 500 year periods (and 125 eighty year periods.) It is also twice as long as the whole of human history since the invention of writing, so I am very dubious that we can preserve anyting for that long. In the meantime, let's look for some lessons over longer time periods than 500 years, but shorter than 5,000.

Again, taking the European experience, if we go back to the manuscript era before printing we again see systems of text production, replication, and preservation (and far less widespread literacy.) If these systems seem less robust from our perspective we should remind ourselves that they were developed and maintained over a thousand year period from the end of the Roman Empire in the west in the 5th and 6th centuries to the development of printing in the 15th century, which is pretty damn robust. Many manuscripts survived into the first two centuries of the Gutenberg era, but in the 16th and 17th century we also saw a wholesale deaccessing of manuscript volumes from European libraries and archives in which a lot of information was lost.

The same situation happened during the transition from scroll to codex in the 2-4th centuries of the common era and this transition, which more or less coincided with the decline of the Roman Empire in the west, was a more significant transition for our purposes. This is because it coincided with a a massive economic collapse and reordering of society. An urban, international society with well-developed systems of text replication, a robust and long lived medium (the papyrus scroll), many great libraries (both public and private), and a high degree of literacy (for its time) gave way to an agricultural society, largely illiterate, with small text collections, with a system of values so radically different from the Roman Empire that preceded it that huge numbers of texts were lost, either permanently (Aristotle's second book of Poetics on comedy) or for many hundreds of years ( Menander's plays, admittedly perhaps not as great a loss.) Scrolls, were not preserved (except in garbage dumps or by being lost in dry climates) and the contents of scrolls were not preserved through copying into codices unless they were seen as valuable by the struggling Christian societies of the west.

Luckily much of great value was preserved and replicated in Byzantium and in the Islamic societies to the east and south of Europe.We may not be so lucky next time, our next collapse may well be global.

This is how our society will collapse, not with a bang, but a whimper. And the first things to go will be highly complex systems contingent upon complex and wealthy economies -- systems like libraries, and the Internet. The survivors in the wreckage, like the citizens of Rome will flee to the safety of strongmen and warlords with little thought to the culture they leave behind.

Which brings us back to Bob's contention that catastrophic wars topple civilizations. I would argue that the collapse of societies leads to, amongst other nasty things, wars; and that those wars, in an era of declining economic activity and societal collapse become catastrophic. Part of that catastrophe can be the destruction or abandonment of the, now unsustainable, rich cultural tradition of the previous era.

So, is there a way for human beings to somehow preserve and communicate the knowledge of the invisible danger of radiation to the pastoralists and hunter gathers who will be wandering near Yucca Mountain (or wherever we decide to put this stuff) in 10,000 years?

One more thing. There are three books I would recommend if you want to think more about these issues.

Matthew Battles. Library: An Unquiet History.
James O'Donnell. Avatars of the Word.
Iain Pears. The Dream of Scipio


Robert L. Moore said...

The point you make about civilizations collapsing in the absence of catastrophic wars is a good one, Jonathan. But, though I can see global environmental/economic collapse as a possible outcome of our current recklessness, I still don’t see nuclear waste sites as likely to disappear from our consciousness, even after many thousands of years. For one thing, I would not anticipate hunter-gatherers and pastoralists as likely inheritors of the Nevada landscape. I think it is more likely that in a worst case scenario North America’s impoverished millions would comprise relatively immobile communities dominated by a fascistic superstate or cluster of superstates rather than occupied by scattered bands of scroungers. Score one for pessimism.
In any case, given the suggestion offered in the article that you forwarded to me (suggested by our friend David: http://archivists.metapress.com/content/d87u013444j3g6r2/fulltext.pdf), nuclear waste sites may well be marked by monumental structures perhaps in the shape of the safety triangle now used as an indicator of nuclear hazards.
If, say, Yucca Mountain is marked with such structures at key points, it is more likely, even after thousands of years, I believe, that the sites and their symbols would take on an ominous quality that folk wisdom or folk religion would sustain. This would be in addition to the more specific records maintained by archivists and their worthy assistants as the keepers of wisdom’s flame. So, I would not anticipate foragers happily and ignorantly wandering into nuclear waste sites in the year 12,011 C.E. Anyway, these sites are supposed to be deeply buried, aren’t they? If so, they would be quite out of reach of low tech foragers.

Bryan's workshop blog said...

Great brooding post, Jonathan. A few thoughts:

I'm reminded of the narrative of increasing human interconnection, a la Robert Wright (_NonZero_) and Ian Morris' optimistic scenario (_Why the West Rules..._). As fragile as our society is, and as total a wreck could be, our increased connection might improve our resilience.

10K years: do you know The Long Now Foundation? This is their metier.

Catastrophes: peak oil is uppermost in my doom-y mind.