In October 02013, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner spoke to the Long Now about landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. A decade of exhausted alternatives led Seltzner’s team to take the unconventional approach of a mini-rocket “sky crane” controlled by artificial intelligence to guide the rover to the Martian surface. Because the crane could not be tested on Earth, NASA would have to brave a $2.5 billion attempt on Mars to know it was successful. A 4×12 mile landing target at the Gale Crater left virtually no margin for error. It was a tense moment for martian space travel, which historically has a 42% mission success rate.
It also made for compelling entertainment. Curiosity’s successful landing in August 02012 was a global event witnessed by millions, aided no doubt by a NASA social media campaign that included Curiosity video games, humorous tweets delivered in first-person by the rover, and “seven minutes of terror” ads that framed the descent as a high-stakes action film unfolding live before viewers’ eyes.
Guess who just got an “attitude adjustment”? My mood’s fine; I needed to reposition my medium-gain antenna for Earth communication
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) July 19, 2012
A tweet from @MarsCuriosity ahead of landing on Mars.
28 Months on Mars, a new visual storytelling project from the New York Times, provides a window into what Curiosity has been up to since the dramatic landing. An HTML5 multimedia timeline weaves together patchwork snapshots taken by the rover with three-dimensional renderings of the martian landscape, immersing viewers in the bumpy twists and turns of Curiosity’s journey through the dried lakebed of the Gale Crater as it seeks to answer whether Mars could ever have supported life.
Wheels show gashed wear and tear after five miles on the unforgiving Gale Crater terrain. An unexpected week-long hiatus occurs when Curiosity has to troubleshoot a software update downloaded from Earth. Drilling samples at the Mojave rock outcrop reveal rice-shaped salt crystals (picture above) that suggest a past cycle of wet and dry conditions necessary for supporting microbial life. And at each noteworthy moment, Curiosity takes a selfie.
The project is part of a growing trend in space exploration to use social media and short-form visual storytelling to engage the public and make the challenges and rewards of decades-long space missions more accessible.
Other recent efforts show the potential of short-form media to bring out the long-term narrative of extended scientific endeavors in space: NASA’s Global Selfie campaign for Earth Day 02014 resulted in over 50,000 submissions from 113 countries, and Astronomy Pic of the Day, a NASA project that shares daily photographs of the cosmos, has upwards of a million followers on Twitter. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a pop culture phenomenon through his social media dispatches from the International Space Station; and the European Space Agency has said November 02014’s Rosetta Comet landing (whose hashtag, #cometlanding, was trending globally for days) marked a “watershed” in the agency’s efforts to connect with the public.
Experience 28 Months on Mars here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/science/space/curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars.html?_r=1
We have just announced our lineup of upcoming events at The Interval for 02015. The first four months of the year will feature talks on art, science, history, technology and long-term thinking. Tickets are on sale now for the first two:
Space is limited at these events and tickets will sell out. So get yours early. If you make a tax-deductible donation to The Interval you’ll be added to our list for early notice about Interval event tickets. More information on these events below.
When we opened The Interval in June 02014 one of our goals was to host great events in our cafe/bar/museum space at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was important that these talks complement our larger format Seminars About Long-term Thinking series which we produce for audiences of several hundred in San Francisco each month and are enjoyed around the world via podcast.
So The Interval’s “salon talk” series events are more frequent (2 or 3 times a month) and intimate: fewer than 100 people attend and have the chance to meet and converse with our speaker afterward. So far we’ve produced 14 events in this series and all of them have sold out. They are being recorded and will eventually become a podcast of their own. But we don’t yet have a timeline for that, so your best bet is to attend in person.
Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval on January 6, 02015
Tuesday January 6, 02015:
Scotty Strachan: Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene
Our first Interval salon talk of 02015 features geographer Scotty Strachan discussing the Great Basin region of eastern Nevada. Amonst his other work Scotty conducts research on Long Now’s Mount Washington property. Scotty has done extensive work with bristlecone pine trees which are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet often living for several thousand years. He will discuss his work in eastern Nevada and put it in perspective with climate science efforts worldwide.
Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval on January 20, 02015
Tuesday January 20, 02015:
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers. Art, Tech, & Craft in the 21st Century
A creator, art historian and technologist, Mathieu Victor has worked for artists, galleries, and leading design studios. Mathieu’s study of past practice matched with his experience in executing extraordinary contemporary projects give him a unique perspective on how art in the physical world benefits from the digital age.
Other highlights of the 02015 salon talk schedule that we’ve announced: The Interval’s architect/design team Because We Can and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive will speak in February; and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes will talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War in March. More talks will be announced soon. We hope you’ll join us at The Interval soon.
Jesse Ausubel is an environmental scientist and program manager of a number of global biodiversity and ecology research programs. Ausubel serves as Director and Senior Research Associate of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University.
He was instrumental in organizing the first UN World Climate Conference which was held in Geneva in 01979, and is one of the founders of the field of Industrial Ecology.
Revive & Restore is embarking on its first open-access science initiative – Ferreting the Genome: Open Genomics for Conservation. The initiative will enlist the help of the public to understand how the black-footed ferret gene pool has changed from the founding population to the current generation. The goal is to determine, through this understanding, how genetic rescue techniques might be applied to conserve the species.
The black-footed ferret is a model species for this research; information from this initiative will aid the designs of captive breeding programs worldwide. From the website anyone can link to the first fully sequenced black-footed ferret nuclear genomes and participate in the analysis and interpretation of the data.
If open-access science for genetic rescue emerges as a successful method for gaining relevant insight into a large genomic dataset, it too could become a model method for finding genomic conservation solutions for endangered species.
The past 25 years of captive breeding have led to a loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity has been shown in conservation to be directly related to the health, or long-term survival/adaptability, of a species. For the black-footed ferret, genetic rescue means finding ways to bring back the diversity lost from inbreeding. The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program has already pioneered genetic rescue techniques with advanced reproductive technologies, producing ferrets from “cryogenic artificial insemination” using 20-year-old cryopreserved spermatozoa to fertilize living females. These ferrets, born from parents spanning 20 years of generations, may bring back lost genetic diversity. The continuing decline of genetic variability in the black-footed ferret’s gene pool urgently needs a solution.
Dr. Oliver Ryder, Adjunct Professor of Behavior and Evolution at UC San Diego and Director of Genetics, Kleberg Chair at the San Diego Zoo Global will blog from time to time about the progress of this exciting initiative and respond to comments. Read his blog here.
Cryogenic artificial insemination is a powerful tool, but may be aided by other advanced reproductive strategies and de-extinction techniques; the first stage in diversifying genetic rescue methods lies in the genomes of ferrets both present and past – this is where our initiative begins. DNA samples of two living ferrets born in captivity – Cheerio and Balboa – were provided by the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team and cell cultures from two additional ferrets – an unnamed male wild-caught at Meeteetse between 1985-1987 and Willa, wild-caught at Meeteetse between 1985-1987 – were provided by the San Diego Frozen Zoo.
Cofactor Genomics, sponsored by Revive & Restore, sequenced the DNA samples provided by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the San Diego Frozen Zoo. The closely related domestic ferret is used extensively for human medical research, and its genome has been thoroughly sequenced and analyzed by the Broad Institute. That data is linked from the website and offers an excellent reference genome for the black-footed ferret material: as much as 92% of the black-footed ferret genome can be mapped and analyzed with the domestic ferret genome.
Please join us to conserve this endangered species. Send your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Wanderers“, a short film by director Erik Wernquist, depicts a not-so-far future in which humanity has expanded throughout the solar system. The film starts with a panorama of humans 10,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization, a key point of reference in Long Now’s own intellectual ecosystem.
There are two specific aspects that set the video apart: the carefully researched hard science behind each shot of the video and the generally optimistic depiction of the future. To make the video, director Erik Wernquist made composite shots from images from different space missions and then filled in the rest. This image gallery gives a breakdown of the sources and science behind each shot in the film.
The generally optimistic tone of the film is in contrast with much of contemporary science fiction, which as a general rule shows dystopian scenarios in our near future. The call for more optimistic visions of our future has become a major point of discussion in the science fiction community, with author (and Interval donor) Neil Stephenson launch of Project Hieroglyph, an initiative that challenges science fiction authors to imagine optimistic hard-science futures.
photos by Kelly Ida Scope
In January 02014 Brian Eno and Danny Hillis, co-founders of The Long Now Foundation, spoke about The Long Now, now in our Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. Long Now’s third co-founder, Stewart Brand, joined them onstage for the second part of the talk.
Leaving the planet, singing, religion, drugs, sex, and parenting are all touched on in their wide-ranging and humor-filled discussion. There’s much about the 10,000 Year Clock project, of course, including details about how The Clock’s chime generator will work. And, fittingly, they discuss the notion of art as conversation.
Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Long Now, now is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until Februray 02015. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcast. Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.
From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):
Hillis talked about the long-term stories we live by and how our expectations of the future shape the future, such as our hopes about space travel. Eno said that Mars is too difficult to live on, so what’s the point, and Hillis said, “That’s short-term thinking. There are three big game-changers going on: globalization, computers, and synthetic biology. (If I were a grad student now, I wouldn’t study computer science, I’d study synthetic biology.) I probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars in this body, but I could imagine adapting myself so I would want to live on Mars. To me it’s pretty inevitable that Earth is just our starting point.”
Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author, and engineer. He pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID disk array technology used to store large databases. He holds over 100 U.S. patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices. Danny Hillis is also the designer of Long Now’s 10,000-year Clock.
Brian Eno is a composer, producer and visual artist. He was a founding member of Roxy Music and has produced albums for such groundbreaking artists as David Bowie, The Talking Heads and U2. He is credited with coining the term “Ambient Music” and making some of the definitive recordings in that genre. In recent years he has focused on generative art including numerous gallery installations and his Ambient Painting at The Interval at Long Now. His music is available for purchase at Enoshop.
The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.
Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until February 02015). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.
photos by Kelly Ida Scope
In April, Long Now board member Esther Dyson wrote a letter to Carne Ross as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Nassim Taleb. Nassim Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand, and Stewart wrote to Esther Dyson, who wrote to Carne Ross. Carne’s response is now addressed to John Burnside, a novelist, short story writer and poet, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of his choosing.
The discussion thus far has focused on the extent and ways government and technology can foster long-term thinking. You can find the previous correspondences here.
From: Carne Ross, New York City
To: John Burnside, Berlin
8 December 2014
We are bidden to consider the future. What a privilege to be asked! What a nightmare to contemplate!
Esther Dyson wrote to me to propose an appealing scheme of how to inspire communities to be healthier. She spoke too of how data and technology, on which she is more than expert, enable government to provide better services and be accountable to citizens.
Of course she is right on this point, but I think you and I would want to take it some way further. Esther’s model is the familiar archetype of representative democracy, where the many elect the few to provide services for them. It is a transactional model, technocratic, with success or failure assessed with measurement and metrics. What’s missing are some essential questions: Who is doing what to whom? Who has power and who does not? Indeed, what is it all for? Like Esther, I want better and more accountable services for everyone. But this is not enough. The contemporary architecture of representative democracy and a capitalist economy, within which these reforms would take place, is to me, and I suspect you, deeply inadequate. Its flaws – inequality, environmental destruction, to name but two – are all too evident.
Let us look to the future, which is the challenge posed by this series of letters. I tried to cast my mind ten thousand years hence, or a thousand. Of course it was impossible. I could imagine space colonies and eternally-pickled brains whose contents are stored in data clouds. But what’s the use of such piddling fantasies? It seemed more worthwhile to fantasize about an ideal. How would humans live in an ideal world? I did not imagine a blueprint of such a world: if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it must be that utopian designs are inherently despotic; whether communist, fascist or even neo-liberal. Humans are forced to fit the design, and not the other way around. I tried to imagine how a human would ideally live, a thought experiment which proved one thing: how pathetically distant our current “civilisation” is from ideal. But the vision thereby also provided a kind of target.
How should humans ideally live? They would be fed and housed in as much comfort as they wished. They would live as long as they wanted in beauty and perfect, athletic health (you and I, I fear, are some way from this ideal already). They would be free to die as they choose, for eternal life would, I suspect, be its own kind of hell (though I would be willing to give it a go). They would live in peace, without hatred or resentment. They would wallow in mutual love with other humans (perhaps they could enjoy the permanent sensation of being “in love”). I have long doubted the idea of living in “harmony” with heartless, brutal nature, but humans in this ideal conception would enjoy their planet, unthreatened by its depredations, and reaping from it all that they needed They would be free of all coercion: no one would have power over anyone else. There would therefore be no government.
Their material needs and desires thus satisfied, humans would be free to indulge in what for me is the ultimate “point”, if there can be said to be such a thing, which would be the expression and enactment of all that is sublime and joyous of the immaterial: art, music, poetry (yes, John, you have a place there), love, sex (needless to say), pleasure, literature, voluptuous languor. There are not sufficient words for this fabulous realm; there is certainly no measure, which is why I recoil at our current obsession with metrics and measurable targets, and data: the things that matter most have no measure! It is there to be endlessly explored, imagined. It is the infinite.
Writing this today, I feel terribly sad and a little bit desperate. My expectation is that this ideal is, in reality, wholly unattainable. Looking forward once more, I fear that much more likely is that within a few hundred years, if not less, humanity will have successfully annihilated itself in ways already all too clear. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. It seems implausible to expect that the bombs will never be detonated. We have already come very close to nuclear war on several occasions in the few decades since their invention. The supposedly stable framework of strategic theory – “mutually assured destruction”, deterrence etc. – seems flimsy at best, likewise, is the reliance on lots of buttons that must be pressed, or keys that must be turned simultaneously, as launch devices designed to prevent an accidental launch. Most worryingly, the proliferation of these ghastly weapons has already put them in the trembling hands of nutters like the Kim family tyranny of North Korea, and under the control of governments which could tomorrow by overthrown by, millenarian extremists, whether religious or secular.
Then there is “the environment” where credible scientific forecasts of global warming are already painting a future of planetary catastrophe. A thousand years hence? Even getting through a hundred without mass starvation, war and species loss seems unlikely at this rate. God, I feel like should stop writing, pour myself a Highland malt and lose myself in your fine poems. No, I feel obliged to continue.
What is to be done? Metrical improvement of government services doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it? I am not preaching revolution, for Hannah Arendt was right to say that revolution merely brings us back to where we started, usually, with much bloodshed and misery along the way. I don’t believe in violent overthrow or hostility. Together, we might just make it. Divided, we most definitely shall not.
I do believe that a cultural, political, and economic reformation is possible; a profound and magnificent reimagining of how we live and how we get by with one another. Humans survive together. Alone, we are nothing: life is not worth living. The most important question is not what we believe, where we’re from, what sex we are, or what kind of music, or food, or sexual partner we like. It is: how do we deal with Other People? Get this right, in the economy and in politics, and we might just make it.
If the ideal is humans who are comfortable, healthy, free from violence or coercion, then that is where we should start. This is not impossible even today. Put people first and central in politics and the economy. In ancient Athens, many citizens played an active part in deciding the city’s future. Today, “participatory” processes allow the mass – sometimes tens of thousands of citizens, men and women – to decide things like budget priorities. When all are included in these decisions, the resulting policies reflect all of their interests; they are more equitable. In comparison, supposedly “representative” democracies will inevitably create elites (the few elected by the many) who are inherently susceptible to the influence of – if not corruptible by – the most powerful, thereby exacerbating, rather than reducing, any existing power imbalance.
Inequality supercharges this problem. The rich are already powerful. The evidence clearly shows that “democratic” legislation reflects their interests (literally: interest on capital is taxed at a lower rate than earned income, so a wealthy hedge fund owner is taxed at a lower rate than his cleaner). As Thomas Piketty has so convincingly demonstrated, the rich are indeed getting richer, because, as he shows, the returns on capital are, in general, greater than the returns on labour. Not only are the rest not getting richer (at all), the poor are, astonishingly, actually getting poorer. We are living in the age of the globalized, mega-wealthy plutocrats who control vast sums of money, and thus vast numbers of people. They control politics, philanthropy, culture, and even ideas (the musings of a billionaire are deemed, in publications like The New York Times, much more worthy of publication than the musings of, say, a street sweeper).
Fixing democracy is only half the solution. We must also promote new forms of economic activity, where profits and agency are shared, not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Employee-owned cooperatives, whether a bakery or a bank, can be as successful as the egoist entrepreneur (an archetype that is much too celebrated in contemporary culture; every successful individual stands on the shoulders of many). This is not state control, or redistribution by taxation, which of course is a kind of coercion, something we wish to avoid. It is altering the form, and thus the outcome, of economic activity at source.If widely implemented, with good will, patience and perseverance (for nothing human is ever perfect), such methods may have rapid effect, especially since humans are now so thoroughly connected with one another, and ever more so. Changing the method is tantamount to changing the outcome because, as Gandhi stressed, the means are the end. Change the manner in which we interact with one another, how we govern ourselves, how we make things, how we flourish, and we change everything. We are no longer mere outputs of an ideological system, we are in control, at the centre, the point.
John, I know that you share these sentiments. The question now that I cannot answer is how do we foment this transformation. Stalin imposed Marx’s revolution, causing untold horrors. Our reformation must come by suasion, not coercion. It’s clear that the disillusionment with the current status quo is rampant. But it is a different matter to turn that negative into a positive impulsion to build new things, new companies, new forums for decisions. Expert craftsman of words that you are, I suspect you would also agree that words alone are not enough. Are we to be dragged under by our own cynicism? Or will hope come to our rescue?
My hope is succoured by the hundred tales I hear of people of similar mind taking their own course, building businesses, starting communities, tending to the vulnerable, sharing their labour, love and resources for goals far greater than mere money, for solidarity, for compassion, for mutual aid; they who celebrate the best of humanity, not the most selfish: a thousand paths in the same direction, towards lives that are lived fully, marching forward in step alongside other humans, respecting and loving them and in common purpose with them. These stories move me to the quick. There are legion. May they prevail.
Over to you, my friend,
Carne Ross founded the world’s first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.
John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.
Visitors to The Interval can now view two stunning passenger pigeon specimens on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) houses the world’s largest collection of passenger pigeons. These specimens showcase the species’ unique male and female coloration and beauty.
The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) once lived throughout eastern North America in enormous nomadic flocks – the largest flocks recorded in history. Fossil records date as far back as 240,000 years, yet in less than three decades the species went extinct in the wild due to commercial harvesting, leaving only a few birds in captivity by 01902. The last passenger pigeon died on September 1, 01914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Revive & Restore’s flagship project, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, aims to use new genome editing tools to recreate passenger pigeons from their living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. Through a partnership with the UCSC Paleogenomics Laboratory, Revive & Restore is sequencing the genomes of Royal Ontario Museum specimens to provide the foundation for future flocks of passenger pigeons.
Revive & Restore gratefully acknowledges the Royal Ontario Museum for this generous temporary loan for visitors to enjoy. Revive & Restore’s Research and Science Consultant and lead scientist on The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, Ben Novak, will speak at the Royal Ontario Museum on September 26, 02014 for their De-Extinction Dialogues event. The title of his talk is “De-Extinction: a genetic future to the conservation legacy of the passenger pigeon.” Visit the ROM website for more details.
Wednesday November 12, 02014 – San Francisco
When Kevin Kelly looked up the definition of “superorganism” on Wikipedia, he found this: “A collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.” The source cited was Kevin Kelly, in his 01994 book, Out of Control. His 02014 perspective is that humanity has come to dwell in a superorganism of our own making on which our lives now depend.
The technological numbers keep powering up and connecting with each other. Their aggregate is becoming formidable, rich with emergent behavior, and yet it is still so new to us that it remains unnamed and scarcely considered.
Kelly clicked through some current tallies: one quintillion transistors; fifty-five trillion links; one hundred billion web clicks per day; one thousand communication satellites. Only a quarter of all the energy we use goes to humans; the rest drives Earth’s “very large machine.” Kelly calls it “the Technium” and spelled out what it is not. Not H.G. Wells’ “World Brain,” which was only a vision of what the Web now is. Not Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere,” which was only humanity’s collective consciousness. Not “the Singularity,” which anticipates a technological event horizon that Kelly says will never occur as an event—”the Singularity will always be near.”
The Technium may best be considered a new organism with which we are symbiotic, as we are symbiotic with the aggregate of Earth’s life, sometimes called “Gaia.” There are pace differences, with Gaia slow, humanity faster, and the Technium really fast. They are not replacing each other but building on each other, and the meta-organism of their combining is so far nameless. Kelly shrugged, “Call it ‘Holos.’ Here are five frontiers I think that Holos implies for us…”
1) Big math of “zillionics” —beyond yotta (10 to the 24th) to, some say, “lotta” and “hella.” 2) New economics of the massive one-big-market, capable of surprise flash crashes and imperceptible tectonic shifts. 3) New biology of our superorganism with its own large phobias, compulsions, and oscillations. 4) New minds, which will emerge from a proliferation of auto-enhancing AI’s that augment rather than replace human intelligence. 5) New governance. One world government is inevitable. Some of it will be non-democratic—”I don’t get to vote who’s on the World Bank.“ To deal with planet-scale issues like geoengineering and climate change, “we will have to work through the recursive dilemma of who decides who decides?” We have no rules for cyberwar yet. We have no backup to the Internet yet, and it needs an immune system.
There is lots to work out, but lots to work it out with, and inventiveness abounds and converges. “We are,” Kelly said, “at just the beginning of the beginning.”
Subscribe to our Seminar email list for updates and summaries.
When The Long Now Foundation first began thinking about long-term archives, we drew inspiration from the Rosetta Stone, a 2000-year-old stele containing a Ptolemaic decree in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. Our version of the Rosetta Stone, the Rosetta Disk, includes parallel texts in more than 1,500 languages. Since creating the Disk (a copy of which is now orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on board the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe), we have also partnered with the Internet Archive to create an online supplement that currently contains information on some 2,500 languages.
One of our purposes in creating The Rosetta Project was to encourage the preservation of endangered human languages. In a recent event at The Interval, The Future of Language, we explored the role these languages play in carrying important cultural information, and their correlation with biodiversity worldwide.
While we have focused our efforts on spoken languages and their written analogues, other organizations have begun preserving software—not just the end results, but the software itself. This is not only a way of archiving useful information and mitigating the risks of a digital dark age, but also a path to better understand the world we live in. As Paul Ford (a writer and programmer who digitized the full archive of Harper’s Magazine) wrote in The Great Works of Software, “The greatest works of software are not just code or programs, but social, expressive, human languages. They give us a shared set of norms and tools for expressing our ideas about words, or images, or software development.”
Matthew Kirschenbaum, the Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, made a similar point in the opening address of the Digital Preservation 2014 Meeting at the Library of Congress. In discussing George R. R. Martin’s idiosyncratic choice to write his blockbuster, doorstopper Song of Ice and Fire on an air-gapped machine running DOS and WordStar, Kirschenbaum notes that “WordStar is no toy or half-baked bit of code: on the contrary, it was a triumph of both software engineering and what we would nowadays call user-centered design.”
In its heyday, WordStar appealed to many writers because its central metaphor was that of the handwritten, not the typewritten, page. Robert J. Sawyer, whose novel Calculating God is a candidate for the Manual of Civilization, described the difference like this:
Consider: On a long-hand page, you can jump back and forth in your document with ease. You can put in bookmarks, either actual paper ones, or just fingers slipped into the middle of the manuscript stack. You can annotate the manuscript for yourself with comments like ‘Fix this!’ or ‘Don’t forget to check these facts’ without there being any possibility of you missing them when you next work on the document. And you can mark a block, either by circling it with your pen, or by physically cutting it out, without necessarily having to do anything with it right away. The entire document is your workspace.”
If WordStar does offer a fundamentally different way of approaching digital text, then it’s reasonable to believe that authors using it may produce different work than they would with the mass-market behemoth, Microsoft Word, or one of the more modern, artisanal writing programs like Scrivener or Ulysses III, just as multi-lingual authors find that changing languages changes the way they think.
Samuel Beckett famously wrote certain plays in French, because he found that it made him choose his words more carefully and think more clearly; in the preface to Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov said that the “re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved a diabolical task.” Knowing that A Game of Thrones was written in WordStar or that Waiting for Godot was originally titled “En Attendent Godot” may nuance our appreciation of the texts, but we can go even deeper into the relationship between software and the results it produces by examining its source code.
This was the motivation for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s recent acquisition of the code for Planetary, a music player for iOS that envisions each artist in the music library as a sun orbited by album-planets, each of which is orbited in turn by a collection of song-moons. In explaining its decision to acquire not only a physical representation of the code, such as an iPad running the app, but the code itself, Cooper-Hewitt said,
With Planetary, we are hoping to preserve more than simply the vessel, more than an instantiation of software and hardware frozen at a moment in time: Commit message fd247e35de9138f0ac411ea0b261fab21936c6e6 authored in 2011 and an iPad2 to be specific.
Cooper-Hewitt’s Planetary announcement also touches on another challenge in archiving software.
[P]reserving large, complex and interdependent systems whose component pieces are often simply flirting with each other rather than holding hands is uncharted territory. Trying to preserve large, complex and interdependent systems whose only manifestation is conceptual—interaction design say or service design—is harder still.
One of the ways the Museum has chosen to meet this challenge is to open-source the software, inviting the public to examine the code, modify it, or build new applications on top of it.
The open-source approach has the advantage of introducing more people to a particular piece of software—people who may be able to port it to new systems, or simply maintain their own copies of it. As we have said in reference to the Rosetta Project, “One of the tenets of the project is that for information to last, people have to care about and engage it.” However, generations of software have already been lost, abandoned, or forgotten, like the software that controls the International Cometary Explorer. Other software has been preserved, but locked into black boxes like the National Software Reference Library at NIST, which includes some 20 million digital signatures, but is available only to law enforcement.
While there is no easy path to archiving software over the long term, the efforts of researchers like Kirschenbaum, projects like the Internet Archive’s Software Collection, and enthusiastic hackers like the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, who recently recovered Andy Warhol’s digital artwork, are helping create awareness of the issues and develop potential solutions.
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