The concept of the Digital Dark Age has been around for quite some time, and has been a key topic of discussion at the Long Now Foundation since its inception in 01996. In fact, it has been my own raison d’être since I started grad school in 02006. It may be a surprise to some that I am not here to wave the flag in our march against the great foe of the DDA, but rather question the temerity of the claims to its looming existence.
In the 01990s, when we first started really talking about the issues of digital storage media and file format obsolescence, it was almost as if we were caught with our pants down. We hadn’t truly been thinking about this as a problem; we as a civilization weren’t prepared for the challenges it posed. We soon realized, however, that digital documents have their own complex fragility and maintaining access to digitally encoded information over the long-term may be more challenging than the analog. There was a flurry of activity across the globe, and while the topic faded from the headlines, the flurry of activity continued and has slowly and steadily gained momentum.
Almost a year ago, new sources were abuzz again about the Digital Dark Age after Vint Cerf sounded the latest warning bell. While I typically rejoice whenever my rather obscure research area gets some well-deserved media attention, I felt a little flummoxed. The core of the DDA concept presupposes a world where no one has or is doing anything about it. Yes, if we we do nothing now to collect and preserve not only the bitstreams, but also the contextual information (or metadata, as I describe here), that information could very well be lost forever. Where a lack of action may have been more of the case in the 01990s, it is certainly less so today. In the early days, there were just a handful of pioneers talking about and working on digital preservation, but today there are hundreds of tremendously intelligent and skilled people focused on preserving access to the yottabytes of digital cultural heritage and science data we have and will create.
I will return to when I questioned when Kevin Kelly told Robert Krulwich that “there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” I knew there were loads of people interested in working on making video game emulators, but I wasn’t sure if obscure formats like VisiCalc would ever be sexy enough to gain enough attention to be preserved. Well, I’m here to eat my doubtful words. I’m very please to admit that I think Kevin Kelly is right. This idea, coupled with the fact that I know now that there is an army of people equipped with the interest, knowledge, and skills to prevent it (and we are training more every day!), I feel confident in saying that there will very likely be #nodigitaldarkage.
Until its final extinction in 1844, the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) ranged across the entire north Atlantic ocean, fishing the waters off the northern US, Canada, Iceland, and northern Europe, including the coast near Newcastle in northern England. The size of a medium penguin, it lived in the open ocean except for when it waddled ashore for breeding on just a few islands. There its flightlessness made it vulnerable to human hunting and exploitation for its down that reached industrial scale. Attempts to regulate the hunting as early as the 16th Century were fruitless. The last birds, on an island off Iceland, were gone by 1844.
The host of the Great Auk meeting was Matt Ridley, member of the House of Lords, former science editor of The Economist, author of The Rational Optimist and Genome. He opened the meeting by noting that de-extinction comes in four stages, which he described as: 1) In silico (the sequencing of the full genome of the extinct animal into digital data); 2) in vitro (editing the important genes of the extinct animal into living reproductive cells of its nearest living relative; 3) in vivo (using the edited reproductive cells to create living proxies of the extinct animal); and 4) in the wild (growing the proxy animal population with captive breeding and eventually releasing them to take up their old ecological role in the wild.)
Three participants from Revive & Restore—Ben Novak, Ryan Phelan, and Stewart Brand—spelled out the current state of de-extinction projects involving the Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, and Woolly Mammoth. In each case the extinct genomes have been thoroughly sequenced, along with the genomes of their closest living relatives, and some of the important genes to edit have been identified. With the woolly mammoth, 16 genes governing three important traits have been edited into a living elephant cell line by George Church’s team at Harvard Medical School. For birds, the crucial in vivo stage of being able to create living chicks with edited genomes utilizing a primordial germ cell (PGC) approach has yet to be fully proven, though work has begun on the process, working with a private company in California.
Michael McGrew from Roslin Institute in Edinburgh described the current state of play using primordial germ cell techniques with chickens. Progress may go best by introducing the edited PGCs into the embryos of chickens adjusted to have no endogenous germ cells of their own. Because so much work has been done on chicken genetics, working with a bird in the same family, the extinct Heath Hen, may offer the most practical first case to pursue. For the Great Auk eventually, a flock of captive-bred Razorbills will be needed to supply embryos for the PGC process.
Oliver Haddrath (Ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum) and Richard Bevan (Ecologist at Newcastle University) described what is known of the lifestyle, ecology, and history of Great Auks compared with Razorbills, and Andrew Torrance (Law professor at the University of Kansas) examined potential legal hurdles for resurrected Great Auks and found them not explicitly prohibitive and potentially navigable.
The meeting concluded with a sense that the project can and should be pursued. Next steps include funding the completion of Tom Gilbert’s genetic study of Great Auks and Razorbills and scheduling a follow-up meeting in the summer of 2016, perhaps at another location (Canada, Iceland, Denmark) in the once-and-perhaps-future range of the Great Auk.
Matt Ridley added the following about the Farne Islands:
The Farnes are one of the very few island groups on the east coast of Britain, so they are very attractive to island-nesting seabirds. They host about 90,000 breeding pairs of seabirds each summer: mainly puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, black-headed gulls, herring gulls, lesser black-back gulls, Arctic, Sandwich and Common terns, shags, cormorants, eider ducks and fulmars. About 2000 grey seal pups are born on the islands each autumn.
The number of breeding birds has approximately doubled in 40 years, largely thanks to protection from human disturbance, control of the predatory large gull population, and habitat management. Most of the birds depend on just one species of fish to feed their young: the sand eel. The eels lives in vast shoals over the sandy sea floor close to the islands. Some studies have suggested that nutrients from human activities on land — including agricultural fertiliser and human sewage — have contributed to the productivity of this part of the North Sea, though treated sewage effluent outflow to the sea has now ceased. It is likely that there are more breeding birds on the Farne islands today than for many centuries, because in the past people lived on the islands (as farmers or religious hermits), and visited them to collect eggs and chicks for food. There is archeological evidence that great auks lived here in the distant past, but they would have been quickly exterminated by people on islands so close to the shore, being so easy to catch.
One of The Interval’s most distinctive features is “Otto”, our chalkboard drawing machine. Otto is a vector drawing machine that was built by Swiss artist Jürg Lehni. In this short video piece by Fusion media, you get to see Otto making a drawing and hear directly from Jürg about his work. To see Otto drawing in person, get tickets to one of our Conversations at The Interval talks on Tuesday nights.
The Nevada Museum of Art has a commitment to supporting the creation, study, and preservation of art that explores the boundaries of human environments. In spatial terms that means the Museum collects and exhibits work from the Great Basin outward to the polar regions, the great deserts of the world, and high altitudes, including near space. In temporal terms, that includes materials with roots in deep human time, such as projects with Australian Aboriginal artists—but also artworks that project into the future, which is to say the Long Now.
Jonathon Keats’ proposal to construct a 5,000 year calendrical index linked between the Museum in Reno and Long Now’s site at 11,000 feet in remote eastern Nevada resides simultaneously on many frontiers. This is also a hallmark of our Art of the Greater West collection, which includes work from throughout a super-region that extends from Alaska south to Patagonia, and west across the Pacific to Australia. This physical and metaphorical territory “west of the mountains” is in a perpetual state of discovery. The Museum’s multiple permanent holdings, including its Contemporary Art and large Altered Landscape photography collection, are focused around human interactions with natural, built, and virtual spaces. Jonathon’s calendar will powerfully manifest how these collections, exhibitions, and research projects inhabit this rich confluence.
Director, Center for Art + Environment
Nevada Museum of Art
William Fox will be speaking about the Art of the Greater West at The Interval at Long Now in April 02016. The Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno is partnering with the artist Jonathon Keats and The Long Now Foundation to realize Centuries of the Bristlecone for a permanent installation at the Museum in 02020. The archive of the project will reside at the Center for Art + Environment, where it will be available to researchers.
In pre-Classical Greece, time was kept by cicadas’ songs, the flowering of artichokes, and the migration of cranes. Ballads recounted these annual events, and provided their interpretation. (When the cranes migrated, it was time to plow the fields.) Although constellations also provided guidance, celestial authority was contingent in this three-thousand-year-old calendar, with days arbitrarily added as the stars fell out of sync with nature.
Gradually society made calendars more regular. First the moon was used, and then the sun. Julius Caesar improved the reliability of solar timekeeping by introducing the leap year. By modern reckoning, the Gregorian year is 365.2425 days long, and the movement of our planet has ceded authority to atomic clocks. Time has become abstract. The cranes are late if they migrate in November rather than October; November isn’t deemed ahead-of-schedule.
Undoubtedly the Gregorian calendar is useful for keeping dental appointments and managing multinational corporations. But is it worthy of our trust? Is it more valid than the sounding of cicadas and flowering of artichokes? Should we value mathematical exactitude over ground truth? Working in collaboration with the Long Now Foundation and the Nevada Museum of Art, I plan to provide an alternative to Gregorian time by bringing the calendar back to life.
At the core of my calendrical system will be the most long-lived of timekeepers: Pinus longaeva, commonly known as the bristlecone pine tree. Bristlecone pines have a lifespan that can exceed five thousand years, making the oldest more ancient than Greek civilization. They keep count of the years with annual ring growth, a natural calendar prized by dendroclimatologists because it’s irregular. The thickness of each ring is a measure of environmental conditions in a given year. The growing girth of the tree thus clocks environmental time cumulatively. Sited on Long Now property atop Mount Washington, my living calendars will do so for the next five millennia, visibly tracking time as lived on our planet.
Here is the vision: Around each bristlecone pine will be arranged a double spiral of large stone pillars, indicating the girth the bristlecone can be expected to have in 500 years, 1,000 years and more, as extrapolated from the current average annual ring growth for Mount Washington bristlecones. Each of the stones will be incised with the appropriate year. The steady development of the tree – and concomitant increase of the tree’s diameter – will turn over each successive pillar with the completion of each consecutive time increment, thereby indicating the approximate date. However, as climate change alters the living landscape, the calendar will fall out of step with Gregorian years. Through time, each bristlecone will bear witness to human activity in the Anthropocene. The meaning of the living calendar will change with the changes we bring to the environment.
Naturally there are myriad ways in which these calendars will defy expectations. Most certainly some will grow faster than others, subject to fluctuations in microclimates on the mountain, each differently impacted by global climate change. Also bristlecone pines typically grow irregularly, the harshness of their environment recorded in the contour of their trunks. Depending on what transpires in their vicinity, they may turn over pillars out of order. Or a trees may die prematurely, time frozen in hardwood that will take many millennia to decompose.
These uncertainties are integral to the concept. In these calendars, time is alive with contingencies. Through these calendars, we’ll come to terms with where prediction fails us: the limitations of what we can know about the future, and the threat of hubris.
Centuries of the Bristlecone will encourage people to visit Mount Washington who might otherwise never see it. Yet these mountain calendars will probably be experienced primarily by word of mouth – a living myth. For that reason, there will be a more broadly accessible dimension to the project: A sixth bristlecone pine will be configured with an electronic dendrometer, an instrument that wraps around the tree trunk, precisely measuring diameter. Data from the dendrometer will be relayed by satellite to a computer that will calculate an exact date based on the tree’s daily increase in girth. The computer will control a monumental mechanical calendar situated in downtown Reno at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Additionally the dendrometer will control a variable Bristlecone Time Protocol, accessible online and via an app for smartphone and smartwatch. The protocol will provide a precise digital indication of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years according to the growth of the tree on Mt. Washington.
The bristlecone date will thereby become a fully viable (if notoriously unreliable) alternative to the Gregorian date. People will be able to choose which calendar to follow, and, in the ensuing confusion, will be forced to confront the discrepancy. Is time a universal abstraction or grounded in lived experience? Each calendar will carry conflicting authority, much as stars and artichokes did in pre-Classical Greece.
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
August 8-10, 02016
“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries.”
-Stewart Brand, Co-founder and President of the Long Now Foundation
When today’s students become tomorrow’s civic leaders and entrepreneurs, they will confront global environmental and societal challenges that require long-term strategies and solutions. The Long Now Foundation is offering a new program—the Summer Teacher Institute—to engage with educators to develop middle and high school curricula that will better prepare students for these challenges by cultivating their ability to think critically, frame issues, and solve problems using time frames that include centuries and even millennia.
During a three-day engagement including interactive presentations with Long Now thought leaders and hands-on sessions using Long Now’s multi-media and museum resources, participating teachers will design creative and compelling curricula that foster long-term thinking skills within a wide range of subject areas and disciplines. Teachers will leave the Institute with a new approach to framing critical thinking and problem solving in a long-term time horizon; concrete curriculum activities to implement in their classrooms that build long-term thinking skills; and a new network of Long Now educators committed to fostering long-term thinking and responsibility among its students and schools.
The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996* to develop projects to challenge our short term attention span and time frame and embody the notion of deep time. It hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common through its ambitious projects such as:
The Long Now Summer Teacher Institute is an opportunity for educators to collaborate on creating practical teaching approaches and learning activities that develop long-term thinking among their students with the intention of cultivating graduates with the skills and responsibility to balance the short and long views of civilization.
The Summer Teacher Institute is designed to take educators through a three day schedule of provocative conversations with experts, field trips, and hands-on problem-solving activities that culminate with the development of implementable curriculum activities.
Fire acts in the short-term & long-term. It periodically destroys landscapes with devastating speed, yet, if properly managed, it leads to the long-term health of many ecosystems.
Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University, author of Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America (amongst many other books), and considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the history and management of fire.
The PanLex project aims to translate every word from every language into every other language. We already have solid groundwork with 10,000 language varieties and 22 million expressions in the PanLex database, but we still have a long way to go, especially with the more obscure and under-documented languages of the world which are most susceptible to extinction. Ethnologue: Languages of the World explains:
Language endangerment is a serious concern to which linguists and language planners have turned their attention in the last several decades. For a variety of reasons, speakers of many smaller, less dominant languages stop using their heritage language and begin using another.… As a consequence there may be no speakers who use the [heritage] language as their first or primary language and eventually the language may no longer be used at all…. Languages which have not been adequately documented disappear altogether.
In light of the fragile situation facing many smaller languages, PanLex is in a hurry to track down existing data on them, and we’d love to get some help from the larger Long Now community.
We are looking for some intrepid, word-loving, puzzle-solving language sleuths who can help us search for words in some of the world’s most obscure languages. Do you love a challenge? Are you a brave armchair world traveler? Can you defy the needle-in-haystack odds? Let us send you a list of five little-known languages to search on the Internet using your best cyber-snooping creativity. You’ll think of places to hunt that we haven’t. Find a dictionary, glossary, or sociolinguistic research paper with a word list in the appendix. Check social media, booksellers, and library catalogs. Tweet your followers. If you find something, you’ll simply email us the URL or the publication info and we’ll take it from there.
You’ll be our springboard towards gathering words in more than 2,000 languages still needed in our database, shoring up the most neglected and least documented in the world. Indigenous communities, researchers, translators, students, and linguists will have online access to this valuable data. Increased visibility and accessibility of these languages allows the stakeholders to develop their projects in the directions they choose, be it research, education, or language revitalization. Pressure may be relieved on some smaller communities who are in danger of abandoning their mother tongue in favor of a politically dominant language. Your efforts support long-term preservation of linguistic diversity, accessibility of data, and ultimately improved communication. Plus, you may gather an esoteric name or two to complete your next high-brow crossword puzzle.
If you prefer, we can also use some help on the technical side:
Contact us at email@example.com to volunteer, your support will be greatly appreciated!
It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.
Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?“ The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.
This year, Brockman asks:
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT [SCIENTIFIC] NEWS? WHAT MAKES IT IMPORTANT?
Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. … Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.
You might think that the above list of topics is a preamble for the Edge Question 2016, but you would be wrong. It was a central point in my essay, ”The Third Culture,” published 25 years ago in The Los Angeles Times, 1991 (see below). The essay, a manifesto, was a collaborative effort, with input from Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Stuart Kauffman, Nicholas Humphrey, among other distinguished scientists and thinkers. It proclaimed:
The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.
“The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers,” I wrote, “is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called ‘science’ has today become ‘public culture.’Stewart Brand writes that ‘Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.’ We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change.” Science has thus become a big story, if not the big story: news that will stay news.
This is evident by the continued relevance today of the scientific topics in the 1991 essay that were all in play before the Web, social media, mobile communications, deep learning, big data. Time for an update. …
Relive the sights and sounds of Apollo 17 – the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program, on its 43rd anniversary. Ben Feist, a developer from Toronto, has built an interface to experience the Apollo 17 mission that syncs the 300 hours of mission audio, 22 hours of video, and 4,200 pictures, along with commentary from the astronauts, into a realtime playback of the mission that you can experience in its entirety.
Via Alexis Madrigal’s TinyLetter, Real Future, DOTS is a Digital Optical Technology System developed by Eastman Kodak in the 01990s, and abandoned in 02002. In 02008, a team of digital imaging experts and former Kodak employees founded Group 47 to buy the DOTS patents and continue development. They succeeded in 2011.
Unlike magnetic and optical storage solutions, which must be protected from data corruption, physical degradation, and environmental damage, DOTS physically encodes data on an archival tape coated in a phase-change alloy. The alloy is resistant to temperature extremes, electromagnetic pulses, and other common environmental hazards (though it is vulnerable to acids—including, apparently, Sprite), while the tape itself is made of archival materials.
Just as importantly, DOTS is also meant to withstand the onset of a digital dark age. The data, which may include words and images as well as digitally encoded information, is transferred to the alloy using a laser, which changes the alloy’s index of refraction. In other words, the blank portions of the tape are shiny, while the data-bearing portions are dull. The result, though written at a microscopic scale, is visible under normal magnification.
Each tape begins with a Rosetta Leader(TM)—a human-readable, microfiche-scale, page that explains the storage format, and includes instructions for building a DOTS reader. According to Group 47 president Rob Hummel, even if there were no way to build the reader, it would be possible to decode the data using nothing more than the instructions in the Rosetta Leader and a camera. “While it would be very tedious,” he says in a video describing the system, “at least it wouldn’t be impossible.”
In tests, DOTS has been shown to remain archival for at least 100 years—short enough, as long-term thinking goes, but far longer than magnetic tape storage or the always-evolving hardware needed to read current digital storage media. As the Group 47 website notes, “Competing technologies (magnetic tape, hard drives) require a complex and expensive system of data migration within five years, as, beyond this, there is an unacceptably high probability of data loss due to catastrophic media and/or data degradation or outright failure.”
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