Manual for Civilization

Posted on Tuesday, April 6th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Digital Dark Age, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, Manual for Civilization, Technology   chat 0 Comments

Trees appear in a modern ruin of Camden NJ

Trees on the second story of the abandoned Carnegie Library in Camden NJ. Photo: Camilo Jose Vergara.

I often receive emails about creating a record of humanity and technology that would help restart civilization.  We have often worked on projects that may be a part of what we call The Manual For Civilization.  It is an interesting thought exercise to ask yourself what information you might want if you had to truly start over.  A recent example is email that came in which was inspired by an essay that James Lovelock published in Science in 1998 called A Book For All Seasons (excerpt):

We have confidence in our science-based civilization and think it has tenure. In so doing, I think we fail to distinguish between the life-span of civilizations and that of our species. In fact, civilizations are ephemeral compared with species. Humans have lasted at least a million years, but there have been 30 civilizations in the past 5000 years. Humans are tough and will survive; civilizations are fragile. It seems clear to me that we are not evolving in intelligence, not becoming true Homo sapiens. Indeed there is little evidence that our individual intelligence has improved through the 5000 years of recorded history.

Over the years these proposals have been in different forms; create a book, set of books, stone tablets, micro-etched metal disk, or a constantly updated wiki.  I really like the idea of creating such a record, in fact the Rosetta Disk project was our first effort in this direction.  These Doomsday Manuals are a positive step in the direction of making a softer landing for a possible collapse, and the people creating them (like ourselves) are certainly out to help people.  It took millennia for the world to regain the technology and levels of societal organization attained by the Romans, so maybe a book like this would help that.

However it also seems that these efforts tap a romantic notion that we would all love to find something like this book from a past or otherwise alien civilization.  My worry is that it also feeds off a (likely incorrect) feeling that somehow collapse might be a fun challenge to live through, and that everyone kind of wants to be the monk in A Canticle For Leibowitz or Mel Gibson in Road Warrior.

My bet is that the reality of watching your civilization (and population) collapse is likely one of the worst things anyone could experience.  I am also not so sure the problem is just knowing how to remake a technology.  For instance after the fall of the great Egyptian, Mayan, and Roman empires we had evidence and examples of their engineering achievements all around us.  But aqueducts or senate buildings are worthless without a society around them to maintain, contextualize and protect them.

It is also worth pointing out that there are likely well over a billion people on earth who currently don’t interact with formal economies or technological society at all.  They will be very well adapted to a post collapse world, you should find some and make friends.  They will likely be far more helpful than a manual on restarting the internet, because they know how to gut a deer.

In any case I thought I would create this blog post which I will try and keep updated as these proposals and efforts come to me (and hopefully come to fruition).  I will also list some of the resources that I usually refer to when I get these inquiries.   Please note these resources are extremely biased toward the English language, the United States and Western culture.  Also note that one of the first things that comes up when creating any compendium style work is the issue of copyright.  It might sound ridiculous that you might worry about copyright in a doomsday manual, but if you want to publish it and get it into peoples hands before the apocalypse, you are going to have to deal with it in some way. Please feel free to use the comments field to make suggestions and pointers and I will integrate them here as well.

Projects that are attempts in this direction:

  • The Rosetta Project: A multi-millennial micro-etched disk with a record of thousands of the worlds languages.
  • Westinghouse Time Capsules: Two time capsules (they actually coined the term for this project) by Westinghouse buried at Worlds Fair sites, one in 01939 and the other 01965 to be recovered in 5000 years.  They also did the very smart thing of making a “Book of Record” and an above ground duplicate of the contents on display.
  • The Human Document Project: A German project to create a record of humanity that will last one million years.
  • Crypt of Civilization: A airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD.
  • The Voyager Record: The Voyager Golden Record are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them.
  • Georgia Guidestones: The four granite Guidestones are covered in inscriptions written in 8 major languages that describe the tenets of their imagined Age of Reason.
  • (added) Doomsday Chests by Noah Raford
  • (added) The Forever Book an idea by Kevin Kelly
  • (added) Global Village Construction Set
  • (added) “History of Humanity” project
  • (added) The Library of Utility
  • (added) The Memory of Mankind project
  • (added) The Great Pyramid project
  • (added) Digital Clay Tablets
  • (added) Arnano sapphire and glass data storage

Content that has been discussed to be used for these projects:

  • The Gingery books always seemed to me to be a great first pass on how to re-start manufacturing technology
  • (added) Immaculate Telegraphy: An Artist creates hi tech out of materials in nature.
  • (added) Wiki How has a lot of great info and it is continuously updated.  The entry on how to deliver a baby seems like a particularly handy one…
  • (added) The Foxfire Books on homespun technology seem to have a slightly less industrial take than the Gingery books, and are pretty comprehensive
  • (added) The Lets Say Youve Gone Back in Time poster to help you restart civilization by Ryan North the creator of the awesome Dinosaur Comics
  • (added) The Way Things Work by David Macaulay.  This is a fantastic book, but it might leave people thinking that all technology is powered by woolly mammoths and angels.
  • The Harvard Classic‘s originally known as Dr. Elliots Five Foot Shelf are often referred to as an item that should go into a record like this.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica People often suggest using the latest version that is now out of copyright.  I believe this is the 13th edition but so far I have only found digital copies of the 11th.
  • The Domesday book: The Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086.  It would be interesting to find surveys and census’ from around the world
  • The Mormon Genealogical Data:  This is also held in a bunker outside Salt Lake City Utah, but it might be nice to have a record of gene lines for a future civilization to better understand its past.
  • The Top 100 Project Gutenberg books: If you are concerned with archiving works in copyright this is a great source to find texts that are free to use.
  • The Internet Archive: An archive of complete snapshots of the web as well as thousands of books and videos.  Incidentally you would also get all of our scanned page content from the Rosetta Project with this.
  • Wikipedia: The text only version of this is actually not that large, and could be archived fairly easily.  Also one of the few sources that is beginning to get filled out in many languages and is also not held under a copyright.
  • How to field dress a deer: PDF pocket version from Penn State College of Agricultural Science (living in Northern California, I think this one will be especially handy).
  • (added) The Toaster Project
  • (added) The Panlex Project of cross linked language dictionaries
  • (added) The Survivor Library
  • Awesome stuff! Thanks for sharing this. Those are some really excellent links that ought to keep Long-Now-ers busy for the near future.

  • Hi Zander, this is great. I started a project like this a while back but never hyped it up or took it anywhere. Maybe it would be worth adding to your list?

    Doomsday Chests

    “Beautiful, durable, portable chests containing laser etched metal plates inscribed with the fundamentals of human knowledge. A 21st century Rosetta Stone built to withstand civilisational collapse and keep the light of human knowledge alive in the event of catastrophic systems failure. A self-reproducing ‘hope chest’ for the future, a fireproof Library of Alexandria, a defence against a coming Dark Age.”

    I actually suggest inclusion of a Rosetta Disk here ( and also cite a couple of similar precedents as well, including most of the Long Now work (

    Nice compilation! Keep up the good work. See you next time you’re in London.

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  • Wikipedia in text only format is already done at Add solar charger for batteries and you’re all set.

    People need to be able to read it, tho’. Are there graphical ways to learn to read, and if so have they been tested on the field?

    I’d add fwiw.

  • James Brosius

    This photo is not of Detroit, it is actually in Camden, NJ. The photograph was taken by Camilo Jose Vergara. The trees are on the second stoy of the former Carnegie lIbrary, built more than a century ago.

    Please correct the caption and give Mr. Vergara credit, he is a talented artist and would surely appreciate the recognition.

    Check out his remarkable webpage documenting the decay of Camden, as well as of Harlem, NY and Richmond, Ca.

    Thank you much, and keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for the correction, there was no source where I found the photo. Credit updated, it is a fantastic photo.

  • Noah, thanks for the reference to your chests idea. I have added it.

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  • Kat

    Minor correction: Wikipedia is under a copyright, just a very permissive one, CC-BY-SA. (I am pretty sure using a copy to help restart civilization is well within the allowed uses.)

  • This post seems to be seeping out into the web-o-sphere. I thought I would list some of those link as many are leading to good comments worth mining in the future:




    Good Morning Silicon Valley:

  • Leo

    But what if all languages get lost and new people have no means of reconstructing old ones?

    Now let’s look at something that we understand fairly well although it is quite old: drawings in caves.

    I would propose making of something completely different: a manual on how to bootstrap basic civilization explained in simple pictures.

    It should contain only the most basic stuff but explained in details and assume that reader will have as little as possible references.

    All these pictures should be also engraved so that they don’t require specific light frequency or even sight (if survivors of apocalypse don’t have sense of sight nor touch then they should reinvent the civilization, ours would be too abstract for them).

    Examples of skill that would be described in such way: pottery, rudimentary agriculture, shelter construction, and all the way to iron and technology to read some more comprehensive guide.

    On the other hand, Wikipedia could be quite confusing to some post-apocalyptic soul. Imagine just reading about Pokemons and Superman and not even understanding that TV is not a country.

  • Leo,

    Regarding written language I suggest you take a look at the Rosetta Project I referred to We have amassed the largest parallel language archive in the world which also includes many different pictographic and ideographic scripts.

    Regarding using images to convey ideas through time, this is often assumed as the best way to make the information universal. However history has largely proved otherwise. We actually know very little about the people who painted those gorgeous images in Lasco 40,000 years ago other than the fact that they hunted. Pictographic scripts are also the most difficult to translate without cultural continuity. Mayan and Egyptian glyphs are proof of this. This is not to say that images dont have their place, but it turns out that phonetic alphabets have been historically the easiest to decipher especially to get across complex meaning.

    Your point about how confusing a source like Wikipedia might be is well taken. But just think how happy we would be to have the full wikipedia from ancient Egyptian or Roman times. While it likely wont help you restart the civilization, I think we would be pretty happy to know about their version of Pokemon :)

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  • Susan McGuinness

    How about including a book “Life and how to survive it” by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. We have all this practical stuff and maybe it would be good to consider our relationships, including communities and nation states. It’s quite a level-headed and low-key book….

  • Alexander Rose and Others,

    I would like to suggest a simpler, more personal project. It is called the Dan Forrester Project.

    In the book Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the character Dan Forrester attempts to save information that might be useful to a society recovering from a catastrophic event.

    In the pouring rain, he loads books, double sealed in zip-lock bags, into an old steel tank. After hooking up with other survivors of the asteroid strike, they are able to recover the contents of the tank.

    So why did I tell you about a very minor part in a great survival/science fiction book? Because, I would like you to join the “Dan Forrester Project.”

    The idea is to save books that can be used by you to teach or by others to learn your profession/expertise. If you would like to add more books to the project, please do.

    Now, don’t go out and buy two new copies of every book you own, that is a waste of money. Just the ones that you would use to teach someone, from the beginning, your area of expertise.

    This method decentralizes the information. Plus, each person saves the information that is important to her/him.

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  • An interesting concept, but I think a record of technological developments would be less valuable than a review of revolutionary ways of thinking.

    A description of what the scientific method is, and its benefits, would be far more valuable than a list of inventions. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and not to be taken for granted.

    Or maybe the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, the teachings of the Buddha, etc. Maybe the focus should be on ideas that transform a society, relieve suffering, or that create the conditions for civilizations to flourish and enable the capacity for its people to develop the advancements that suite them best.

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  • Never build a list of things that should be saved. Instead, save what should be saved. History is filled with lists that point to things that have been lost to us.

    For example, not much Sappho poetry remains to be read.

  • arkenhill

    I do not see that anyone has mentioned the Foxfire books. I don’t know how many have been put out, but it is a lot. How to dress a hog, how to build a log cabin, how to make soap, etc… These all sound simple until you try. Very good books on how to live without society.

  • arminius

    I had hoped not to live to see the need for this sort of thing.

    Now, with all due apologies to Michael Ledeen, all I can say is, “Faster, please.”

  • John Blake

    As our current Holocene Interglacial Epoch fades to a looming 102,000-year Pleistocene Ice Time, we suspect that by the 22nd Century humanity will have moved en masse off-Earth to giant intra-solar refugia dispersed about the plane of the ecliptic. Like Greek and Italian city-states of old, these will be autonomous entities governed by meritocratic councils rather than self-selected partisan demagogues, because such polities cannot survive the wastrel syndromes devastating early 21st Century State and municipal venues.

    Surging up vertical Erie Canals to space-based enclaves of their choice, a Darwinian competitive process will ensure not only the survival but innovative progress of Ideas and Men. Corrupt incompetence will finish off victims of collectivist Statism in short order, partly by depopulating rent-seekers’ milieus by an inexorable “Galt Effect”.

    Give this a century or two, and humankind will be prepared to cast out further, reach the stars. Huddled in medieval squalor, Earth’s camel drivers and rug merchants of viciously misanthropic persuasion will revert to the atavistic primitivism their blighted faith requires.

  • The Free Market Monument Foundation intends to build a granite monument inscribed with the consensus “Principles of the Free Market”. The Principles were determined by compiling the statements of principles of numerous free market organizations: the Acton Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute etc. and determining the common elements.

  • joe

    I’m living in northern italy and consequently doing a lot of reading about the fall of rome and the early middle ages, and one thing the seems apparent is the collapse wasn’t total. Islands of civilization continued for hundreds of years, but in isolation.

    One thing that would be useful if possible would be foolproof communication to other data storage sites. “here are some books of knowledge, press this big red button to speak with other people like you”.

    Maybe a shortwave radio built to last 1000 years with the antenna running up a stone monolith, powered by a geothermal well.

  • The Manual for Civilization has a term: Law of Nations. It is a summation work going over the concepts of this thing we create amongst ourselves and how it works, and why it works that way. It is something we create by being humans and interacting with each other: it is invariant that wherever people gather to live together then Law of Nations is formed. Be it Aztec, Inca, Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, Babylon, China, Iriquois… we do the same thing over and over and over again. de Vattel did it best, I think, and hasn’t been equalled since.

    A handy manual to point this out would be of great worth to anyone stuck on needing to figure out what else is needed standing civilization up.

  • Steve Quilley

    In Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, the hero, whose name escapes me, survives an apocalptic plague and ends up the defacto leader of a tribe of survivors, living of the seemingly endless detritus and canned food of the vanished civilisation. Haunted by the shadow of the still standing university library, he tries to educate the kids in the hope of kickstarting civilisation. In the end all he can manage is to get them to play a game with bows and arrows – a skill that might at least get them started when the cans run out. As time passes, these children reinvent a religion around our hero who gives up trying to correct their superstitions. In one memorable passage he attempts to teach some of the children some basic geometry, but can’t even get them to comprehend a straight line. In their superstate of dependency, they lack any context in which straight lines have any meaning. LIke ‘A CAnticle for Leibowitz’, ‘Earth Abides’ underlines the problem of preserving knowledge outside the practical and social context of its use. Would it be technically possible to record in detail all the steps necessary to manufacture a computer chip from scratch. I doubt it. What about a crystal radio? Or copper wire? There are all kinds of questions….What is the minimum division of labour required to maintain a given level of technology (e.g. to retain an industrial base capable of building and maintaining a nuclear power station, televisions…or a diesel engine…I would be very interested if anyone can suggest an academic literature which deals with such problems.

  • Jerome

    Lovelock was wrong, you know. It is becoming apparent that human evolution has actually sped up in the last 5000 years, at least in urban populations.

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  • I am Agree with you .. its Be Great Post you write for Manual for Civilization

  • Hey, thanks dude, this was useful!

  • The Free Market Monument Foundation intends to build a granite monument inscribed with the consensus “Principles of the Free Market”.thanks for doing right thing.

  • There does seem to be evidence that intelligence *has* evolved in the 5000 years. This doesn't mean civilization could not collapse.

    It's interesting, though, that although there have been dark ages, and centuries-long civil wars and interregnums, there has overall been surprisingly little “backward” progress. The main danger seems to have been that less advanced peoples conquered the more advanced civilizations, and then reduced them to their own level of technology: Vandals in Rome, or Mongols in China. But gradually the Vandals and Mongols appropriate the culture and technology of the people they conquered. Of course, one could wish for an easier process of cultural transmission.

  • Don't think anyone suggested the terrific “Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management” yet. (ISBN 10: 0486209741) It's a kind of proto-Whole Earth Catalog which was released in 1935. It's target audience is basically city slickers who find themselves (either by necessity or choice) having a go at small farming.

  • Vogin

    Instead of preparing for the downfall of our civilization, wouldn't it be better to focus our efforts towards sustaining it and, simply put, be smart?

  • Homegrownkansan

    Psychologists have discovered that our brains have been getting smaller over the past few thousand years which they say is a good thing. Why? The chimps studied, having smaller brains than the gorillas, and were more able to work together to solve larger problems that the gorillas couldn't. Aparantly a large brain comes with a large ego: too large for any kind of civilization. This theory suggests that accumulative adaptation is driven by the needs of the species rather than the individual and any benificial characteristic or adaptation of the individual that deviates from the species is likely detrimental to the species and only those adaptations that de-emphasize an individuals superiority have any chance at longevity. If the theory is correct, a negative correlation exists between the growth of civilation and decaying individual potential.

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  • Matthew Fuller

    About ten years ago, I was browsing the internet and found a book that attempted to recreate all of physical science and a large swath of other important knowledge. It demonstrated how to do important experiments and what they meant and naturally it was very, very, very long. On the website, the author explained that if civilization was destroyed one was likely to find fragments or even an intact bible, but most of science would be lost. This was his motivation.

    I am sad you didn’t seem to find it. What irony. If you or anyone does, please email me its title and author: sacrificethepresent – g(ma)il.~@co(m

  • Deborah

    how about almost anything on fermenting and preserving foods – such as books by Sandor Katz?

  • marky

    G. Harry Stine wrote a column for Analog magazine called “The Alternate View.” One of these was titled “The Most Valuable Books in the World.” The premise was, what books would you need to rebuild a technological society? His choices:

    “CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics”

    “Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers”

    “Modern Inorganic Chemistry” by Mellor

    “Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy”

    “The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology (2 Volumes)”

    The column appeared in the January 5, 1981 issue. The follow up column, “More About Those Books,” was in the July 20, 1981 issue where a reader suggested “Where There Is No Doctor.” Both articles are worth looking up, they stuck in my mind for 30+ years. I couldn’t find them on the web, perhaps a better searcher than I can.

  • Donald S.

    What about the complete Encyclopedia Brown series which emphasizes the leveraging powers that observation and knowledge give us against injustices of the world, if only could be as brave as the heroic young Leroy who uses his God-given talents to level the playing field for others?

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