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Toward a Manual for Civilization

by Austin Brown on August 14th, 02013

We are as gods” because of our ancestors’ diligence. The promise of a technologically advancing future is predicated on millennia of accumulated knowledge. Civilization has taken a lot of work to build and it demands a great deal of know-how to sustain. And as modern life increasingly encourages specialization, familiarity across that accumulated knowledge’s breadth can wane. Our ability to collaborate is a strength, but beyond a point we risk losing comprehension of the infrastructure that supports our modern lives. How can we retain that knowledge?

Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly has suggested a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

Alexander Rose, our Executive Director, has compiled resources that could become such a Manual for Civilization:

It is an interesting thought exercise to ask yourself what information you might want if you had to truly start over.

And in our forthcoming Salon space at Fort Mason Center, we’ll house approximately 3,500 volumes in a floor-to-ceiling library featuring carefully selected books that could be used to help restart civilization. We are not trying to be apocalyptic or at all predictive, but the conversation that is inspired by this exercise seems to be endless and valuable.

We will collaboratively curate this corpus with Long Now’s members and the public. We understand that by definition we ourselves will have a western-centric viewpoint of what might be collected, but as the project gets going we plan to seek submissions that represent views from as many cultural viewpoints as possible. Several interns have been hired to begin rounding up submissions and our Digital Research Director, Kurt Bollacker, is advising on the information design, indexing architecture, and digital archiving strategy for the collection.

To support its long-term survival and worldwide accessibility, we’ll have a digital version of the collection publicly available on the Internet Archive. And, among its shelves, we’ll have many a great conversation – over tea, coffee, and maybe some whiskey – honoring curiosity, ingenuity and persistence. We hope you’ll join us.

If you share our enthusiasm for this project, please consider supporting the construction of the Salon space in which it will be housed – gifts for supporters include things like a free beverage once the space opens or having a shelf of the Manual’s books dedicated in your honor!