Toward a Manual for Civilization

Posted on Wednesday, August 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
link Categories: Digital Dark Age, Long Now salon (Interval), Long Term Thinking, Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

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!

  • michelle pitman

    How do we advise future civilisations about the ramifications of our past and present technologies having huge impacts on our global climate, resources, tribal societies, languages and so on? Our tech and science also has had downsides that should be included in the mix so that future generations can make informed decisions about the efficacy of these ideas for their ‘Now’.

  • Ashton Sheppard

    Anything in nature can be processed safely while diluted.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Somehow we have got to do many things differently, do them much more ably, and do all of them simultaneously, collaboratively and fast. Ready or not, like it or not, we are presented with a planetary emergency.This is the time for making necessary behavioral changes by thinking globally and acting locally. Science and common sense will give us direction. What we cannot do is sit on the sidelines. No, we cannot afford to sit this one out. All hands are needed on the deck at this critical moment in the history of our planetary home. Our generation is simply not stepping up to the challenges before us. The consequences of our failures appear colossal and profound with regard to the prospects for future human well being and environmental health. The very last thing a responsible person is to do in such circumstances is consciously and deliberately choose to remain silent, I believe. Are we not participants in and witnesses to yet another preposterous failure of nerve? When are the leaders going to speak out in an intellectually honest way and act with a sense of moral courage? How terrible are things going to have to become on Earth before the-powers-that-be begin to talk about and do the right things, according to the lights and best available knowledge they possess? Whatsoever is real and true must be acknowledged if we are to respond ably to climate destabilization, pollution, biodiversity loss, resource dissipation, environmental degradation and overpopulation,but the manufactured ‘nothing is wrong’ reality is well-established and those who speak truth to power are consistently marginalized and ignored. It is difficult even to imagine how much can be done in such unfavorable circumstances. Still our efforts are vital because the-powers-that-be are living in a fool’s paradise, and the stakes are such that the things that are not being acknowledged will likely destroy life as we know it on Earth. We know how to stop overpopulation humanely.The gravity of this and other looming human-driven global threats are understood and could be confronted with a long overdue determination to do what is necessary. All of the world’s human resources, including overrated intelligence and technology, need to be deployed in order to overcome the emerging and converging wicked problems looming ominously on the horizon.The-powers-that-be could save the world if they acted with the intellectual honesty, moral courage and power they possess to sound alarm bells, forcefully warn the world, and call out loudly and clearly for changes toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises. But most of the necessary changes are unlikely to happen, The-powers-that-be want to maintain the status quo, come what may. They lack the moral courage and the imagination to save the world we are blessed to inhabit as a fit place for habitation by children everywhere and coming generations.

  • Nick Ryder

    Awesome post. I look forward to the salon’s opening. Best of luck with construction!

  • hexayurt

    If I might suggest a term: AIAC, short for agro-industrial autocatalysis, or “cheap food, cheap energy and cheap tools make more cheap food, cheap energy and cheap tools.” It’s a concept from the Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps system, which might also be useful for locating and mapping interdependencies. Good Luck!

  • DiligentDave

    To be really comprehensive, and technologically viable for the very distant future, you might consider your method/s of storage. Books printed on paper may last a while. Books on computers may last until civilization breaks up and is no longer able to work, since computers, the internet, etc, are dependent on very large and widely dispersed technologies that have some degree of standardization.

    Putting together a series of Rosetta stones, engraving information in/on stone, metal plates, etc, might well be considered. Or forming pages on some man made material that might last centuries, in several different languages, with pictoral representations of different words in different languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, Japanese, Korean, etc) might be very useful, as languages inevitably evolve.

    Even considering methods to preserve printed books and such, from encapsulating them in air-tight and water-tight containers, vacuum-sealed pouches, etc, might also help such to last centuries, possibly even for millennia!?!

    If some future effort to rebuild civilization was needed, while utilitarian is helpful, I think having, at some point, historical data, to help future generations figure out what went wrong with our civilization, might be of equal, possibly even much greater importance to them.

    After all, while our technology is, we suppose, much advanced—the situation regarding our individual psyches, our families, our society, have become increasingly very much neanderthal, so to speak (though to say that is likely a huge slam against Neanderthals, since socially speaking, they were likely much more advanced than we have become).

    IMO, tomes such as the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the works of Flavius Josephus, and many other works might be even of much more use to both those people of the future, as well as the people of our day, if we read, understand, believed, and adjusted our behavior appropriately to what they inform us on.


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