Monday, May 25, 2009

Shamus' Time Capsule thought experiment

26th century BC Sumerian cuneiform script in S...Image via Wikipedia

Shamus Young at Twenty-Sided posed an interesting hypothetical question this week: What would you include in a time capsule for recovery 200 years later if you saw an unavoidable disaster about to destroy human civilizations? I've included the first paragraph below, but its worth visiting his site to see the rest of the rules and guidelines.

Time Capsule
Previous in Random Thoughts: Timetravel: What to Take?

Civilization is about to undergo some calamity. You can see it coming, but you can’t avert it. (Perhaps it’s unavoidable.) Sometime before the end of this century, civilization is going to be blasted back to the stone age, but projections suggest that things will calm down again in 100-200 years. During that time it’s expected that humans will lose nearly everything, technology-wise. We’ll be back to spears and animal skins.

Anyone who has read the Mote in Gods Eye, an excellent Science Fiction novel, has already encountered at least one author's approach. Dedicated museums housing technologies (mainly weapons as I recall) to "jump start" the finders technological and conquest abilities.

The rules in Shamus' challenge don't allow for such elaborate facilities or the inclusion of any large technologies, space being limited to a 1 cubic meter volume, however mass is of no concern in this case. Interestingly, many people were attempting to include information in various ways to perform a similar jumpstart of technologies. Many are trying to figure out ways to provide electricity or electric devices to provide interactive media, or ways of storing books. Some have thought of the very Asimov Foundation Series approach of limited access to layers of the repository that require unlocking and achieving a certain piece of information to presumably have reached a technological maturity to handle the decoding and understanding of the next layer. Most writers seem to be focused on giving the inheritors of the earth a technological leg up, either with help knowledge of agriculture, medicine, and advanced sciences, or even attempting to include the as much of the body of knowledge of human society as possible, frequently in some digital/electronic form. Admirable as these are, my thoughts diverge quite significantly. To quote one of my favorite science fiction series, answering a slightly different question, but essentially what is probably the most interesting aspect of the thought experiment to hand, what do we want to be remembered for when we are gone:

"Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes .. and all of this .. all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars."

--Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Babylon 5--

In my opinion, what we want to communicate about ourselves should reflect what we, as a species want others to know about us, and also what we've decided to be the truth about ourselves. Since it is unclear what the source or cause of the calamity in this scenario is, the cautious skeptic in me half assumes that humans themselves are to blame. I see no reason that future humans should be asked or channeled into making the same choices (let historians and future anthropologists determine which are mistakes) that have been made up to now.

The contents I would choose capsule would simply be a history of every civilization for which one can be provided, translated into as many languages as possible, printed onto something akin to Tyvek sheets and collected in bound volumes. Maps of the world to accompany the texts would be important.

I would also include a series of graphical or comic style books that cover the same material, though at a much less detailed level. I would also include texts on art from all corners of the world and examples of the same. My goal is to include as little as possible of a technical nature, no details of science, chemistry, technology. My theory being that providing such information would create a "shoulder of giants" situation, where they've inherited technologies without the moral frameworks or understanding to realize their implications. It is naive to assume that whatever tribe discovers the capsule will share the findings with any other, also thereby possibly setting up one tribe/clan/culture to dominate others by having a technical head start on everyone else.

The Tyvek is difficult to tear or rip, and durable against abrasion, though of course, it isn't indestructible. Include a bunch of blank copies of this material for it to be played and experimented with so that the discovers can learn the limitations of the material without destroying the collected works on first discovery. (Hey Xingoran, Who cares what this strange symbols on here is, it makes a great lining for a bowl to hold liquids and roofing material!)

I'd rather that civilizations arise in new and wondrous arrangements, based on the needs and proclivities of the people who survive, creating human civ 2.0, rather than Human Civ 1.5. As is probably in evidence, my preference is to leave well enough alone and simply preserve as much of the knowledge of who humans were, rather than what we had built and learned.

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