satellites of history



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Voyager 2, image via Jet Propulsion Laboratories

William Grassie presents us with a thought experiment:

What has humanity discovered in the last 10,000 years of human civilization that would be most useful in rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of a global catastrophe?

As Grassie notes, the human species has been reduced to only 1000 to 10,000 breeding pairs before. Taking it for granted that another crisis will eventually occur, we can assume that that at least some of our descendants will make it through to spawn another day. (To assume that we won’t make it through is not unreasonable, but also leaves us with considerably less of a speculative exercise.)

Any number of aspiring futurists, science-fiction authors, preppers and Dark Mountaineers can present us with a point-by-point plan of how to survive a species-threatening cataclysm, the true effectiveness of which can only be judged in practice. So let us leave survival up to those who will need to hack it, and instead ask what can we do now to make things a bit easier for our post-apocalyptic children of the future?

We might bury useful tools everywhere in a strategy resonant with Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, to make surprising archaeological Easter Eggs of power saws and streaming media tablets to the future’s struggling humankind. But without cellular data contracts and extension cords, these might not prove very useful. Far better to provide them with knowledge, argues Grassie, in order to kick start their inevitable journey back through scientific progress to re-learn the things we will lose. You can give a post-human descendant species-branch a CD-ROM and they can surf Encarta for a day. Or you can teach a post-human descendant species-branch to write objective secondarily-sourced encyclopedia articles, and they can have their own Wikipedia-esque debates about editing procedures for the rest of their brutish and short lives.

Grassie proposes “Big History”, the meta-scientific story of human scientific development, as the master plan for rebooting human intellectual development after untold quantities of historical knowledge are lost. It is, he writes, the epistemological script:

The narrative structure provides a scaffold upon which students can hang the many details of Science, History, Technology, Economics, Engineering, and more. The story gives students an understanding of scale in size, depth of time, and vastness of emergent systems, along with an appreciation of how diverse academic and professional specializations fit into a unified body of expanding knowledge. It is an invitation and guide to further studies and multiple fields.

Whether one agrees with this conception of human history or not, the practical question remains of how much knowledge we can hope to squirrel away in a recoverable format. The Voyager spacecraft carries with it a greeting card from the human species on a gold-plated 12-inch phonograph disc, complete with a needle and cartridge for playback. The disc includes pictorial diagrams for explaining how to play the disc, and how to understand the video and audio signals encoded in the analog data. It also includes a pulsar vector map to indicate the position of Earth, as well as a uranium sample to aid in dating the time of launch (and the historical point at which the pulsar map would be oriented). Not a bad attempt, but it will be a while yet before we know if any of these carefully laid plans even have a chance at being effective.

"Golden Record Diagram", image via Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The difficulty of attempting to transmit information to the far-future is extreme. Even if the medium is recovered, we still tend to assume that language, visual representations, and audio will be meaningful. In preparation for building a long-term nuclear waste disposal facility, Sandia Labs conducted a study on the best way to symbolically mark the facility, to prevent it being disturbed over the necessary time frame of 10,000 years into the future. Even though the study acknowledged the difficulties in communicating with “people whose culture might not be descended directly from our own”, the study was forced to base its efforts on human linguistics and anthropology. Regardless of who or what might come along in the future and start digging up a nuclear waste dump out of need, ambition, or sheer curiosity, the only means by which we can base our communication is those means with which we, ourselves, are familiar.

All of which begs the question, let alone will future generations understand our messages, will they even be interested in our history? If ancient Akkadians (Akkadian is one of the oldest known languages, dating back to 2500 BC, and is recorded in an audio greeting on the Voyager disc) were able to transmit to us the entirety of their astrological and medical knowledge, who would care? Scholars of language and history, would feast upon this store like ants at a picnic. But would it provide any real help to an average person in rebooting our civilization? Even the relatively straight-forward Antikythera mechanism mystifies us more than a Millennial child upon discovering a computer tape drive reel. Perhaps a stone or iron tool, which a future person might aspire to copy, would be much more beneficial than anything written in language. Maybe the best hope for the future is to bury a strategic store of claw-hammers and call it a day.

Trevor Paglen's "Last Pictures"

Trevor Paglen, a conceptual artist, recently produced his own version of the satellite disc, that will be put aboard the Dish Network communications satellite Echostar XVI. It contains 100 engraved images, titled The Last Pictures by the artist. Werner Herzog, who engaged the artist in a public conversation at the annoucement of the project, was skeptical that anyone would ever view the photos in the future. Robin Cembalest, in the above-linked essay on the project, hints that perhaps, in a way, this is the point. The author draws attention to the image of Paul Klee’s drawing, Angelus Novus. On the orbiting disc, the reverse of the drawing is visible, showing only the tag, and not the drawing itself. This seems to be a clear reference to the most well-known commentary on the artwork, by Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus" (front)


A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Well played, Mr. Paglen. It seems that when it comes to cataclysms, the true students in need of historical lessons are not the alien species of the future, but those of us in the present. We are ourselves so fixated on re-enacting the catastrophe of our own history, that we cannot fully turn around to face the future. And it seems that it will always be necessarily so.






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Adam Rothstein

Adam is an insurgent archivist and researcher, who writes about media, technology, and politics wherever he can get a signal. He is on Twitter as @interdome





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