Sunday, August 24, 2008


I've been reading for three days now about the Nuclear Waste Marker project. I thought that the Clock of the Long Now was the most 'forward thinking' project (10,000 years) outside of Science Fiction (which, despite my father's large collection, I've never had any interest in reading). But this project needs to consider the possibility that future generations beyond this time span (quite possibly post-humans) might intrude upon a deadly nuclear waste site. It therefore requires a marker that is not limited to language, and that is more offputting than it is curiosity piquing.

Heading up the project, Greg Benford asked a "computer-whiz friend" how he thought the site should be marked. He quickly replied "Scatter CD ROM disks around. People will pick them up, wonder what they say, read them - there you go." Benford laughed out loud at the ridiculous suggestion and his friend replied in a puzzled, offended tone, "Hey, it'll work. Digitizing is the wave of the future."

Actually, it's the wave of the present. But these suggestions are not uncommon from the desperate-not-seem-out-of-touch. It's the Faith Popcorn Futurists equivalent to "think of the children". I've been to Artist-Run-Centre conferences where guest speakers have rattled on about automating various Human Resources tasks, oblivious to the fact that most centres represented in the room had two to four employees. Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino launched a website a few years ago to crack down on, uh, graffiti. I'm sure it was effective.

CD Roms (are they even still called that?) are notorious as a poor medium for long-term storage and even if they weren't one would have to constantly migrate data from one dying medium to the next. I have old interviews and other texts on floppy disks but can't be bothered to track down an external reader to move the data onto my laptop. There're also probably stored in a word processing package too old to read, at least without some serious formatting revisions. So I'll probably never see them again.

A project began 8 years ago (and expected to take no more than twelve months) was finally launched a few days ago. It involves a translation of Genesis into 1500 languages, non-digitally, and it fits onto a disk that is only three inches in diameter. I believe that the bible was chosen as the source material, not as some evangelical pursuit (thought it may have helped secure funding) but rather because it is already translated into most of the world's 7000 languages. Also included on the disk are pronunciation guides, lists of common words, etc.

Titled The Rosetta Project (after the Rosetta Stone from 196 BC), the project aims to make these languages - some of which are spoken by less than a thousand people - available to future generations. Globalization and the prevalence of English (as a tourist I feel a little ashamed at how infrequently I have to make an effort to be understood) means that between fifty to ninety per cent of the world's languages might disappear by the end of the century.

On one side of the disk the eight most-common languages spell out the introduction: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” On the verso, in pure nickel, is 13,500 pages worth of etched text which requires a 750-power optical microscope to read. The disks are hand-crafted at a cost of $25,000 and are expected to last at least 2,000 years.

An earlier prototype was sent into space in 2004, similar to the Golden Record aboard the Voyager in 1977. In six years it will land on a comet, where it will orbit the sun for millions of years.


Westcoast Walker said...

I didn't know about the Rosetta Project, fascinating really. It is a labour of love to create something that will long outlast any memory of yourself. In the context of preserving language it is also invaluable.

In the Joss Whedon series "Fire Fly" he depicts a post earth future where only the American & Chinese cultures stand the test of time, and everyone speaks a sort of English-Mandarin hybrid. Perhaps we really do need the Rosetta Project.

Also, I have been enjoying your series of postings on future oriented works. It would be great to compile a "time line" for these works, with a pinch of speculative fiction thrown in to examine the potential future impact of some of these pieces. The book could start with the "Glenfiddich 2108" Scotch tasting party as an introduction.

ddyment said...

Thanks Matt,

Here's a timeline of timelines: