Backing Up Civilization

38

One of the tragedies in the history of human learning is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. There are conflicting accounts of the library’s destruction attributed to various perpetrators, beginning with Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and ending with the Muslim invaders in 642 CE.

However it was destroyed, it was a tremendous loss. The Library of Alexandria was the Library of Congress of the ancient world. It is believed that many great works of antiquity —  known to us today only by title, or in quoted fragments, or not at all — were lost for all time. Our knowledge would be richer and, potentially, our path from the ancient world to the modern world would have been shorter and easier, had some of these works survived.

This week we see history repeating itself on a smaller scale as another library in Egypt is burned down:

Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck Monday along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.

The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what’s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt’s latest bout of violence.

Among the most severe losses is the 24-volume Description of Egypt, written over a period of 20 years by as many as 150 contributors after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt.  The loss of of these priceless manuscripts is a terrible blow from the standpoint of history, but there is a bit of a silver lining:

[T]here are four other handwritten copies of the Description of Egypt. The French body of work has also been digitized and is available online.

We can only hope that there are multiple copies of many of the books that were lost in this  fire. Losing old books hurts, but losing the information they contained hurts a lot worse. This tragedy makes the case for creating digital backups of any collection of unique (or even rare) books, paintings, maps, etc.

A great deal of knowledge was centralized in ancient Alexandria and then lost because human civilization did not have a robust set of backup procedures in place. Such procedures would have been very difficult to implement in the ancient world, and would have been no small task even in the mid-to-late 20th century, when many such efforts were, in fact, contemplated (and a few initiated.)

But today there is no excuse. We have the tools and we have the infrastructure. We’re long past the point where we should be losing knowledge to fire or flood.

Let’s get those backup procedures in place, and let’s follow them carefully.

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  51. […] presents Backing Up Civilization posted at Transparency Revolution and discusses risk […]

  52. [...] presents Backing Up Civilization posted at Transparency Revolution and discusses risk [...]

  53. 2011-12-22 13:42:02

    I should also add that it would have pre-created indexes since microfiche is not easily searchable and certain information is more important to a small group of survivors.

  54. 2011-12-22 13:38:40

    This discussion has particular relevance to some conceptual work that some of are doing in order to ensure that human civilization and the biosphere can be rebooted in the event of an existential event such as the accidental creation of a self-replicating ecosphere chemical. If we could establish a relatively low-cost telerobotic lunar ice mining operation using the same landers which could later return humans to the Moon and if the lunar ice could be processed to oxygen and water (and food) then we would be quite some way towards a self-sufficient lunar colony. If this could be achieved, then why not establish a permanently frozen biological store of DNA, microbes, seeds, spores, eggs, tissue, and perhaps a small zoo of selected species. But human civilization itself should be backed up in the form of information. This would need to be low-mass, accessible to the colonists, and not dependent upon difficult-to-produce reading equipment. My guess is that that would be microfiche but any other sugestions?

  55. [...] This blogger (politically correct enough to use the terms “BCE” and “CE” rather than “BC and “AD”) compares it to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. But I’d put it in the context of the Muslim world’s more recent retreat into ignorance represented by the Brotherhood, the Wahhabists, the Ayatollahs et al. The famous statistic from a 2002 UN report — that more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand — suggests at the very minimum an extraordinarily closed society. Such openness to the world as exists was (as at the Institut d’Egypt) facilitated by the West. The journey from, say, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, set in the ramshackle but pluralistic Egypt of Farouk’s day, to the city in recent years is a descent into ever more malign parochialism. [...]

  56. 2011-12-21 15:48:37

    We know silver, gold, and bronze last, but their utility is hampered by their monetary value. Glass would be good, too, if it were not so fragile. Wouldn't it be odd if clay was the ideal material?

  57. 2011-12-21 12:56:10

    Good luck with that backup. Ancient empires that lasted for thousands of years left records that were unreadable for millenia. And often the only stuff that survived was what was written on their tombs. We all think we will live forever. But when civilization falls, it falls hard.

  58. 2011-12-21 12:15:04

    I would suggest that it is misguided to think in terms of creating a backup and expecting to last forever. As others have pointed out, media rot and format obsolescence can be a problem. Rather the better solution is that data once digitized can be written to new formats and media at any time. Do we've burned data to CD's, why not burn it again to DVD? Then Blue Ray? Then flash drives? The anon ultimately to the "spinning rings" from the movie "The Time Machine". I look around and see that the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and many other periodicals have their archives digitized and available on line. All this data can be put on a few dozen DVD's. They go on even fewer of the next format. My point is that constant archiving will preserve all this. Saving it once and tucking it away will not.

  59. 2011-12-21 11:45:08

    The moon lack of atmosphere renders it subject to far more impact events than the earth.

  60. 2011-12-21 10:57:11

    "...denying the Christian influence on our calendar system, in lockstep with modern deconstructionists, is not a good start towards identifying what needs to be preserved from the past." I don't give a rat's rectum what's important to "modern deconstructionists," and I utterly reject the idea that swapping abbreviations with religious overtones to purely secular ones represents a denial of something. Conventions change. I don't spell out the year in Roman numerals, but that hardly means that I have an anti-Roman agenda or that I'm denying Rome's influence on civilization. If I were a non-Christian raised in a non-Christian culture I would find the idea that I'm supposed to refer to each year as the year of "our Lord" bizarre and somewhat off-putting. (Plus there are plenty of non-Christians raised here who feel that way.) For me, changing to a secular designation is a simple matter of applying the golden rule. That the CE/BCE designations are replacements for the AD/BC designations is an important historical fact. People should know it. In any case, I expect the original usage to go on in the context of the church. Choose your own battles, and maybe try not to jump to conclusions about people who choose battles different from yours.

  61. 2011-12-21 10:35:01

    You wring your hands about the loss of literature, art, and historical data, yet you so readily jettison the use of A.D. in your first paragraph. Tradition and culture are easily replaced at Transparency Revolution. [See reply to curmudgeoninchief, above. --Phil.]

  62. 2011-12-21 09:46:26

    This is a good example why the current push to repatriate artifacts to third world countries is very misguided. Imagine what the Muslim Bortherhood would do to the Rosetta Stone.....

  63. 2011-12-21 09:43:59

    In whatever form, I think we should get a massive amount of data stored on the moon, away from any type of natural disaster here on earth. Now of course, if there is some type of almost complete destruction of earth (comet/asteroid hit), then our history would be for those who might come our way some day. They should also store the data in that new seed bank that they recently built because if the day comes that were have need of that, we'll need the back-up data as well.

  64. 2011-12-21 08:47:32

    I don't think you quite grasped asdf's point. One EMP event could render all the devices capable of reading 3D optical storage completely useless, and make the path to build new ones long and painstaking. Something more significant, like a civilizational collapse (remember, we are thinking long-term here), would render that 3D optical storage the equivalent of alien technology: not only would it be unreadable, it might not even be recognized as something that is supposed to be readable.

  65. 2011-12-21 07:19:15

    Seems like two different questions. Digital is ideal for protection from a catastrophic event that happens in one limited place (which is probably the most likely scenario). Digital would suck in the event of a global societal collapse lasting several hundred years. What I'd really like is some easy to use software that will tag my photos so that my grandkids won't have to wonder who all those oddly dressed people were. Like I wonder about my grandparents photos.

  66. 2011-12-21 07:13:59

    I respectfully disagree. Actually, there is work being done right now for 3D Optical Data Storage, where data is embedded in cubes of a Lucite type material. A square the size of a Rubik's Cube is said to hold about 3TB. I recently attended a meeting with the Archivist of the National Park Service who is working with the National Archives to explore this technology. We are closer than you think to safe long term storage. Our ability to archive and store knowledge HAS increased, you just don't know about it yet.

  67. 2011-12-21 06:58:00

    I think we should write everything down on clay tablets and bury them in the desert.

  68. 2011-12-21 06:54:37

    The concept you are looking for is a multiple redundant, distributed, tiered-loss system. A tiered-loss system is one that is robust enough to take either single point or even global catastrophic failures and retain the information in a human readable medium. Consider a CME event that goes over the planet for a few days, wiping out non-hardened digital systems: you are left with the hardened systems or duplicate systems that have been protected to work against this event (via underground storage or faraday cages). Tier 1 digital storage is lost (unhardened redundant systems) and the Tier 2 is a few hardened systems or 'saved' systems with hardened or saved redundant power supply systems. Unfortunately a CME leaves you with a civilization catastrophic event, which means the hardened systems may be useful immediately, but may not last out the long-term effects of that event (collapse of social structure due to civilian losses). After Tier 2 are the non-volatile storage media that can be replicated and distributed as Tier 3. There are, inherently, non-digital in nature and purely human readable with simple systems to read them that do not require much in the way of technology and have safe storage areas. Tier 3, itself, has a loss-based system that is in areas secured against something like a CME, megavolcano (ie. Yellowstone caldera event) or boloid impact below that of the K-T extinction event. Surficial parts of Tier 3 are archival quality paper-based documents stored in humidity controlled environments or stable film substrates with bacteria resistant media (silver halide on mylar as an example). Desert storage will resist much of this as an intermediate loss system, which comprises the first part of a hardened defense against such major events while place like salt mines comprise the last line of defense for both retained systems (long term secure digital storage media and reading systems) plus final archival retention of human readable media. Deep in Kansas is a salt mine used to store government documents and all the Hollywood film archives as the loss of the regulating system can be allowed for as the stable humidity and temperature controlled environment will last thousands of years without human directed oversight. Multiple redunant systems in multiple cave environments built deep underground in multiple, distributed locations gives the best chance for hard copy and digital storage (plus reading systems and power systems) for robust back-up. Once we can get space enabled systems that are cheap to get out past the Jovian systems (say to the Oort Cloud) then you will find that there is a separate need for long-term power/storage/retrieval/navigation systems for autonomous archives that will house both analog human readable and digital systems... we can't build Tier 4 yet, but it is on the horizon. Tier 4 needs to be robust by its very nature due to the hostile environment it is in, plus be redundant, as well. Digitial is great if you have stable, robust, redundant digital systems and power supplies for them, but printing the information to human readable long-term storage media is a requirement. Long after our modern museums with labor intensive storage media die of the Lascoux caves will still be arround for tens of thousands of years resisting ice ages, CMEs, Yellowstones and Toba level events and generally waiting for rediscovery. You want something that rivals that in long-term, human readable capability (with wide-ranging translation capability) that is distributed in a multi-tiered environment. Lascoux caves and others from the paleolithic are doing just fine and there are probably others we haven't found yet. They are robust via obscurity... like the salt mines in Kansas, Poland, New York State and other places. When we can get off this planet and build cosmic robust systems you will still find human readable with translation systems is what you want for long-term storage of civilization re-creating documents. Woulldn't surprise me one bit if we found those in the Oort cloud with simple analog systems plying their way with very little power garnered from starlight and avoiding other cosmic objects both by digital and analog means and a few of those sent off on slow boat nuclear systems to brown dwarf star systems by prior and any other civilizations that have been able to rise to the point ot asking this question.

  69. 2011-12-21 06:41:11

    Why choose? Why not take individual responsibility for preserving those things important to us in the format we each feel is essential - and if digital, also take responsibility for making a new copy into a new format as it arises? This happens every day in the world of letterpress printers: individuals print 300 new copies of the Declaration of Independence in a chapbook, and share with an amateur journalism group. It happens every day in eBook publishing: entrepreneurs turn public domain books into PDFs and offer them for sale. It happens every day in homes around the world, when individuals buy a copy of a book for their grandchild, or load a copy of one onto their eReader. Publish-on-demand brings all of this within the reach of any individual. And "within the reach of any individual" is the secret of Western Liberty, as well as Western Civilization.

  70. 2011-12-21 06:27:27

    Of course not. There simply is not, has never been, and never will be, a truly "fail-safe" or "foolproof", backup system. The best system is one that relies on a wide spectrum of strategies, including oral tradition--the long-lost art of story telling.

  71. 2011-12-21 05:34:14

    Good luck with that. DRM means that future researchers will have to put out vastly more effort for each and every document than was done to decipher Linear B or hieroglyphs.

  72. 2011-12-21 05:12:56

    Long-term archive is technologically feasible; recall the Golden Record on Voyager. Affordability is a different question, but this is a problem that new research and markets can solve; if it costs $10 million to preserve a DVD's worth of information I'm fairly sure donations to preserve the works of Shakespeare would be plentiful, Schindler's List fairly likely, and Kim Kardashian's sex tape non-existent. Data formats are primarily an issue of having on-demand access to data. All of the "obsolete" formats referenced in the comments are obsolete only in the sense of not in common use. Most of them have hobbyists that keep the formats/media alive, and for the others it would be a reverse engineering exercise. Think of the movie "Contact"...for this sort of archive, we'd be willing to accept, and maybe even desire, a significant reverse engineering cost to retrieve the data. To me the bigger question is "Where do you put it?" Remember the timeframe you're talking about; you want at least one copy of this backup to be available at least 2000 years from the collapse of civilization, so ballpark it at 4050 AD :-). Parallel copies are good, but my belief is that you have to put a copy where only a society with significant technical know-how can possibly get there. The logical candidate is the Moon, though the South Pole might work too. Both have the advantage of no natural biological action to degrade the material, though the environmental hazards are significant.

  73. 2011-12-21 05:05:45

    We'll never know just how much misleading guff was burned -- Alchemy and the arcane way of thinking it requires blocked academic progress for a very long time (see: http://librivox.org/the-story-of-alchemy-by-m-m-pattison-muir/). And how much junk research has been allowed into our current body of scientific learning? Way too much, and people blindly use those wrong results to conclude new wrong ones. Indeed, there are some disciplines that would be well served by a giant fire and a reworking of the body of knowledge from first principles...! Don Knuth's excellent books on Computer Science are btw published on special paper that is supposed to last 700 years... but of course, most mortals would need to live at least that long to fully understand them :) And if you want to preserve knowledge for a time when it matters, you should not assume electricity either. You could engrave metal, or make ceramic tiles(etc), but you cannot even assume that anyone in (say) 2000 years will understand a Sigma sign, let alone what 2+2=4 means. Alternatively, we're much better off preserving civilisation by civilising the next generation and everyone around us who is already (or still) alive with a basic education that enables people of all IQ ranges to think for themselves and a culture of life-long study will follow as knowing things is simply fun and addictive, if you've been primed the right way with the correct principles to apply to life and it's problems. Those principles and base knowledge needed does not take long to learn, and once the toolkit to think rationally is in place around the age of 14, everything else can be reconstructed within a few generations, and so if we can indeed preserve anything to bootstrap modernity again, this is the body of knowledge that I would choose, and nothing else.

  74. 2011-12-21 04:56:15

    Is there any way to make CD's or DVD's last a few hundred years? (Opaque container filled with inert gas?) You would still need a reader, and they would still be vulnerable to physical harm, but if there is a cheap way to contain the Library of Congress (and my favorite blogs)we could go with redundancy. Ship one to a few score of libraries. I would worry about EMP getting everything that is only on a server. A crucial collection should be on paper, because if everything goes sideways, paper will be usable when electronic means are not.

  75. 2011-12-21 03:46:11

    The utility of digital can't be beat. Once digitized, how to most efficiently convert back into archival hard copy is an entirely different challenge. It may be that permanent inks on inert ceramic film or some other sheet process that does not age, is not degraded by UV, organismal attack, water, pH or temperature. Imagine a modern derivative of cuneiform marking process, but as digitally driven output for archiving. Not the language, but an equivalent process of inscribing an inert repository of the impact topology. Thirty centuries and counting is a pretty good archival shelf life. We need a modern output document equivalent populated in its physical state by a machine process driven by the phenomenal utility of digitization.

  76. 2011-12-21 03:46:07

    Ultimately, everything is perishable. But there is an unstated assumption here. Was the "Great Library of Alexandra" really that great? Do the ancients really know that much? Perhaps they were all old myths and legends, like the Bible or Koran? You are assuming that there was lots of useful knowledge there, when the stock of useful knowledge really only 'took off" in the 20th C. Even now, in my own country, there are 4,000 PhD's every year. How many are useful? How many scientific papers endure more than 5 years before the sum of knowledge overtakes them? Knowledge itself is perishable and not independent of culture. I don't know what was lost, but it was not much I suspect.

  77. 2011-12-21 02:33:39

    very intrigued about the title... my first thought was more a question of how many people you would actually need to sustain our current level of civilization-the ultimate backup. literally, how many 'people' would it take to form a community that would be able to manage scientific, medical, etc. tech, so that our civilization would go on without a hitch.

  78. 2011-12-21 02:28:53

    Phil, I agree with the others as I've thought of this as I look at the digital media I can no longer access. Printed on paper lasts. Microfiche works for large collections stored correctly. I recently obtained a Wichita, KS newspaper from the summer of 1943.. the complete paper was stored poorly, with about 20 other dates in a old box in my mother's garage. I talked her into letting me have one.. ( she was sending the lot to an Uncle that grew up in Wichita back then ). It's yellow and kinda brittle, but entirely readable and I cherish it ( as I am an avid reader of WWII and history ). I think it is important to print and store what can be done so, and also do digital. Archivists in the future will labor to deal with the myriad of formats, but they will probably be able to do so, but the common man will not. In this vein, I thought of long ago printing out all the stored emails I had that had meaning in my life; I never did... they are now unreadable in a MS file I can no longer open on an old computer that I kept alive for that very purpose.

  79. 2011-12-21 01:52:26

    I think that anybody who has chosen to substitute BCE and CE for B.C. and A.D. has lost any claim to being concerned about "backing up civilization". The media are only important if there is something of consequence stored on them; denying the Christian influence on our calendar system, in lockstep with modern deconstructionists, is not a good start towards identifying what needs to be preserved from the past.

  80. 2011-12-21 01:15:30

    When I was a kid, my friend's family was collecting the entire set of the "Foxfire" books. These books explain how to collect and store food, build shelters and fires, and other incredibly useful things without the benefit of electricity or modern machines. This story made me think of that collection and how they would only ever be useful in their present format as books.

  81. 2011-12-21 00:31:33

    "Eternal" is a tall order for any medium. The various critiques of digital storage have some merit and I'm all for multiple backup strategies with as much redundancy as possible. But, seriously, people -- digital is the way this thing is going. We need to get better at digital, but I really don't think either paper or microfiche are the answer.

  82. 2011-12-21 00:12:34

    Paper is long term storage medium, and preserves computer code as easily as the text which tells how to build the machines to build the machines to build the computers to run the code. An 'eternal' computer system is possible today, practical in ~ 20 years, and needs to be built, in multiple copies, as soon as it becomes affordable.

  83. 2011-12-21 00:04:53

    The rise of western civilization is in many ways the rise of the word on the printed page. How long before someone declares books obsolete, and they are no longer published? As the digital world becomes more pervasive the world over, what will happen to the printed word? Will someone decide that no one wants all of those old books, and dispose of them? The computer revolution also means that the image is replacing the word as the currency of communication. Words appeal to different portions of the brain than images; reading and writing engage the intellect in ways that viewing images does not. A people whose sole source of information is a flickering TV or computer screen will be more easily propagandized and manipulated than those who read and write in the old manner. get rid of computers and TV? Not going to happen... but back up digital information with paper, in the form of books, journals, magazines, and the like? It is critical that we do so.

  84. 2011-12-20 23:48:39

    So, you pose an interesting problem, with not such an obvious solution. A friend who works at Lib-of-Cong told me they back everything up on microfiche (yes, like what one used in research 30 years ago) because they take their preservation role seriously. Won't digitize cause can't assume any digital medium will be readable in 100 years -- for the mentioned reasons: the medium deteriorates and the tech to read it on obsolesces.

  85. 2011-12-20 23:25:11

    Backing up civilization might be easier said than done. I had an interesting tslk with and oil company librarian a few years ago. She had decades of courseware, lectures and other instructional material on 8 inch floppies from extinct operating systems, eight track cassettes and other "permanent" but unreadable media. It turns out that paper and print is a nearly perfect archival system. If someone would invent a fireproof tyvek and a permanent non fading ink it would be even closer to perfection. Other media, like CD's and floppies, deteriorate over a period of decades, even if they remain readable by future technologies. Plasicizers evaporate from plastics and metals corrode. Someone- I think James Lileks - said that for information to be preserved, someone has to care enough about it to keep backing it up as technologies become obsolete. Then there are the lawyers and "document destruction schedules".

  86. [...] PHIL BOWERMASTER: We need to think about backing up civilization. [...]

  87. 2011-12-20 23:17:52

    Digitization is a challenge to permanence, not an aid to it. Three reasons. 1) IT is perishable. Most magnetic media (and most compact discs) deteriorate in a decade or more. Some NASA records are now irretrievably lost due to this. The fact that technology changes so rapidly means there is little incentive for manufacturers to build to last-- the product becomes obsolete long before its useful life is over. 2) IT requires IT infrastructure. To preserve a book, you just protect the book itself. Protecting a CD requires that you preserve the CD itself, plus the computer that can read it and the software/hardware protocols that allow you to interpret it. These devices are at the tip of an enormous logistical and technological iceberg. In the event of a collapse, are we really going to preserve all that? Yet, if we don't, then the machines and storage media wear out and cannot be replaced. 3) Digitization has encouraged the volume of knowledge to vastly increase. Not just knowledge, but the data that underlies it. The Library of Alexandria was, what? A million scrolls (a generous estimate) rendered as a 1 MB PDF leaves us with roughly a terabyte. I have that sitting on my desk right now. A quick google search yields an estimate of about 5 million terabytes as the total amount of internet-accessible data. Rendering all that as etched tungsten plates or whatnot is simply not feasible. So our ability to archive our stored knowledge has declined, not improved, with technology. Projects like The Long Now have an uphill struggle because it requires distilling all that volume down to a long-lived format that can be read with technology that requires little infrastructure or upkeep. That's a whole new research stream, not an application of an existing one.

  88. [...] TransparencyRevolutionOne of the tragedies in the history of human learning is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. There are conflicting accounts of the library’s destruction attributed to various perpetrators, beginning with Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and ending with the Muslim invaders in 642 CE. [...]

  89. 2011-12-20 22:45:47

    Good points overall, but "digital backup" isn't necessarily fail safe insurance either, is it?

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Backing Up Civilization « A Moral Outrage on December 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    […] TransparencyRevolutionOne of the tragedies in the history of human learning is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. There are conflicting accounts of the library’s destruction attributed to various perpetrators, beginning with Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and ending with the Muslim invaders in 642 CE. […]

  2. […] PHIL BOWERMASTER: We need to think about backing up civilization. […]

  3. […] This blogger (politically correct enough to use the terms “BCE” and “CE” rather than “BC and “AD”) compares it to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. But I’d put it in the context of the Muslim world’s more recent retreat into ignorance represented by the Brotherhood, the Wahhabists, the Ayatollahs et al. The famous statistic from a 2002 UN report — that more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand — suggests at the very minimum an extraordinarily closed society. Such openness to the world as exists was (as at the Institut d’Egypt) facilitated by the West. The journey from, say, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, set in the ramshackle but pluralistic Egypt of Farouk’s day, to the city in recent years is a descent into ever more malign parochialism. […]

  4. […] presents Backing Up Civilization posted at Transparency Revolution and discusses risk […]

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