Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I Don’t Speak Neaderthal, But Look! He’s Killing a Bison. Bison — Food!
Charles Piller, from today’s LA Times:
Roger Nelson has a simple and unequivocal message for the people of the year 12006: Don’t dig here.
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [W.I.P.P.], Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for the “fiendishly toxic” detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.
Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners’ headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.
But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long—an unsettling reminder that some of today’s hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The “forever problem,” unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and “Star Trek.”
Communicating danger may seem relatively straightforward, but countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.
Interesting stuff, this is. Scientists empanelled by the government to produce scenarios in which the site could be compromised returned with the stuff of speculative fiction: accidental discharge due to massive climate change; a “gasoline-addicted tribe in a ruined society” desperate for an alternative fuel source; a future in which “feminist corporations” don’t believe the warnings on the W.I.P.P. because they were written by men; or one in which “robotic [mole miner] slaves are infected with a computer virus that compels them to override their safety programming as they compulsively drill and construct mine shafts.”
The task of creating something understandable 10,000 years in the future is daunting, to say the least. The analogue Piller produces?
To future generations, warnings about Nelson’s dump may seem as impenetrable as the 600-year-old Canterbury Tales are for all but a few scholars today.
The implication is that some future human society Scratch that, since, to quote Jon Lomberg, all “we can guess about the future inhabitants of the area near WIPP is that they are human—unless they are cyborgs. Once you have people with augmented brains or genetically engineered minds with enhanced perceptions, you can’t be sure how human they will be.”
So the implication is that some future humanish society will find “a 98-foot-wide, 33-foot-tall, 2-mile-long berm” embedded with “powerful magnets and radar reflectors” so “remote sensors can recognize the site as purposively and elaborately designed,” surrounded by “48 granite or concrete markers, 32 outside the berm and 16 inside, each 25 feet high and weighing 105 tons, engraved with warnings in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic and Navajo,” emblazoned with “pictures [denoting] buried hazards and human faces of horror and revulsion"—which our cyborg selves or mole-mining robotic slaves may of may not be able to recognize—and the implication is, that upon finding this artifact, these “people” won’t bother to spend the week or so required for an undergraduate to learn to read Chaucerian English before they pop W.I.P.P. open? I’m not sure “augmented” is the word we’re looking for here.
Navajo? I have to admit it would be a nice twist to the story if the lucky discoverers of our waste spoke such an implausible language.
A thoroughly PoMo Rosetta Stone! Fun. And a fabulous gesture of ethics, given that in 10,000 years, there may well be no humanoids here. An expensive, ethical gesture at that. Imagine there are humanoids, and they find this, their founding assumptions about our behavior and modes of life that will shape their interpretations as they unearth more of our written works, and eventually Stonehenge itself. Poor dears. ---- Now, get back to the diss, Eric. I can only say grace a dieu there were no blogs to play with while I was working on mine. The new level of discipline required—I bow to you. Now, get after it.
Personally I think they should have
(1) dug it deeper.
(2) Left it unmarked.
think how much of an attraction agonised human faces will be to future archeologists.
If humans beings are still around, it is highly unlikely that they will “forget” any of these languages. Consider the silly film Waterworld where the polar ice caps melt and everyone seems to have forgotten the immediate past. Everyone seems to smoking yet there is no land to grow tobacco so the supply of cigarettes seems to have lasted for many generations. Kevin Costner’s character also somehow finds the time to grow gills through “evolution” while the supply of Virginia Slims are endless. Happily at the end, they “find” the mythical cityscape below the ocean. The oral transmission of information obviously failed over a couple of generations. My point is not just to poke fun at a stupid film but to point out that it is highly unlikely future generations will forget something as important as the languages we use. Unless of course there is massive attack that completely wipes life off of the earth or alien visitors feel like going on an excavation.
Unlike Waterworld, we don’t need an “oral tradition.” Since information is decentralized, it is less likely that there can be a loss of information. There is no Library of Alexandria to burn. Posthuman folks will simply use their Google-augmented brains to read the multiple warnings. “Hey, Mack, I just processed something from this guy Kaufman from The Valve from 2006. Put down the shovel and step away from the ditch.”
Speaking in my sometime capacity as temporal public relations proxy for the angelically “augmented” posthumans of the future, our reaction upon uncovering an archeological find as seductively festooned as the one described in the L.A. Times, was-- roughly: “How cool is this shit? For the first time in centuries, I actually see the shadow of tenure! Or, at the very least, a soft-ball segment on Larry King Live! So start diggin’, my mysteriously ungrateful, millennially indentured, monoclonal undergrads!”
Have human beings anywhere ever encountered a grave script or graven sigil screaming Keep Out, Abandon Ye All Hope, Here there be Dragons, Curses Upon Whosoever Trespasses this Tomb, Don’t Feed the Bears, Please Do Not Disturb, Employee Entrance Only, etc., without, at the very first opportunity, doing exactly the opposite? If so, I need to get out more.
The good news is that by the time we indolent (but still sort-of self-selectively inquisitive) posthumans finally got around to noticing your era’s delightfully (if disappointingly) decorated nuclear waste dumps, we were as immune to mere radioactive decay as your own quaintly squishy generation arrogantly believed itself to be to hellacious hexes of the ancient acolytes of Set.
Good news for us, anyway. Most of you people are toast.
"think how much of an attraction agonised human faces will be to future archeologists”
Think how much of an attraction the site will be to current tourists. What’s cooler than a site with deadly radioactives buried underground that people have carefully festooned with every scary symbol they can imagine? Plus there’s always the ha-ha factor of finding a sign that is already falling down or half-covered with mud or something. (Part of it’s going to be built by Bush admin contractors. I doubt if all of it’ll last 10 years, much less 10,000.) It’s like a Chernobyl tour without the inconvenience of having the radiation actually able to affect you—well, until another decade or two.
Casually wielding the geigerdowser like a walkingstick, Amgen Horsson made his way through dense undergrowth, intermittently lit by shafts of sunlight penetrating the flowering canopy high above. Midwinter, while the foliage lapsed into dormancy, was the only window open for exploration in this region; as spring approached the vegetation would regenerate faster than it could be hacked away even with the most finely honed machete. Tales were rife about the Lost Expedition of a decade earlier, which tarried too long and was not located by rescue teams until the following year, when skeletal remains were found entwined 50 feet above the ground. But even this impediment would not have discouraged the truly intrepid energy prospectors, had not the area been designated holy ground, a cultural reserve marked off by large granite plinths bearing mysterious markings attributed to a long-lost civilisation that possessed, in addition to a vindictive cosmology evidenced by the anguished totems, a surprisingly advanced technology. It had been surmised that the array had functioned as a astronomical calendar, but recent excavations nearby had identified large energy discharges that pointed to another function for this central site, perhaps as a repository of concentrated decaying matter much more efficient than the naturally produced black substances that were previously thought to be the bulwark of this ancient society’s energy production. Given the increasing need for extended half-life sources, interest became intense in the possibilities afforded by the foresight of these anonymous forefathers. Fortunately, the enlightened Council of Convenance had lifted the taboo on exploratory development, over howls of protest from Ur-ologists claiming that a still untapped heritage was being forever pissed away.
Consider the possiblity of nanobots. Bill Joy did in an article in Wired several years ago. He was imagining all the ways that our glorious new toys really could possibly go wonkers and destroy us. He would know, so I listened. Nanobots could replace pesticides (just for instance) by selectively killing unwanted bugs. They could also (his senario, not mine) exprience a “bug” in their programming, and proceed to eat all the plants they were protecting, possibly ALL the plants, because these bots would reproduce themeselves kind of like the bugs they’re meant to kill. And then? Perhaps other plant-matter, like books, clothes made of cotton, the wood in the framing of houses… So, we’re dead. We ate the food reserves, then most of the wild life, then each other. Everything we’ve made begins to moulder. And even hardrives and severs evetually corrode to become hunks of metal without maintenance and a cool, dry place. And suppose, while we’re working on wild SF ideas here about which aspects of human nature and historical luck would lead to the need to protect this lump of death in the salt mine, that the angelic or cyborg or rockingly stupified hominids use technology that does not allow them access to our digital media. Perhaps they found most of the information there useless or dangerous to their society and covered it up out of fear of change to their world, in the way some Christians simply don’t study science at all. Perhaps they they’re running programs and tech so advanced ours simply can’t synch up with them. Perhaps they’re back to stones and spears and running from really nasty predators. Or, their civilization is in a period when most languages are temporarily lost, or only a small elite know the old languages. We have more access to ancient languages now than we did pre-Rosetta, pre-liberal education, pre-comparative literature department. Maybe they’ll find it before they can translate it, wonder what the big deal was with pretty decorations and whatnot, and dig like archeological maniacs in hope of The Valubable Thing they’re looking for. Egypt’s temples and palaces Were information. Decentralized. Surfaces of nearly everything covered in language. None of which could we read. Their civilization had been “surpassed”—or conqured and then through a long string of historcial events unforseeable to them, rendered obsolete. So, no one knew how to read the signs. Lots of things could happen that leave only little fragments of our civilizations. Seems to me the nukehenge is just a shot at hedging that bet. And a sorry one, given the apples and abandon hope and curse of Set. But at least our side of the karmic street will be clean on some point. --- And maybe all will go fairly well, and they have access to our languages, or speak a few of them still, and they will indeed heed the warning. Could happen. In a SF kind of way. But that would not be an interesting plot point.
Or, hey, why not? If the bots eat the wood frames, people living in stone, concrete, and tin housing will suddenly find themselves comparatively well off, power centers will violently redistribute, briefly, before the lack of vegitation ravages the delicate ecosystem to which we are adapted, and then still.... Or, we’ll quick develop a Stop the Bots program....Anyway, fun game.
Me, I just like the word ‘wonkers’. Thanks, Simone.
Hey, no problem, Adam. Words like ‘wonkers’ are some of my faves.
Bill Joy is a kill joy, Simone. Don’t let him rain on the tech parade. What’s the worst that can happen with nanotech? A world reduced to grey goo?
Goo is good, Christopher. You might find “Some Limits to Global Ecophagy
by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations” interesting.[http://www.foresight.org/nano/Ecophagy.html]
“The maximum rate of global ecophagy by biovorous self-replicating nanorobots is fundamentally restricted by the replicative strategy employed; by the maximum dispersal velocity of mobile replicators; by operational energy and chemical element requirements; by the homeostatic resistance of biological ecologies to ecophagy; by ecophagic thermal pollution limits (ETPL); and most importantly by our determination and readiness to stop them.”
So. Really not such a big deal then. Carry on.
Goo. Quite. So you read it, Christopher? For the rest of the class, a summary: Bugs are in programs because programmers err. Bots have to be programmed. Actually, Joy’s problem is more interesting than goo—it’s that we now make tech/sci leaps rather larger than our ethical constructs and cultures can reasonably keep up with, since we over here in Humanities Land are, comparatively, slower. No fault to us Hums, he points out, just the nature of our work. So Joy’s point: don’t stop making gadgets you wonderful sci-geeks, just slow down and let’s give the hum-geeks and the civilians time to think about what we want to, should, and will in fact do with this groovy stuff. Betwixt the gene, the atom, and the bot, we are become gods. We just are not ready for that Responsibility. The ‘augmentation’ of Eric’s post might get us there, but on that path all these same caveats and problems loop right back in. I suppose the shift for him is that “because we can” and “because people will buy it” is, at this stage, a noncompelling reason given these toys’ negative potentials. His point. My point: I love gagdets, I want bots to clean my clothes, dishes, carpets, shelves, counters, tub, sink, and me—why not? saves lots of water—and then go back in their mason jar in the sunny spot to recharge—I just don’t have that much faith in, well, us on this point. Forget errant code: bots would be magestically easy to weaponize. Thus: this thread about nuclear reponsibility and translational potentials is moot and fun. There may well not be anything at all interested in or capable of poisioning itself in that bright, shiny nuclear way. So, some SF fun here, of which, I have to say the flash fiction nnyhav has been the most playful and not yet surpassed.
I was attempting to be sarcastic. Grey goo IS a bad thing. Plus I just thought “Bill Joy is a kill joy” sounded cool. “The Future Doesn’t Need Us” actually scared the hell out of me when I read it six years ago. The link is below for those who have not read it.
I’m not sure what the solution is but I am certainly not as optimistic as Ray Kurzweil on this issue. But thanks for your link Dan. It is a bit technical for me but I am interested in the subject and the notes have some good links and references for further exploration.
You succeeded in sarcasm, Christopher, and in the play with Joy-kill-joie. Sorry. Bad me. I tend to take sarcasm up? or down? a level by replying in a flat key. I’ll find some typographical signal for That, since I have others for others. Nice thing the abstract from Dan, sounds very reassuring (no kidding) eventhough I have no earthly idea how all that works. But, ‘ecophagy’?? Eeewww. At least the word’s as ugly as its meaning. Which brings me to another point. Is there a style sheet for Valve some place? Have I spied all but where it is? Explaining perhaps how to create links, italics, &c.? Je n’ai pas l’habitude avec le HTML, pauvre moi. Hints?
it is highly unlikely future generations will forget something as important as the languages we use.
Why? Language is constantly in motion; many of the languages alive today are on the verge of extinction. There are literary languages a few millenia old that we’re still unable to decipher, and linguists using the comparative method can’t reliably reconstruct languages more than, what, six thousand years old? After an interval of ten thousand years it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose our languages would be unintelligible to future human(oid)s.
In fact, assuming scifi concepts like augmented cyborg brainpower, there’s no reason to think that language change couldn’t accelerate and languages fall out of fashion / get forgotten much faster than they do today.
It is an interesting question that Scott raised and thanks for reigning us back in, Doc, to address it. You are right that you can’t predict the future. But I think we are close to the stage of not being in to quarantine the virus of information.
I think it was Michio Kaku, the physicist from City University of New York who said that once humanity leaves the confines of the earth it will be impossible to destroy humanity. It will be like when you flick on the lights and the cockroaches spread out in every directions. This decentralization of humanity is also like the decentralization of information that I spoke of earlier.The more places to store and share information the better it will be to make sure it survives. Currently our technology allows us to store irrelevant and outdated information that we may never use in multiple places. I would imagine that this capacity to do so is unlikely to get worse. A language, like English, is unlikely to be reduced to trivia like an old TV show or dime store novels. I think that archivists will always be interested in adding to the sum of human knowledge - even junk. It’s kind of nice to think this stuff, our civilization, will last. Kind of like the AI creatures in Dan Simmons novels studying Proust and Shakespeare. But my temperament may cloud my vision. Perhaps maleficent nanotech and cyborgs won’t care about this stuff. But I like to think the future still needs us.
I read this to my students. One said, “Why not just put a fucking skull on it and save money?”