Futureproofing the Writing on the Wall

Monday, 12 October 2015

It is some time in the future. Mankind has travelled out to the nearest stars. And, on a long dead planet, our astronauts have found evidence of a once great culture. As they explore the ruins of an ancient city they discover a huge locked door covered in curious symbols and glyphs. What do they mean? Should our intrepid explorers attempt to gain entry? What were the aliens trying to tell us?

I've been thinking a lot about communication this week. It all began when I was helping my granddaughter, aged 10, with a school homework project. We were using Microsoft Word and I suggested to her that she save what she'd done so far by clicking on the save icon. She did so but then asked, 'Why does that icon mean 'save'?'

It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that she has never seen a floppy disc in her young life. She just knows it as the save icon; she knows what it means but not what it is. Admittedly, my copy of the software is Word 2007 so it is nearly as old as she is. But do more recent versions still use the icon? I'd be interested to know.

Then, a day later I was driving to work and thinking about this when it suddenly dawned on me that the icon used on signs indicating a speed camera are just as obsolete.

That's a bellows camera of a kind that hasn't been in common use for at least 50 years, since long before speed cameras were even invented. Do young people wonder what the image represents or do they simply associate it with speed cameras without actually understanding what the image is a picture of? Let's face it, for many young people these days, a camera looks like a smartphone.

But now imagine those two images above being excavated from the ruins of an ancient city 10,000 years in the future. What would they say to our far distant descendants? Or what if an alien race saw them - what would the symbols mean to them?  

Communication is all about passing a message from one person to another without there being a change in the meaning. There are lots of ways to do that: language, using pictures, with video and/or audio recordings etc. But how do you communicate with a culture that is radically different to your own? Imagine that you're one of the astronauts I mentioned in the opening paragraph and you're looking at a door covered in alien symbols. And let's say that our aliens plastered the door with words - in their languages - and symbols in an attempt to warn anyone trying to open it that inside is deadly radioactive waste? Would we recognise what they're trying to tell us? What if they don't look anything like us and don't have a similar visual system?

Consider this famous plaque, currently being carried into deep space attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. 

Would an alien species that looks nothing like us recognise the two figures as living creatures? If the aliens are more angular, or mechanical, or even jellyfish-like would they see the representation of the spacecraft as the living creature instead? It may be a simplified image but we use simplified images of humans in all sorts of places - even toilets.

(I really like those)

However, they only work as simplified humans because we know what humans look like. Aliens might not, in which case the plaque may not have the desired effect. There is other information on the plaque of course, including a handy map of our solar system. But that is now innaccurate - we now know of 13 planets and dwarf planets rather than nine - and would they understand what an arrow means? After all, it's only become a symbol we know because we went through a hunter/gatherer phase in our prehistory and invented bows.

Things are just as complicated when it comes to words. Language is plastic, it changes and evolves. For example, what does this say?

ic þe lufie (pronounced itch thay luff-ee-eh)

That's 'I love you' in Old English, the language our Anglo-Saxon forebears were speaking just 15 centuries ago. English has completely changed in those 1500 years ... so what will it look and sound like 10,000 years from now? Forget about aliens for the moment .... if we had to leave messages for our remote descendants warning them not to open a door to a chamber (because it contains radiocative waste) how would we do that? How can we communicate that information when we have no concept what our language, or even what humans, will look like in 10,000 years from now?

This is the very real problem facing scientists today who are trying to dispose of materials with dangerous half-lives that are measured in millennia. How do we make the message clear? It would be nice to think that future humans would understand because the wealth of historic data available to them will be immense. But what if there's a worst case scenario - a worldwide catastrophe that wipes out lots of data or, for some reason, plunges society back into a pre-technological age? What then?

As Edwin Henry writes in a recent article for Bizarre Culture:

'The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico is going to be sealed in 2038, where the massive amount of radioactive and hot material will be stored for 10,000 years. Carved out of a salt mine that was formed over 250 million years ago, the region was selected for both its isolation and relatively stable geology.

The waste will be kept in a vault 2,000 feet below the ground and sealed in concrete to prevent accidental exposure. Scientists agree (at least for now) that concrete will not impede construction plans in the future, but 10,000 years isn’t an easy timeline to imagine for civilisations. So a more daunting problem arises: maintaining a warning that translates for centuries to come. Will it be legible even in 3,000 years when western civilisation could be as ancient as the Pharaohs are to us? Now add another 7,000 years and you can start to see the problem. How do you create something that will say, “There’s something here,” and also, “Don’t come inside”, especially when we consider how much language has changed in even the last 5,000 years; the differences are stark.'

Discussions have been wide and deep. The consensus among experts is to look at how we've learned to interpret messages from the past; to stick to broad themes rather than specifics. Danger is a broad theme. But a radioactive symbol is specific and could one day be as meaningless and obsolete as  a floppy disk icon.

The current planned message is this:

This place is not a place of honour.

No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

Nothing valued is here.

This place is a message and part of a system of messages.

Pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

In addition, there are plans to pepper the site with very obvious physical obstructions to discourage building, drilling and exploring, such as raised blocks of concrete and large earthworks. And I mean large; some construction ideas involve shifting as much soil as was dug out to build the Panama Canal.

But will it work? We can't know. And nor can the scientists and other experts making these tough decisions. Edwin Henry again: 'Some of [their] final conclusions are regretful, that we might not be able to ever establish or build a structure that could keep people out for 10,000 years, or at least, warn them that they should stay out. Without knowing what future generations will understand or how they will behave, we can only hope and guess that we did our best.'

As problems go, it's a doozy isn't it?

What would you do?

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Andrew Candler
Andrew Candler says:

Still the same save icon, but purple in Office365

October 14, 2015

Craig Lewis
Craig Lewis says:

Oh man, this is such a fascinating subject :) Speaks directly to my love of working problems down to the bone rather than piling on extra layers of complexity before the issue is even understood. This makes me just as popular with management as you might imagine ;)

I was reading a great article about voicing science fiction recently where the writer complained that any future civilisation suitably removed from us is likely to be as unintelligible as we say and so the dialogue and even the proper nouns in most sci-fi are bunk :) William Gibson recently made inroads here in his fantastic novel The Peripheral and many critics bitched at him as a result because they felt he was being Twee. Meanwhile The Wake, which is equally brilliant, achieves success through Unbound and they all love it. Figure that one out... ;)

There are a couple of things that occur about the ongoing problems. Firstly we're entering an age where we have the ability to store more information for longer periods than ever before and rely less than ever on perishable materials as our main storage medium. That's not foolproof though - witness the problems caused by Nasa trying to play back the Apollo 11 lunar footage...


It may be that nobody understands Old English any more but that fact that you're able to relate it here shows that we can reconstruct some information just from the tiny fraction of evidence we have remaining. I'd hope out ability to do that improves with time, but the Linear A/B decryption struggles show that history can still throw us a curveball ;)

With regards to the radiation storage, I think we're overlooking something critical - we're assuming that science will forget how to look for something as simple as radiation. Our studies of energy are only bound to increase as we try to find ways to sustain life on Earth and perhaps reach out, and any survey team going into old ruins nowadays runs plenty of safety checks before cracking the seal.

What I'd do is take a small piece of that same radioactive material and put it on very clear display in the middle of a large annex area reserved just for that purpose. I'd then fall back on that old stalwart, the directional arrow, and use those in both raised and relief form (to improve the chances of avoiding erosion or build-up) to indicate the direction of the main stash. Anyone finding the radioactive sample will recognise it as such and then be on their guard for more. The symbolism they attach to it and their beliefs about why we did this are less important than them being fried, so we need to drop our egos and communicate for their sake, not ours.

Besides, if we're smart we'll have worked out better protection from radiation by then and possibly even know how to recycle and neutralise the material. Perhaps by burying it we're denying future us a handy fuel cache? ;)

October 14, 2015

Chris Phillips
Chris Phillips says:

I reckon we should be putting a great deal more effort into developing nuclear reactor technology to the point where our latest reactors actually consume our previous reactor generations' waste fuel.


"Pandora's Promise" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1992193/) is well worth a watch.

October 14, 2015

Brian Breczinski
Brian Breczinski says:

I hope that the people doing this have read "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I think the text you've quoted would have most adolescents tearing the place apart to see what was so cool inside. Anything so hidden must be interesting.

They should use a periodic table of the elements to indicate what's inside. Any civilization advanced enough to get in ought to be able to figure that out; language may change but the elements and their relationship to each other will not.

October 14, 2015

Mark Vent
Mark Vent says:

we mean what we say and we say what we think we mean but what we think we mean might not be what others think we mean in which case our meaning is lost ... if you know what I mean :/ - Great article Stevyn!

October 14, 2015

Stevyn Colgan
Stevyn Colgan says:

Fascinating comments - thanks one and all!

I'd also like to think that our data storage methods will ensure that information is not lost. That said, storage isn't infinite and, already, some people like Google's Vent Cerf, are expressing concerns that so much is being produced and technology is moving so quickly that we may, in the future, make methods of reading it obsolete.
I have to admit that if someone presented me with a 5 and 1/4" floppy full of data I would have no way to read it. And if someone gave me one of the 10mb slot-in slab drives that we used on the police force's first 8086 green screen computers back in the late 80s I'd be lost!

Oh, and I'm told that Windows 2010 still uses the floppy 'save' icon too.

October 14, 2015

Brian Breczinski
Brian Breczinski says:

"Moving Pictures" by Terry Pratchett also applies to this topic of warning future people about something bad.

The ancient Egyptians tried to warn people to stay out of their graves, look how well that worked.

October 15, 2015

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