Another reason why we won’t exist in future history

I’ve went on Luddite rants before, but a NextGov article titled Most Scientific Research Data from the 1990s is Lost Forever settles in my mind the impending technoclasm will erase us from history.

As a  Maître Jaques, I amateurishly dabble in many fields, but have not the skill to bountifully harvest from any of them. But even a simpleton such as I can see that we will be an enigma to future generations, who might see the ruins of our great civilization, but have no surviving record of what we were capable of. Unlike the Egyptians, we don’t leave much of our record in stone. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, we don’t even leave it in paper anymore. We’re more like the Atlanteans (they did exist didn’t they???). What other ancient civilizations existed that we have no record of because they chose to store their records to “advanced”, and fragile, means of storage. ?

The article mentioned that much of the lost data were stored on floppy disks. This reminded me of another article about the migration of the original source code of Prince of Persia a while back. Had the source code not been found when antique hardware was available to read the ancient formats, that effort would have been lost as well. This is the dilemma of digital storage: every so often, that which is saved in an old format must be moved to a newer format. Obsolete tech, bit rot, and what-have-you.
I have firsthand experience with the hassle this is. After my father died, I inherited all the old VHS family movies. For a couple years now, I’ve kept a VCR around, connected to a DVD burner, so that I can convert the movies to DVD, which I will then rip to some digital format, saved to my hard drive. So what do I do then? I have to back them up to something else in case of hard drive failure. What do I do a decade from now when I have to migrate to some newer platform? When does the value of the “memories” diminish to where it is not worth the effort? Do my kids or their kids really care to see what my siblings and I did growing up? I don’t know, but as the family archivist, I’ll go through the effort, because I don’t want to be the one to let the family stories and legends die.
We tried to address this in the 70s with the gold disks sent out on Voyagers 1 & 2. I don’t think we’ve done many such practical things since. I’ve seen a theory posited online that the apex of human civilization was 1975. I’ll not link to them, because they’re just as crackpotish as I am (or more¡), but when you look at how little “new” we’ve created since then, the theory sounds reasonable. We haven’t been to the moon since then. Intel invented the 4004 microprocessor in 1971. We still use a small arms platform designed by Eugene Stoner in 1958. Even the Space Shuttle was a 1960s design that would have launched years earlier had it not been for government bureaucracy. Everything we have done since has been advances on these innovations. Sure we have smaller, faster, lighter tech that wasn’t available then, but its all built off of the thinking from that era. Even Unix was invented in the late 60s and was in pretty good use by the early 70s. We’ve even reached the limits of Moore’s Law.
So what is the solution? If we want to be remembered as a civilization, we need to develop some type of high-density, analog format etched into a robust media, like the disks on Voyager. This Wikipedia entry has other peoples’ ideas. Or we drop back to one of my other favorite topics, Tribalism, and each small group ensures the survival of its own legacy through whatever means it chooses.

Common Risks

Jared Diamond on Common Risks:

Jared Diamond has an op-ed in the New York Times where he talks about how we overestimate rare risks and underestimate common ones. Nothing new here — I and others have written about this sort of thing extensively — but he says that this is a bias found more in developed countries than in primitive cultures.

I first became aware of the New Guineans’ attitude toward risk on a trip into a forest when I proposed pitching our tents under a tall and beautiful tree. To my surprise, my New Guinea friends absolutely refused. They explained that the tree was dead and might fall on us.

Yes, I had to agree, it was indeed dead. But I objected that it was so solid that it would be standing for many years. The New Guineans were unswayed, opting instead to sleep in the open without a tent.

I thought that their fears were greatly exaggerated, verging on paranoia. In the following years, though, I came to realize that every night that I camped in a New Guinea forest, I heard a tree falling. And when I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view.

Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.

Diamond has a point. While it’s universally true that humans exaggerate rare and spectacular risks and downplay mundane and common risks, we in developed countries do it more. The reason, I think, is how fears propagate. If someone in New Guinea gets eaten by a tiger — do they even have tigers in New Guinea? — then those who know the victim or hear about it learn to fear tiger attacks. If it happens in the U.S., it’s the lead story on every news program, and the entire country fears tigers. Technology magnifies rare risks. Think of plane crashes versus car crashes. Think of school shooters versus home accidents. Think of 9/11 versus everything else.

On the other side of the coin, we in the developed world have largely made the pedestrian risks invisible. Diamond makes the point that, for an older man, falling is a huge risk, and showering is especially dangerous. How many people do you know who have fallen in the shower and seriously hurt themselves? I can’t think of anyone. We tend to compartmentalize our old, our poor, our different — and their accidents don’t make the news. Unless it’s someone we know personally, we don’t hear about it.

In celebration of the Mayan ‘Apocalypse’

There has been lots of “news” about the non-event that is occurring today. I mean this sarcastically, but it’s sort of nice for it to be someone else’s beliefs that are being trashed by the media for a change. Even if we are basing what we think we know on our modern interpretations of a calendar that has no (ore relatively few) adherents for its defense. Surely we can’t be wrong???

End of an Era: Mayan ‘Apocalypse’ Today: It’s the end of the 13th b’ak’tun!

And now a song to celebrate: