Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A Manual For Civilisation

I am a great fan of The Long Now Foundation, a group of people that foster long term thinking and projects within the framework of 10,000 years. They believe it counterbalances the rise in short-term thinking and planning that has arisen in the 21st century, where people can only think ahead to the next iphone model or the next election.

A great quote by Daniel Hillis is given for part of the inspiration of the foundation:

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."

This clock is now being manufactured and situated in the Sierra Diablo Range west in western Texas with the prototype on display in the London Science Museum.

Another project undertaken by the Foundation consists of curating a library with the intention to hold volumes that would act as a manual for civilisation. While Long Now does not predict the downfall of all civilisation in the near future, they think it is a great premise for a collection of physical books to complement their new office and meeting space in San Francisco. They are aiming at a 3000 book limit with a breakdown of types of books given:

Image Source: The Long Now Foundation.

Mechanics and Civilisation includes technical books on how to build things and how to find and refine natural resources. In essence all of the technical know-how. Cultural Canon is a series of books believed to show the essence of human civilisation including Plato, Shakespeare and others. The Science Fiction component will consist of works of speculative merit where possible futures and big ideas are discussed. Futurism will consist of non-fiction speculations upon the future of the human race with an emphasis on our history.

The collecting has already started with suggestions being made by famous Long Now supporters such as Brian Eno, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Hugh Howey, David Brin and Bruce Sterling.

Last month I read an advance copy of Lewis Dartnell's "The Knowledge" which aimed to be a technical manual on rebooting civilisation after collapse. I think this book would be a great addition to the Mechanics of Civilisation section.

What books would you like to be added to such a collection?

1 comment:

  1. Though it's been unfashionable since the 1970s (at least in the US) a cultural canon should include much of the "old school" that was almost exclusively the domain of Dead White Males.

    I recall, but can't dredge up, a book from the early 1960s, which listed a top 100 or 200 of the great books.

    I would edit out, or at least annotate, known errors in the classics (for instance, Aristotle was corrected on earthly mechanics by likes of Newton and Galileo - and I suppose that Galen has been mostly supreceded by modern medical discoveries).

    I'm not so sure that so many as 225 SF works (nor 300 futurism works) should be included with a mere 3,000. Future discoverers of the library will have already dated most of that.

    We should include seminal political works such as The Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, The Leviathan, the US Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, works by Locke and Mill - all springing from Britain - the Cradle of Liberty.

    (does that make me a Commonwealth Jingoist? Fine by me)

    A history detailing the genocidal exploits of 20th C. followers of Marx would be a suitable warning for future lovers of life and liberty (not talking about Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo here).

    Why stop at 3,000 "books" (what a horrendously inexact unit a "book" is - why not, for instance, use ASCII characters as a measure)? Microfilm, suitably preserved in nitrogen, along with suitably robust projector/duplicator and lots of acid-free paper, seems better - and low-tech enough to survive. Power it all with solar cells? Or adapt and scale up one of those space-probe nuclear-powered electric generators? Or just a good old diesel generator in cosmoline and nitrogen - with lotsa fuel? How about a simple small generator that will work with wood or coal as fuel?

    (interesting problem, huh?)

    Here's something to consider. We who come, however distantly, from Britain would naturally choose works in English using "arabic" numerals (As has most of the World in 2014). But English is likely to be more "dead" than latin in the distant future. Our Time Capsule on Steroids should have pictorial dictionaries to help future archeologists, linguists, scientists, engineers. If this is to be more than an intellectual/speculative diversion, we better get started with that.