Recovery Manual for Civilization

post by RyanCarey · 2014-10-31T09:36:20.755Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 48 comments

I was wondering how seriously we've considered storing useful information to improve the chance of rebounding from a global catastrophe. I'm sure this has been discussed previously, but not in sufficient depth that I could find it on a short search of the site. If we value future civilisation, then, it may be worth going to significant length to reduce existential risks.

Some interventions will target specific risky tech, like AI and synthetic biology. However, just as many of today's risks could not have been identified a century ago, we should expect some emerging risks of the coming decades to also catch us by surprise. As argued by Karim Jebari, even if risks are not identifiable, we can take general-purpose methods to reduce them, by analogy to the principles of robustness and safety factors in engineering. One such idea is, to create a store of the kind of items one would want to recover from catastrophe. This idea varies based on which items are chosen and where they are stored.

Nick Beckstead has investigated bunkers, and he basically rejected bunker-improvement because the strength of a bunker would not improve our resilience to known risks like AI, nuclear weapons or biowarfare. However, his analysis was fairly limited in scope. He focused largely on where to put people, food and walls, in order to manage known risks. It would be useful for further analysis to consider where you can put other items, like books, batteries or 3D printers, in an analysis of a range of scenarios that could arise from known or unknown risks. Though we can't currently identify many plausible risks that would leave us without 99% of civilisation, that's still a plausible situation that it's good to equip ourselves to recover from. What information would we store? 

The Knowledge, How to Rebuild Civilisation From Scratch would be a good candidate based on its title alone, and a quick skim over i09's review. One could bury Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, or a bunch of other items suggested by The Long Now Foundation. A computer with a battery perhaps? Perhaps all of the above, to ward against the possibility that we miscalculate.  Where would we store it? Again, the principle of resilience would seem to dictate that we should store these in a variety of sites. They could be underground and overground, marked and unmarked at busy and deserted sites of varying climate, and with various levels of security. In general, this seems to be neglected, cheap, and unusually valuable, and so I would be interested to hear whether LessWrong has any further ideas about how this could be done well.

Further relevant reading: Adaptation to and Recovery From Global Catastrophe, Svalbard Global Seed Vault (a biodiversity store in the far North of Norway, started by Gates and others).


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comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-31T10:53:16.682Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a biodiversity store in Anarctica

Actually the Svalbard Islands are in the far north of Norway.Replies from: polymathwannabe
comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-31T14:36:25.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's far bigger than a nitpick; it's a whole hemisphere of difference.

Replies from: None, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-31T16:30:03.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, he got the absolute value of the latitude about right, he merely got the sign wrong. ;-)

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-31T15:38:49.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess its rather a typo an "an" too much.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-10-31T20:14:50.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing generally neglected in these discussions are human institutions. Law, management, history, currency, commercial codes. Get human institutions wrong, and you're humped regardless of the amount of tech you have.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-10-31T20:59:13.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like the north & south poles could be natural schelling points for storing information to transmit to far-future civs: they're cold, so things preserve well, and they're unique points on the earth's surface.

Replies from: ChristianKl, garabik
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-31T21:01:56.415Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given that they are indeed Schelling points, to what extend did we look at them whether someone buried things there for us to find?

Replies from: Falacer, James_Miller, John_Maxwell_IV, tut
comment by Falacer · 2014-11-01T01:04:23.951Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who are we expecting to have buried things there? I can come up with 6 possibilites, is there another you were thinking of?

Modern humans. In this most likely case it's probably not interesting, maybe some Propaganda Preservation Program from the Cold War.

Recent aliens. I would expect if any aliens were about to jaunt over, notice our space-faring potential and bury a cache for us to discover to mark our readiness to join the Galatic Federation, we would have probably noticed them in other ways by now.

Ancient aliens. Why would visitors before intelligent terrestrial life think it worthwhile to bury stuff just in case we evolved? You've got to have a whole lot of faith in your civilization's stability to think that leaving tags everywhere is a better strategy for continuity than just colonising.

Ancient, non-human but earthbound civilization - Silurians. I could believe that another society might do this, and I think this is who the grandparent is suggesting we aim for - but since we're speculating over geological times the location of the poles is quite variable. Unless we have a fair idea of when the sender lived we don't know where to look, and to find out when they lived we'd need to find the cache... Or you could be saying "hmm, those big extinction events kind of look like the one we're causing now, I wonder where the poles were at those times?"

Some recent but forgotten technological human civilization - Atlantis. Maybe, but like the recent aliens I would expect there would be other signs.

The whole of human history is a lie! - Hiigarans. Fun times.

I don't think it's worth specifically scouting around for something, but maybe if we're buying anyway and it's cheap it'd be worth checking.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-11-01T00:58:10.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably better than looking for Dinos on the Moon.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-10-31T23:17:09.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not aware of any effort to do that, but it seems like a moderately worthwhile project (especially if combined with a project to bury stuff in the event that nothing is found).

comment by tut · 2015-05-17T08:07:32.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Only with radar and sonar. And only incidentally.

comment by garabik · 2014-11-01T09:18:38.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like the north & south poles could be natural schelling points for storing information to transmit to far-future civs: they're cold, so things preserve well, and they're unique points on the earth's surface.

Except that they are not - in geological times, they move (relative to tectonic plates). Even disregarding the drift, they are rather inconvenient as places for information caches, being both under tons of water - although something might have been buried under South pole when it was not under tons of water, but would we find it, without the builders making some kind of beacon? The same applies for a cache under North pole sea floor.

And if you are aiming at less than geological times, highest mountain makes much more sense. In particular, putting something on top of South pole ice is in danger of the ice melting (bad if you account for the civilization risk being climate-based).

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-31T18:01:02.633Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Knowledge is very fragile. When Hellenistic civilization fell to the Romans c 150 BC, it left behind libraries of science, but the Romans never understood it. Virtually all of the books have since been lost, so we don't know how much the Greeks understood, but we do know how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth and that the Romans never understood, but instead substituted magic.

Replies from: Antiochus, fortyeridania
comment by Antiochus · 2014-10-31T20:54:11.588Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This rings false. Greek learning didn't disappear just because the already faltering Hellenistic dynasties were toppled.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-31T21:30:42.304Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How, or even whether, Greek learning disappeared in not important to my point, which is that many Romans tried and failed to learn science from Greek books.

The most important event was Ptolemy VIII's persecution of scholars, an event not directly involving Rome. But Greek learning in Pergamon also disappeared, around the same time, which was a fairly peaceful Roman takeover.

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-11-01T20:53:40.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

instead substituted magic

Can you explain what you mean here?

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-11-02T00:55:01.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Pliny, 2 112 (or 2 109)

Dionysodorus is certainly less worthy of confidence; but I cannot omit this most remarkable instance of Grecian vanity. He was a native of Melos, and was celebrated for his knowledge of geometry; he died of old age in his native country. His female relations, who inherited his property, attended his funeral, and when they had for several successive days performed the usual rites, they are said to have found in his tomb an epistle written in his own name to those left above; it stated that he had descended from his tomb to the lowest part of the earth, and that it was a distance of 42,000 stadia. There were not wanting certain geometricians, who interpreted this epistle as if it had been sent from the middle of the globe, the point which is at the greatest distance from the surface, and which must necessarily be the centre of the sphere. Hence the estimate has been made that it is 252,000 stadia in circumference.

Replies from: Azathoth123, fortyeridania
comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-11-04T01:59:27.939Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In fairness to the Romans, I could probably find popular "science" books today with a similar level of stupidity.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-11-04T02:28:21.776Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, Pliny and Seneca are pop science. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's not surprising that it survived. The problem is that there isn't any Roman science. It's not just that none survives, but no names are known, while lots of names of Hellenistic scientists are known without text. Maybe the scientists and engineers wrote in Greek. Galen lived in Rome and wrote in Greek, but he was Greek. Maybe the Romans didn't want to learn science and engineering, subjects for slaves.

A better example is the introduction to Varro's book on farming. This is not a pop science book, but a practical manual. He complains that his Greek sources are full of "philosophy." Lucio Russo suggests that they are full of abstract arguments that Varro cannot follow. But Varro is our only access to these authors, so we cannot be sure. In any event, these are all small N arguments.

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-11-02T02:59:20.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know much about Pliny, but Pliny's treatment of Eratosthenes, which just precedes the section you quoted, indicates Pliny does understand the math. Pliny writes of it that:

it is supported by such subtle arguments that we cannot refuse our assent

Doesn't that indicate that Pliny had read and followed Eratosthenes' argument?

Pliny's later digression on a story about a letter seems irrelevant to this issue. The story doesn't look to be a substitution for a mathematical case; it looks like it's supposed to be only an anecdote.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-11-02T03:38:42.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, Pliny asserts that he followed Eratosthenes's argument. I don't believe him.

I do believe that he has read an account of the argument, traces of which are in 2.75 (and 76 mentions Eratosthenes by name).

Replies from: fortyeridania
comment by fortyeridania · 2014-11-02T04:56:19.320Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't believe him.

Fair enough.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T16:07:52.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, today is the proper day to sit in the dark around a weakly glowing screen and tell each other scary stories... X-)

comment by MaximumLiberty · 2014-11-01T05:22:48.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking about this two days ago, which is an odd synchronicity.

My first conclusion was that there are all kinds of events that could lead to a collapse of civilization without exterminating humanity directly. But it may be impossible for humanity to rise back from the ashes if it stays there too long. Humanity can't take the same path it took to get to where it is now. For example, humanity developed different forms of energy as prices of previous forms rose. For example, we started digging up shallow coal when population grew too high to use charcoal produced from wood. But many of those resources are no longer near the surface. All coal, oil, and gas near the surface has been extracted. So humanity, if it rose again, would have to find a different path.

My conclusion was that I would not want to invest enough time into preparing for the end of the world to get personally involved in preparing for the end of civilization. But some people already do: all the survivalists and similar people. So, if I want to help civilization recover after a collapse, my best alternative is not to try to store the information myself. Instead, it is to reduce the information to a useful form and give it to these people. This is far more robust that trying to think of the best way of having the information survive. Give it to a few thousand people in scattered places with different survival strategies, and it is much more likely that the information survives.

These two facts together led me to conclude that a collaboration to prepare some kind of big, easily read manual of technology would be a valuable contribution to the survival of humanity. It would need to build on itself, somewhat like tech trees in strategy games.

Plus, it would be really amusing for the LW community to decide that one of its bets for saving humanity is to help outfit survivalists with technical know-how.

comment by advancedatheist · 2014-10-31T20:43:13.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obviously we need to buy up a bunch of slide rules and books about using them, and then stash them in secure but findable places.

Isaac Asimov, of all people, even published a book on slide rules back in the 1960's:

comment by Lalartu · 2014-11-02T02:02:53.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a better question is why would people try to rebuild civilization. Industrial revolution was driven by economic factors which are certainly not applicable in this case, unless you mean waiting until population rises to 1800 - level again.

comment by Capla · 2014-11-01T01:50:33.689Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nit picky, but I must say, big blocks of text are hard to read. I can follow much better if you divided it into paragraphed chunks.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-31T12:46:11.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The whole internet archive is a quite a lot of information.

As far as storing backups of other digital information copyright is a huge problem. It's much easier to simply store the data yourself then asking for permission to store it. That means various people are likely to have backups of a lot of the worlds knowledge without being open about the fact that they have them.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T16:00:15.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As far as storing backups of other digital information copyright is a huge problem.

No, it's not. Copyright (at least the US version) is not a problem for storing backups of digital information.

Replies from: gwern, ChristianKl
comment by gwern · 2014-10-31T16:12:59.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To rephrase that: copyright is not a problem for the most limited, vulnerable, restricted, unreplicated, useless, private backups; it is a big problem for all more useful forms of backups, such as ones which are ever transmitted or copied by third parties or the public. The Internet Archive is not a stranger to legal problems, and they're in a uniquely advantageous situation.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T16:45:57.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not a big fan of the current form of copyright, but it does mostly deal with redistributing and backups aren't about redistributing.

When information is "copied by third parties or the public", that's rarely about backups, that's predominantly about access and use.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2014-10-31T17:43:35.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meaningful backup systems always involve multiple copies. What are the first laws of backups? 'you will lose data', and 'you always have one less copy than you think'. Or as the archivists says, 'lots of copies keeps stuff safe'.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T18:48:58.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, yes, Linus Torvald's backup system turned out to work rather well for him :-)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-31T16:12:10.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Backups of information that you own. Few individuals have the license to own 10,000s of textbooks but it's very easy to download them.

Aaron Schwartz died because of wanting to back up too much data.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T16:43:23.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Backups of information that you own.

Backups of information you have access to -- a very different thing. I can backup chunks of Wikipedia without owning it, for example.

Aaron Schwartz died because of wanting to back up too much data.

Bullshit. He didn't want backups, he wanted to make it available.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight, ChristianKl
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-31T17:52:02.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bullshit. Aaron Schwartz had a history of mass downloading academic papers and not distributing them. Why do you think it would have been different this time?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-31T17:01:50.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Backups of information you have access to -- a very different thing. I can backup chunks of Wikipedia without owning it, for example.

Wikipedia is licensed with a creative commons license that allows you to copy it's content. It's very different from the way a lot of textbooks are licensed.

DRM right protection laws forbid a lot of backup creation.

Bullshit. He didn't want backups, he wanted to make it available.

The whole point of achieving information is to make it available. also makes the information available that it archives.

If he would have succeeded than we would now have thousands of copies of the Jstor database distributed all over the world. That creates resilience for that information in times of a catastrophe.

comment by pseudobison · 2016-05-26T09:08:40.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One could bury Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, or a bunch of other items suggested by The Long Now Foundation

Since no one's yet included the links to the Long Now Foundation's blog posts in which they discuss suggestions for such items and other projects that are attempts in this direction, here they are:

comment by TheMajor · 2014-11-01T14:30:17.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What information would we store?

Why not all of it, or at least all the information we can easily find in a digital format? It still freaks me out every now and then, but we've passed the age where hard drives limited the amount of data you could possess. Of course you still would want some data to be more easily accessible and findable after a global catastrophe (so I feel like I'm not really answering the question 'Which data do you need after a global catastrophe'), but that's no reason to not store all of it.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-11-01T14:39:31.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why not all of it, or at least all the information we can easily find in a digital format?

What do you mean with all of it? Every phone call ever made?

Replies from: TheMajor
comment by TheMajor · 2014-11-02T08:17:12.448Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I was surprised to see Wikipedia being listed, so I was thinking of all text that can be found on the internet, or all (maybe except videos?) of the internet. But the phone calls you mention are already a good example of important data that I didn't include... maybe we need more storage space than I thought after all.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-31T16:03:42.686Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

TEOTWAWKI is a very popular discussion topic. Google gives a million hits just on this abbreviation.

While reinventing wheels can be a pleasant pastime, I'm not sure it's a very useful activity...

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-31T15:30:53.155Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kind of crackpotty. You have been warned.

I'm going to mention the Global Village Construction Set, which I think is interesting, and The Georgia Guidestones, which are a different kind of interesting.

I'm also going to mention The City of Ember, a children's/young adult novel, (also made into a passable 2008 film of the same name). The premise of The City of Ember is a subterranean city that maintains the glowing embers of humanity in the event of global catastrophe. None of the residents of Ember have any knowledge of their city's purpose, or of the wider world. The city is in a state of considerable disrepair, having been running beyond its intended operational lifespan, and this is what drives the story.

To my mind, it seems one of the biggest problems of preserving information for post-catastrophe societies is literacy. Guaranteeing a common written language with the survivors of a cataclysmic event (or their descendants, to whom literacy might not be an important skill) seems like a tricky proposition. If you leave a big pile of books for people to find, and no-one's capable of reading them, the whole enterprise is a wasted effort.

Here's where Ember comes in: humans speaking a living language can teach that language to other humans they encounter. Would it be possible to preserve literacy, (as well as other notions of civilisation like agriculture, governance and cat pictures) in an Ember-like environment? By this I mean a sheltered society with sufficient capital surplus to maintain a high level of literacy, not necessarily a ruinous subterranean city governed by Bill Murray.

Replies from: DanielLC
comment by DanielLC · 2014-11-01T00:18:19.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you use a phonetic alphabet, literacy isn't that hard. You do still have to keep the language from changing.

comment by LizzardWizzard · 2014-11-02T18:47:37.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More and more people are thinking about upcoming catastrophe, we living in harsh times isn't it? However just before WW II due to some social survey people considered their environment stable and nobody preached of upcoming disaster. I didn't enjoy reading The Knowledge despite the catchy title, book isn't very exciting and I find it quite irritating that author persists on the point that after the catastrophe all the resources except for human will be available for some time, so if you want to get some food then go to grocery store, or if you want to change your location get a car from auto dealer.

comment by Metus · 2014-10-31T11:47:19.696Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we deeply deeply care about general risk that wipes out 90% of all humans and/or 90% of all technology and information storage, we need not only technological solutions but we need a culture that deeply deeply cares about prevention and, since this is the actual hypothetical, preparation. What that means is that any professional possessing any useful knowledge in building the technological foundations of civilizations makes at least basic preparations to store and transfer his knowledge, both about his tools and any theoretical foundations. That means learning the basics by heart so in case of their survival this knowledge is available. This means storing copies of all the basic books in safe places. Fewer copies of more advanced books. And maybe one with very specialised knowledge.

It means having a basic supply of unusually hardy but more effective tools that is not used in day-to-day business. Screwdrivers, hammers and axes are basic tools almost everyone should have at home, but anything that moves is more fragile and should be available to any community in a hardy version, as easy to use and maintain as possible. Even worse is anything that calculates electronically. These things tend to break completely, are impossible to repair and need to be replaced using absurdly advanced machinery. It is exactly there parts that need to be replaced with less potent equivalents, and it is exactly that absurdly advanced machinery that needs to be protected together with all knowledge and specialised people around them.

But what should such a culture look like? How could it be installed? I do not have the faintest idea. What we are looking for is an antifragile community or society, living the life today but prepared for a future much much worse than this one. What I do know is that no single human could prepare himself for such a dystopian future, only whole communities. All amenities we enjoy in civilization are only here because we cooperate and so we will only further enjoy them if we continue to cooperate after the event.

Knowledge is an extremely fragile thing. Small preliterate societies forgot basic things like how to make a canoe because their population shrunk. Will we forget even basic things like to avoid radioactive waste disposal sites? Quite possibly. But did we forget religion and cultural tropes over thousands of years? We did not. They changed, yes, but we did not forget, they're still here. So that's where I would look for preparation.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-31T14:39:14.622Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This means storing copies of all the basic books in safe places.

I think we already are at the point where that's the case. Storage is cheap enough that many people have pirated versions of all the major textbooks.

But what should such a culture look like? How could it be installed? I do not have the faintest idea. What we are looking for is an antifragile community or society, living the life today but prepared for a future much much worse than this one.

Resilient communities can give you a view of many things. John Robb wrote also various things on Global Guerillas about the topic.

The open source movement in general also allows much more information to be stored.