The 10,000 Year Vanity Press

Writers are vain creatures. If you ever meet one, we’ll tell you all sorts of lies about why we “must” write. Only one is true. We want to be immortal. Could anything else explain all them vampire stories?

This is one of the most worrying things about ebooks. As New Scientist recently explained, digital technology stands almost no chance of surviving the apocalypse. Paper would fare much better. While we’re hard pressed to access floppy disks and memory sticks from even a few years back, paper holds up pretty well. Used bookstores are loaded with the blockbusters from years gone by, attics overflow with discarded tomes, and libraries pile the stuff up and neatly archive it. Each paper book is a shot at immortality. If well tended, it can survive hundreds of years. Yet no one will even know how to turn on today’s ebooks two hundred years from now, let alone access any of the “books” downloaded to them.

Paper is better, most definitely, but even over the very long term paper doesn’t last. It is just paper after all. Surely not one of the paperbacks in the boxes I have piled in my basement will still be kicking around 10,000 years from now. Thankfully that New Scientist article highlighted the work of the Long Now Foundation. They’ve found an answer that can truly stand the test of time. Through their Rosetta Project, they’ve developed a medium that even Megatron wouldn’t be able to scratch:

For the extreme longevity version of the Rosetta database, we have selected a new high density analog storage device as an alternative to the quick obsolescence and fast material decay rate of typical digital storage systems. This technology, developed by Los Alamos Laboratories and Norsam Technologies, can be thought of as a kind of next generation microfiche. However, as an analog storage system, it is far superior. A 2.8 inch diameter nickel disk can be etched at densities of 200,000 page images per disk, and the result is immune to water damage, able to withstand high temperatures, and unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. This makes it an ideal backup for a long-term text image archive. Also, since the encoding is a physical image (no 1’s or 0’s), there is no platform or format dependency, guaranteeing readability despite changes in digital operating systems, applications, and compression algorithms.

Their first prototypes are an archive of 1,500 human languages, with translations into each language of the first three chapters of Genesis and other pertinent information. One of the prototypes was even shot into space on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe, and is currently headed for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The assumption is that as long as one of the languages on the disk remains known somewhere, the rest can be tapped. This worked well for Egyptian hieroglyphics in the infamous Rosetta stone, which also contained the text in Greek. And avoids the mistake of the Phaitos disk, which only contains one uknown language. It’s 3,600 years old and filled with an amazing script, but no one knows what it says. Hopefully it’s more than a shopping list.

What this means for writers today is that as long as our words are scribbled in one of the 1,500 languages on the Rosetta disk, and survive, someone somewhere will be able to read them. But how can our words survive? Perhaps the Long Now foundation could become the world’s most forward thinking vanity press. They could charge $20 per page, etch on disk, shoot into space. Simple. If 200,000 pages fit on one disk, this Long Now vanity press would collect $4 million per disk (which they could in turn use for good to make up for evil vanity press stuff).

Why should the slush pile that’s currently being uploaded to Kindle perish when the current device is obsolete two years from now? Why not let it all live for 10,000 years? After all, even the most arcane dribble from the worst hack that ancient Egypt ever produced would make for fascinating reading today.


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