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Future Speak 

The Long Now Foundation wants to assemble every human language on one nearly indestructible disk -- and, maybe, to last forever

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002

Page 3 of 3

The site lists 1,470 languages so far, out of about 4,000 worldwide that have paper documentation -- either published in dusty books or "languishing away," according to Mason, "in file cabinets and shoe boxes and closets," where missionaries or far-flung researchers might have left it for posterity. The project's goal for the next five years is to collect that written information on the rest of the world's languages and put it online. This first step toward an All-Language Archive seems modest when compared to the company's really ambitious second step, though: collecting data on the remaining 2,000 or 3,000 languages that aren't even documented. Of course, such a huge undertaking might not get funded by the Rosetta Project's backer, the Lazy Eight Foundation, which supports unorthodox educational and scientific work. Fieldwork may be unorthodox, but it's also expensive.

"We're not making any claims as to whether we're gonna start a new fieldwork project," says Mason. "The levels of [financial] support needed to make any significant dent in the new-language documentation effort is gigantic -- hundreds of millions. Right now the Rosetta Project is working on $5 million for the next five years."

Still, fieldwork isn't out of the question, given the eccentric tendencies of the man behind the Lazy Eight Foundation, Charlie Butcher. Butcher is a retired cleaning-products mogul who knew Buckminster Fuller, the forward-thinking inventor and architect who developed the geodesic dome. "[Butcher] was equally surprised by what's happened here," says Mason. "He signed up to collect some Genesis translations and have a disk. Well, this much larger data quest happened, and that was never imagined."

The Rosetta Project's own idea of the Disk has also evolved, from a storage experiment and potential devotional object to a printout of the Web site. This fall's first Disk features 1,000 languages, but Mason hopes that in five years, after the Web site has been loaded with all 4,000-odd documented languages, microetching technology will be far enough along to allow a 4,000-language Disk. "And then at serial points [afterward] -- maybe every five years? We don't know -- we do a printing of the database. So the Disks become records of the database at points in time."

They also become, presumably, cheaper. Early 4,000-language Rosetta Disks will go to donors who've given $25,000 or more to the project, which means the priceless first prototype belongs to Charlie Butcher. The eventual goal is to bring the price of a Disk down to about $100. "It's not gonna be $5, ever," says Mason. "But as a unique family artifact, it should be affordable, and as a real, Deep Time archive it has to have worldwide distribution."

The Rosetta team wants to sell heirloom Disks through the Web site, not just to families but to museums, governments, libraries, and any other kind of institution that's interested. Response to rumors and early press about the Disk has been huge, so one hopes -- the way you might hope for your playwright cousin to succeed -- that Long Now won't fold too soon.

Long Now, for all its blue-sky ideas, looks like a fun place to work. If you don't mind a blocky concrete office building designed by the military that feels like a UC campus dorm, the views of the Presidio are spectacular and the people are smart, open-minded, and simpatico. The conversation is always interesting. When I last visited, someone had just installed a "meteor burst" antenna over Jim Mason's desk -- what looked like a length of sprinkler pipe, built to send radio signals that bounce off meteor trails in the ionosphere. Long Now needs it to communicate with a weather station near Ely, Nev. Why? Well, the foundation owns a limestone mountain close to Ely that might become the home for a really big Millennium Clock.

The vision for the limestone mountain is to build a massive cave where a version of the clock might survive and become a pilgrimage site. "It's just ticking away," imagines Kevin Kelly, the former Wired editor, "and maybe there's a library, and people are tending it, and it's a place where people go and have conferences. Who knows?"

Yeah, who knows? Kelly has a way of fantasizing about the future of his organization that sounds simultaneously crazy and modest. He's a gentle, quiet man -- not an egotist -- and he understands that Long Now may not survive the life span of its founders. It is, after all, not a religion. Still, it's worth mentioning that Kelly thinks of Burning Man as a sort of proto-religion -- "ritual without theology." He says, "The Man is exactly the same every year, and they've got this very elaborate and completely meaningless ritual, and they maintain continuity. It's transparent right now, but who knows what would happen over millennia?" It may be no coincidence that most of the Long Now office clears out every year for Burning Man, or that the foundation owns a mountain in Nevada.

One idea behind Charlie Butcher's funding outfit -- Lazy Eight -- is that lazy, idle thinking can produce interesting practical results. The Rosetta Project, if it finishes its All-Language Archive, might become Exhibit A for this notion. Of course, Kelly and the others at Long Now realize that civilization may collapse in a hundred years, that the Rosetta Disk might be vaporized in a nuclear attack, or the Millennium Clock might get sand in its gears and conk out before the year 3000. Long Now is certainly not a front-runner in the race to become an enduring religion, but, says Kelly, "we can certainly make that attempt." He shrugs, with the romantic's stubborn insistence that the attempt in itself is worthwhile.

"We're future junkies," he says. "That's Whole Earth, and it's Wired -- that's just our diction." He shrugs again. "We're trying to think ahead."


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