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Friday, April 13, 2012

The Long Now Foundation Promises to Preserve Civilization -- On a Three-Inch Disk

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 9:30 AM


Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

By now, you know the acquisition story: Museums tirelessly pursue a coveted addition to the collection, lobby the higher-ups for approval, and emerge triumphant. Cue the happy ending. The exhibition goes up and invigorates the city as a whole. Academics find the missing link in their society-altering research. Readers kindly stay tuned for next Friday's post.

But surely that's not the end. How do the materials survive various distressing elements -- air, fire, water, and the very worst of them all, humans? Often working offsite, clad in white coats whose pockets are crammed with book brushes and minarettes, the conservationists and their gloved hands are hard at work. They mend tears, clean fibers, reinforce weaknesses, and strengthen substrates.

"Die on some other day!" they exclaim upon reading the solubility tests, laughing manically from their light-protected labs.

That speaks to what we'll call "analog artifacts." But how are the newest innovations saved from digital obsolescence? This is a major concern for San Francisco's Long Now Foundation, which has been creatively fostering long-term responsibility for the future -- or at least the next 10,000 years. The latest project of Long Now, located at Fort Mason Center, is predictably far-reaching: a nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface. These are not digital encodings of long, numerical sequences. Each page on this "Rosetta Disk" is an image readable by the human eye through optical magnification. Resting in a sphere of stainless steel and glass, the disk can endure exposure to the atmosphere with minimal care.

Research suggests that it should remain legible for thousands of years.

When deciding what kind of information should go on the disk, the director of the Long Now Foundation and the Rosetta Project relied on her background in linguistics.

"Way back in the day, we used to create all of these records on paper and cassette tapes," Laura Welcher says, recounting the ways she has sought to build lasting records of languages on the brink of extinction.

The most recent prototype of the disk, which measures three inches across and only 1/8 of an inch thick, fits into the palm of her hand.


The real Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian artifact found by Napoleon's soldiers. It features a decree carved into it, repeated in three different languages. The hieroglyphs recorded an ancient human language, essentially unlocking an entire civilization through the texts they left behind. With that in mind, Welcher believes that the "parallel structure of the collection could be the key to future decipherment of any of the records or documents we leave for the future in human language form."

Make no mistake: Languages are endangered. Experts believe that 50 percent to 90 percent of the world's languages will disappear in the next century, many with little to no significant documentation. The loss of linguistic diversity will have severe repercussions for society, for language is the primary means of human culture's maintenance and transmission.

In order to avoid that fate, people have to care, but also find a means to easily engage in the conservation of language. The Rosetta Project is defined by the principle of open access. All of the structured information it collects and maintain about languages and their speakers is housed in a digital archive, publicly available for download and reuse.

Visit the Long Now Foundation at the Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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Alexis Coe


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