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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

After an Apocalypse, What's Left of Digital Stores of Knowledge?

Our existing information technology infrastructure is surprisingly robust, at least for now. But what’s left if something really big happens?

  • June 16, 2011

The editor of the Gawker media sci-fi blog io9, Annalee Newitz, is working on a book about how humans will regroup after the apocalypse. That such a book could be considered non-fiction is a remarkable commentary on the world we live in, with gold at a record high, the U.S. government on the verge of default, supplies of cheap oil running out and the environment crashing down on the heads of more humans than anyone ever imagined could simultaneously inhabit spaceship earth.

Brewster Kahle has created an disaster-proof ark for the world’s books

It’s tempting to believe that we live in a special time – this is the root of all apocalyptic thinking – but it’s hard to compare even today’s menaces to the rise of the Third Reich, the fall of the Roman Empire or the Black Death. At least not yet.

But supposing something were to happen, as it does every day in parts of war-torn sub-Saharan Africa – some cascade of environmental and political disasters leading to armed conflict or resource starvation. What happens when all those data centers, housing all that knowledge we digitized without a second thought, go dark?

As Kevin Kelly outlines in an engaging meditation on the impermanence of media, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, has one answer: A gigantic, non-descript warehouse in Richmond, California that is home to half a million books. Every one of them encased in shipping containers that should keep them safe even through a period of neglect – a power failure, a collapse of civil society.

Books, unlike our more complicated media, have no technological dependencies when it comes time to access their contents. They have other disadvantages – they’re highly flammable and vulnerable to moisture and insects – but that still puts them ahead of hard drives and CD-ROMS.

And especially data centers. Data centers sit at the end of a very long supply chain. Can you imagine trying to “re-localize” the production of data centers in the event of a post-peak-everything reorganization of civilization? Unless the U.S. is going to annex Taiwan and build a permanent wormhole to its shores, it seems absurd on its face.

Kelly believes that books are going away, but he also argues that no technology ever really does. A more interesting question than whether or not they’re the ultimate repository of knowledge after a truly immense disruption is whether there are any other technologies or repositories of knowledge that will survive alongside them. Can you think of any?

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