Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Introduction

   While I write this inaugural entry of the Leibowitz Society blog, I'm listening to classic jazz -- music from the 50s and 60s, not something more modern.  This is music from the days of American optimism, when a man would soon be on the moon, when the economy was booming even as the rest of the world was trying to pick itself up from the ruins of World War Two.  When I listen to it, I imagine a train of passenger cars led by a sleek, streamlined EMD F9 diesel engine.  Or maybe a Lockheed Constellation, polished and shining brightly in the sun, ready to take passengers on what was still a relatively novel way to travel.  In a way, it is idealism, the art of the mind to create images of motion, a trajectory that has drastically changed over the last few decades.  Of course, in jazz, there is also a melancholy that can not be matched by the darkest ambient music.

   People spend a lot of time and effort writing about what has changed and why it's changed.  Debt, scarce natural resources, a general sense that people want to cling to what diminishing assets and position they have in the world.  America, for example, has gone from being a nation where the lives of three astronauts lost in the early days of the space program did nothing but to change the safety standards of the program to being a nation where the deaths of astronauts cause people to question openly if the program should continue at all.  It's all about the security, the need of people to try to hold on to where they are at.  Not that it really works.  Nature has an "up or out" policy -- the tree which grows fastest chokes the other trees out.  Human society doesn't seem to operate much differently -- if people stop trying to achieve, stop trying to strive, then it will be choked out by a newer, more vibrant society.

   Of course, in a day and age when a newer, more vibrant society has yet to emerge, there comes a vacuum and chaos sweeps in.  Rome, the shining warning from the past, found itself surrounded on one hand by the "barbarian" tribes of Northern Europe that has not yet coalesced into true political entitites, and on the other hand by the relics of former great empires that had not yet succumbed to the advance of Islam.  When Rome fell, no longer able to hold itself up under crushing financial and political pressures, nothing was left to take its place.

   Would America's fate be much different?  One can spend time swapping puzzle pieces around like a housewife trying to arrange her ideal kitchen.  Some scenarios include perhaps attempts by dying Europe to reclaim parts of America once it would sink into chaos.  Who are the new barbarians?  The American underclass, barely kept at bay by legal force?  The great bulk of the Latin American population, once willing to work like fugitive slaves but no longer needing to hide once the old empire has collapsed?

    The (unspoken) consensus is that however the new players may arrange themselves, America has essentially reached the end of the line.  Like most empires, our economy was built on slavery.  First came the African slaves of the South and the factory workers of the North, followed then by the invention of machines that gave each American the equivalent of a hundred slaves working for them at the turn of a key or press of a button.  This is not a moral judgement, of course, just a statement of fact.  When the supply of labor or energy dries up, that which has sustained the empire falls apart.

   But it is also not just the lost multiplication of labor at work here, but the loss of accumulated wealth.  Every generation that built America tended to leave things better for the following generation.  At first, it was the sense of making sure your children were taken care of until they could find their own place in the world, then a national sense of building toward an ideal which was greater than what any one person could establish on their own.  Buildings named after people, for example, showed that the person cared enough to give money to make sure they would give something to people after they were gone.  Now, those systems are fading under the weight of economic strain, if not outright collapse.  Bernie Madoff was just a textbook symptom of what is really the disease of widespread loss.

   As one subsystem -- the real estate market, manufacturing, local government, banks -- after another fails, the system itself moves farther and father from a position where it can right itself.  There needs to be available capital for projects to proceed.  There needs to be a consumer base capable of making purchases to sustain manufacturing.  There has to be enough political goodwill for leaders to be trusted and solutions to be tried.  Once these things start to vanish, there can no longer be recovery, the society will begin to crack and fragment and the system will grind to a halt, much as Rome simply was unable to sustain itself in the 400s.  Of course, nothing really needs to be said about the American national debt and how it will destroy the glue of the economy (money).  The discussion of the collapse of empire is not complete without mentioning war, plague, famine, etc.  Like pneumonia to an old person, these just hasten along the death of a society that could otherwise fight off such things and remain healthy.

   It goes without saying that nothing occurring today guarantees that a global collapse will occur.  The problem is that if such a collapse occurs, then what is going to become of human civilization?  After Rome fell, for example, there is archaeological evidence of people starving to death in what had been an abdundant farming area a generation earlier.  In a larger sense, technology, agriculture, sanitation and living standards did not return to where they had been during the time of Rome until within the last couple of hundred years.  While this is a simplification, the problem still remains that if we see a global collapse, it's likely that most of humanity's accumulated knowledge and achievement is going to be lost, not to be rediscovered for a long time, if ever.

   At this point, many people may be asking why it matters to them as individuals if society collapses and the collective knowledge of society vanishes.  After all, they will be too busy trying to find food and shelter to worry about higher learning.  The answer to this simply lies in the fact that almost everything around us is the product of someone else's learning and experimentation.  For example, in front of me is an aluminum can.  Aluminum is a lightweight, durable material for building many things, yet just a little over a hundred years ago, it was scarcer than platinum because it was nearly impossible to refine aluminum ore.  What would be the effect for the future if this knowledge was lost?  Or, on a more practical level, consider the manufacture of antibiotics or other medical supplies.  Who would want to find themselves surviving a collapse only to die of an infection which would have been easily cured just a few years before?

   On a larger scale, there is the matter of how to run an effective and just society, something which may also be lost in a time when survival becomes paramount.  It takes surprisingly little time for cultural amnesia to set in and for people to assume that the way things currently are is the way they've always been.

   The obvious answer to these problems is to look to a way of preserving knowledge so it can be used by future generations after the crash has come and gone.  Dr. Bruce Clayton, in Life After Doomsday, proposed a micro-scale solution, which he advocated storing two literary works and a scientific text as part of one's survival supplies.  While this was a step in the right direction, there were a couple of fundamental flaws with it.  The first is the assumption that people are going to select a wide variety of texts to preserve -- enough to reassemble a significant portion of accumulated human knowledge.  The other was that people would be able to make any sense of the works at some point down the road.  Given how quickly the English language can change, it doesn't seem that this would necessarily be a likely case.

   Another option would be for national governments to preserve human knowledge through sealed archives.  The problem with this approach is that this knowledge would be stored in one central place, with little way for most people to access it.  On top of this, if it were stored in a remote location, it might be lost forever in spite of how well protected it was.  It goes without saying that libraries would probably quickly become victims of plunder (paper burns well to start fires) or simply decay from neglect.
   These considerations mean that the preservation of knowledge for future generations has to take a different approach.  There needs to be a three-part focus:

1) Having a body of people who are able to store, preserve, interpret and disseminate stored knowledge as appropriate.  This body of people would also have to be able to teach their successors as time goes on.  In a sense, these people are not unlike the monks during the dark ages who were instrumental in preserving the knowledge of the West, then making it available again. 

2) Having a basic manual of knowledge which can be used for building communities, reference by the people mentioned in the above point, a basic work of necessity.  Think of this as a "survival encyclopedia."  People will point to their bookshelves and say "Well, I have a book on how to start a fire with two sticks."  This is good, but are there books about the psychology of communities or how to establish a barter system up there as well?  This books -- or set of books -- would be assembled as a "go to" manual for everyday life and needs as human civilization moves deeper into collapse.  It would also allow members to help build stable communities to serve as centers of learning as time goes on.

3) Finally, there is the actual body of knowledge that is intended to be preserved.  This covers the seven basic areas of human learning:  agriculture, civil engineering, hard science, culture, defense, politics/economy and medicine.  Here is where everything from Shakespeare to space exploration would be recorded and stored.  It should be noted that this is not necessarily intended to be a complete work of knowledge (very difficult to store) but in many cases may be the "start point" of where to go next.

   There are obviously considerable challenges involved in an endeavor like this, but it is also a workable program and is likely to become a necessary program as the slide continues.  Even as I write this up today, there is news about how once-prosperous U.S. cities are cutting back drastically on services and policing, something that is joined by one bad news article after another.  Soon, the necessity of a thing like this will be made clear as communities begin to find themselves cut off from each other by deteriorating roads and political isolation.
  
   Going back to Bruce Clayton, he termed his project the "Leibowitz Project," after the excellent "Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller.  It is from both of these sources that the name of the Leibowitz Society is drawn.  The Society itself is non-partisan, apolitical, secular and does not concern itself with the day to day dealings of politics or government, except to comply with all relevant laws.  It is open to all people, provided they do not engage in illegal activity with regard to the Society's efforts.  There are no membership fees and there is no criteria or test to become a member, outside of caring about the future of the human race and making sure that our accumulated knowledge is not lost.  Soon, this blog will be joined by a companion forum that will allow people to exchange ideas and information about what should be stored, as well as work on the manual of knowledge and so on.  Look for an announcement here when the website is live.

9 comments:

  1. Looks like I'm your first "follower". (also the first site I've followed)

    I found you thru Kunstler's site.

    I have made some minor efforts along your Liebowitz Society, for example I have a data dump of Wikipedia on a DVD in my basement. My goal is to be able to keep computers running far into the future. Another site I've cloned is the CIA World Factbook.

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  2. justjohn,

    Pleased to make your acquaintance. I've been interested for a while in what would be the most efficient and long-term way to keep information available. I've looked more at hard copy and physical storage rather than computers because of the issue of power supply and physical durability.

    Have you made much progress in determining computer longevity? I haven't looked much into it, but I would expect that having a box which had no temporary storage (flash memory, hard drives, etc), instead with everything burned onto ROM chips, that in turn hooked into a digital (LED) display for text reading might be the most durable.

    -John

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  3. How The Irish Saved Civilization may be an interesting addition to the library, actually all of Tom Cahill's histories might be good.

    I like this place . WIll be back.

    Don

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  4. Don,

    I've liked what I've read of Thomas Cahill's works but haven't picked that one up yet. At some point, I'm planning to start featuring reviews of selected works which are of interest and relevant to the Leibowitz Society and may look at forming a suggested reading list based on those reviews.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. The Leibowitz Society itself is the end result of an idea I've been developing over several years in response to the increasingly bleak state of civilization. I wish that it wasn't strictly necessary, but I think that it would be welcome even in stable, prosperous times. After all, even if we weren't actively doing ourselves in by mismanagement and cultural amnesia, humanity's old enemies such as plague and war still would be lurking in the distance.

    -John

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  5. John, I have done some minimal research into computer longevity. (I have about 35 years of computer support experience) Hoping to follow up on that in more detail and put up some webpages.

    I would warn that I'm mostly geared toward keeping stuff running for my lifetime, perhaps 20-30 years. Regarding power supplies, I lean toward laptops and Atom all-in-one motherboards that will run off a single DC voltage. I think solar panels will be around for that timeframe, and car batteries, too.

    I'm less concerned about media. I'm a big fan of Taiyo Yuden, if stored correctly I think their CDs will last 100+ years and DVDs 25+ years. The disc reader is more of a problem.

    I have high hopes for the newer SSD (solid state drives), that seems like a technology that should be able to sit on a shelf for a long time and still work.

    I do have some 386 class computers in my basement, circa 1990. All I can say is that they fired up the last time I tried. (ok, I can also say that my android smartphone is about ten times the computer as a 386...)

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  6. John,

    This is good information to have and I'm glad to have some insights into the topic. It goes without saying that computerized storage is far and away the best choice for the amount of information we are thinking of dealing with here. I am definitely interested in seeing what information you post on web pages about it.

    -John

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  7. Can of Kraut, pound of Pastrami. Bring home for Emma

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  8. Well played, sir/ma'am, well played. :)

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  9. test post - I am having trouble posting to this web site

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