Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Languages

   One of the issues with looking at the preservation of information is what language to store it in.  While the immediate and obvious answer is "the language that the people saving the information speak," consider the following case -- a plague wipes out most human life and the only remaining pocket of humanity is on a remote Pacific island populated by people who don't speak any of the more common languages the "Codex Universalis" is preserved in. 


   Apocalyptic corner-cases really aren't the focus of the Leibowitz Society, but it does raise an interesting mental question -- how are people going to be able to use the information available if it's not in a form they can understand?  It was probably a fortunate accident of history that Latin was also the language of the Catholic Church in addition to being the language of the Roman Empire before it, meaning that all the works of the Roman scholars were accessible.  Of couse, it's possible that the Latin works would have found translation by other means, but consider that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were only able to be understood by the chance creation and discovery of the Rosetta Stone. 

   People will probably point out that the language that the information is stored in will likely still exist, in one form or another, so people should still be able to go back and read it.  This may be true to a point, but anyone who has tried to go read Beowulf, Chaucer or even Shakespeare in the original form will have nothing but trouble without an interpretation guide to go with it.  Even within the last hundred or so years, it's possible to witness the mutation of the English language.  How quickly would it begin to split into different dialects, then forms, at the onset of a new Dark Age when people's travel would be limited to perhaps a day's hike and commerce would grind to a halt?

   Using a known dead language, such as Latin is an example, is an option.  Latin is still used in the Catholic church for the simple reason that it doesn't change over time.  The only problem here is that it is not much used any more outside of religious (and some scientific circles).  The benefit is that is at least somewhat known to English speakers through a constant exposure of English to Latin words and uses.  It might also be feasible to create a new language, possibly one designed with information storage in mind.

   Regardless of whether or not the Society materials are in English, Latin, or something else, the problem of interpretation remains.  Imagine a large trove of materials recorded in Latin, with English, Spanish and French dictionaries included.  Those dictionaries stored will be a snapshot of those languages at that time.  So, in order for the stored materials to be used, there would have to be an effort to update the accompanying dictionaries and provide translations for the translations.

   One option might be to include a visual dictionary of some sort, a symbolic "key" for written words, perhaps enough to include large scale translation of obsolete writings.  The problem here is the accuracy of visual images and subsequent translation to written words, as well as even getting a future viewer to understand what their purpose is (and not mediocre, stylized art). 

   Going further, another option might be to create a mathematical process for converting knowledge to something using mathematical symbols, numbers, etc.  Experimentation or study along this path (or even input from a learned reader) may uncover an efficient means of storing information. 

   At the root of all this is still a justification and need for having a body of membership that can interpret the recorded knowledge, in addition to storing it, maintaining it and adding to it.  Regardless of how much effort and thought goes into making sure that the knowledge can be used at a future time, the most foolproof way to maintain access to it is through successive generations of people who are taught, and in turn teach, how to unlock it.  When I speak of the Leibowitz Society as being a generational effort, or of generational survival, this is what I mean.  Secrets written in lost languages may have a mystic appeal, but they are useless to people who need to know what they mean.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hollow Places

   Anyone following this blog will probably have a passing familiarity with James Howard Kunstler's blog documenting the slow collapse of the American society and economy.  He is a well-educated journalist who has spent a lot of time on the outside of society, looking in at its foolishness and self-destructive bent.  In constrast, I've spent most of my life on the inside of the madhouse, doing my best to live out the American dream, even as it has begun to falter.  Obviously, I've reached a conclusion that it's not sustainable, not because of personal reversal of fortune, but enough reading and observing the way society works and operates. 

   Regardless of one's scientific study of something, the "up close and personal" is sometimes just as enlightening as poring over economic information or historical analysis.  This past weekend, I visited our local mall to track down some odds and ends. 

   A couple of years earlier, the beginning of October would've marked the start of the Christmas shopping season.  While many people would wait a month or two to ramp up, there would already be people carrying out armloads of crap bought on credit that their friends and relatives would return en masse on December 26th.  Going to the mall this time, even on a Saturday, I saw it was relatively deserted, maybe like what a weekday afternoon would've been before the banking and economic crisis.  Even more sobering -- and probably in line with the impending commercial real estate crisis -- was the large number of empty shops, even a whole wing of the mall with absolutely no businesses in it. 

   Of couse, there are ever the optimists out there, who think "green shoots" can be found in the form of Eastern European entrepreneurs who scrape together enough cash to open a sunglasses kiosk or calendar stand.  There was a new spin on this I saw, too.  What had once been a Steve and Barry's (hawking flimsy, over-priced clothing from Vietnam and Sri Lanka) was now occupied by a deserted-looking fitness place that looked like it was offering a mixed martial arts type of workout.  Maybe they know something we don't -- surviving the coming economic apocalypse will require Sambo or Combato or whatever. 
Much has been made of the "open air mall" phenomenon, too.  Somehow being a throwback to Victorian shopping days, or something equally romantic, those facilities are foundering as well.  It's not a scientific analysis, but taking a quick stroll around one of these heavily-leveraged and heavily-subsidzed redevelopments will show the same sort of thing, as cheaper and more marginal business spring up to replace once-sound commercial giants.

   If I were threatened with my life and asked what I really thought about all this, I would say it reminded me of a cleaner, nicer, less dirty version of how people in post-apocalyptic movies are always shown co-opting a ship or a jetliner to live in.  The vehicle will never move again, will no longer fulfill its majestic former purpose, but will become a bad parody of istself.  The American mall has turned into the same thing.  Going back twenty or thirty years, it was intended to become a community center (with civic events), a place to eat, a place to shop, the modern version of the Roman forum.  Now, it is nothing but a collection of marginal businesses, each one trying to be the last man standing in a dying economy. 

   At this point, it doesn't take much imagination to picture a forum in any one of the Roman cities toward the end of the empire, with a "barbarian" from Scythia or Germania or somewhere sitting around with a table full of cheap junk that his tribe put together to sell for a quick denarii, while waiting for the whole thing to fall apart for good.

   On a lighter note, I am looking forward to next Wednesday, when the campaign signs that are blown over or knocked down aren't replaced by fresh new ones, and campaign TV commercials vanish for a while.  The political process, regardless of whichever party gets into office, is like a prison camp beauty contest, where people dress up as something they aren't to win a prize which is absolutely meaningless.  These days, instead of being a position of power and prestige, holding political office is going to make the holder part of an increasingly vilified and demonized class.  There is really nothing they can do to keep the ship of our society and economy from crashing on the rocks of inevitability.  All they are going to be now are the people who are blamed for an increasingly ugly mess.  

   The more perceptive readers will probably point out that this means anyone running for politicial office now is stupid, in that they don't know what's coming, greedy, in that they have figured out some angle to profit before it all falls apart, or insane, in that they have no idea why they're doing what they're doing, but that they're going to do it regardless.  Whichever case is true, it doesn't bode well for the leadership of the nation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Peak Civilization

   Much has been made about the peaking of resource availability, such as coal, oil, water, etc, in the media.  This is where demand exceeds supply, of course.  Little has been said of the social counterpart of this, where the problems in a civilization exceed the supply of solutions for them.  This is a phenomenon I call "peak civilization."  For example, empires are often built on the cycle of conquest-plunder-build-conquest, where the acquisition of new territories, wealth and people often leads to both the needs and means to acquire more territories, wealth and people.  As in the case of ancient Rome (when there was no more "low hanging barbarian lands") and the Spanish empire (when there was no more "low hanging American Indian silver"), when the formula gets derailed, so does the society.  
   America, the world's current premiere empire, seems positioned at the same point.  While the early stages of the American empire was fueled by conquest of the territorial kind, recent decades have seen the nation shift to primarily making economic conquests.   Much of this involved the application of new ideas to money, in terms of how it would function.  Leveraging the value of a dollar across multiple loans (in other words, creating seven times the vallue of a dollar through clever manipulation) came into vogue.  Now that the process for increasing wealth has reversed itself, what of the whole infrastructure which was built on that wealth amplification?  There really don't seem to be any official ideas for trying to fix the mess, except for printing more money in a futile effort to "stimulate" the economy. 
   Of course, there are the usual political rantings on all sides of the spectrum about this, that and the other about what should be done, all of which ignores the fact that the frame of discussion should be shifting from how to tweak the system to how to deal with the fact that the system is not going to be recognizeable in a few years.  Cliches about "reining in government spending" don't mean much when the national debt is already not realistically serviceable and trying to blame business for the mess ignores the political origin of many of the problems.  Nowhere in the mainstream to be heard is "How are we going to function when the national currency is worthless and commerce how ground to a halt on a national scale because no one can agree how to get paid for their goods and services?"  On the other side of things, the doomsayers are also equally unable to propose solutions for the impending collapse outside of "grow some vegetables and make solar electricity."  (in fairness, they are at least able to frame the discussion in something more closely resembling reality) 
   I once read that you knew a society was on its way out when it had nothing else to say, culturally speaking.  When there was nothing new as far as literature, music or art went, then it was a symptom that the society itself had become petrified to where it could no longer have anything to say about the new problems which inevitably crept up.  Little of note seems to be produced lately in the arts worth considering.  Old musicals are making a return as the avant garde has fallen into a state of confusion.  Music itself has degenerated to where pop artists need twenty dancers on stage to distract the audience from the lack of substance in their art form.  Cinema itself has become a derivative of a derivative, to where genres are ideas are so muddled that the latest version of Robin Hood has a battle scene which seems to be a time warp with Saving Private Ryan.  Organized sports, most of all, seems most emblematic of this, where a great deal of effort, time and emotion is invested in a cyclical enterprise that begins anew each season. 
   Some people might read this as a rant about anything modern, but it is instead a rant against the stagnation of ideas and thought, the one thing which is necessary to avoid if a society is to continue to be able to adapt and evolve as times change.  The twin revolutions of America and France (even with the tragedy that the French Revolution became) were new ideas, attempts to address the problems with trying to run nations with the vestige of medieval political and class thought in an increasingly modern and global economy.  How could this issue possibly be resolved today? 
   The reason that the end of dark ages often seems so vibrant (the flowering of the Renaissance and the example Classical Greece) is that things are torn down, with a fresh slate to begin with.  People are not slaves to tradition, because what had been the keeper of tradition is gone.  They don't have a need to do anything but what works, because there is really no room -- no surplus of security -- to experiment with anything else.  Up and out.  When there is no more "up" in a civilization -- when there is no ability or drive to propose and adopt new solutions, then the "out" is the only thing left.  I suspect that as the current mess unfolds, we will hear more and more calls for new ideas and solutions to the situation, only to learn that, like a slash-and-burned jungle clearing turned barren, the necessary resources are exhausted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


   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.