Monday, February 25, 2013

Codex Context

It's been a while since I've talked about one of the aims of the Leibowitz Society -- to collect a comprehensive work of knowledge that can be used as a "seed" for reconstructing knowledge on the other side of a dark age. While this might seem like an odd notion -- we still have lots of libraries and books out there -- consider that collapse may not come about only because of a shortage of oil or a gradual unwinding of our economic structure. We forget sometimes that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in existence, that comets and meteors fly by regularly, and that there is a very real possibility of a global pandemic at some point in the future. How quickly would a "superbug" level our complex and intricate technological society, for example? Life After People could be Life After 98 Percent of the People Are Dead and I think the world would still look much the same. Also, there is a tendency for things to build off of each other. An economic crash could lead to war, which in turn could lead to a pandemic. 
Likewise, it may seem like an odd notion to want to preserve our knowledge. After all, we are the heirs of a long process of technological improvement and innovation, the mastery of humanity over our natural world. If we did it once, we can figure it out again, right? I don't really know the truth of that answer, though. If we had a fifty-fifty chance of advancement as a species, there's the other side of the coin which said "nuh-uh, not happening." There are also other arguments we might consider, such as potentially being the only sentient life in the universe. Ponder that one for a moment. Or, we might look at our children and decide that we would like them to be able to make some sense out of the shambles we seem to be leaving them. Perhaps a latter generation might figure out where we went wrong, and pick up where we left off, even reaching for the stars at some future point (I don't see the end of cheap oil as necessarily being the end of human progress, if we are smart -- after all, how much oil has been basically pissed away on things like Pet Rocks and Sunday drives just for the hell of it? Could we live without both of those?). If there is a collapse, then likewise, there needs to be a blueprint for rebuilding after that collapse, a body of knowledge to use as that blueprint.

Ideally, this body of knowledge would fit on a portable hard drive or DVD, and contain several thousand works of important and significance to the human race, such as books on medicine, history, drama, power generation, pick something. The key challenge and difficulty there, however, is creating a system of storage which would last for generations, as well as maintaining equipment which could read it at a future date. There is also the challenge of making sure that people would be able to understand the knowledge as well, essentially having a "living" Rosetta Stone that would be able to understand the language that it is written in, even after the common language has changed so much so as to make the original work incomprehensible. This may seem a little silly, but look at something written two or three hundred years ago, then something written six hundred years ago, then consider how long the Dark Ages lasted, in a time where collapse meant less than it would now.

The other possibility would be maintaining a large physical library of books. A decent starting point for rebuilding society's lost knowledge would probably fit on two large shelves, or maybe four or five crates, appropriately printed on acid-free paper and sealed against moisture and insects. The only problem with this approach is fits in four or five crates. While people have argued back and forth about mobility vs. permanency in various circles, the reality is that we may or may not have a choice about staying put or going someplace. We may also simply not be able to move a collection such as that to safer ground in the face of a disaster of some sort. In this case, portability is what we would need, but this would make looking back at a data-driven solution.

There is a third possibility, though. While it might not be an ideal solution, I think it would be possible to compile a work of around a thousand pages to be a guide and supplement to either of the above approaches, a mini Codex, so to speak. Each of the seven core knowledge areas (Agriculture, Engineering, Science, Medicine, Defense, Culture, Community) would have a section which would be a summation of the more basic principles of each area and would give people a starting point to work with. While some people might question the approach of a single volume and how effective it would be, remember the distinction between content and context -- while it's useful to have information to put in the "bucket," the fact that you understand there's a "bucket" there means you are far ahead of people who do not understand that. In other words, if we are aware of the existence of germs, for example, we are then at least able to begin taking precautions to deal with them during surgery and treating infection, without having a whole plan for this laid out for us, necessarily.

For those keeping track, this is also roughly the same length in pages as the average Bible. A scribe might balk at copying tens of thousands of pages of a private library, but copying a thousand pages would be doable for a person, even if it took a year or more to complete. In addition, printing something like this with a press would not be hugely difficult, compared to that multiple-volume scenario as above. It would be easy for a person to largely have a work like this studied and memorized, given enough time. Finally, a person could throw a copy or two of the Codex in with all their other stuff and take it with them, if they had to move.

The challenge is obviously trying to decide what should be included in something like this. There are plenty of options and different people may choose to organize it in different ways. Going forward, in between commentary on our steady collapse and mass civilizational insanity, I'd like to begin exploring this in detail and perhaps actually start writing the first outline of the Codex Universalis. As a starting point, maybe tackling Engineering would be a good choice. This would cover things like how to build a shelter, build a bridge, generate power, provide clean water, and so on. What do you readers think should be included in that section?


  1. For 10's of thousands of years, knowledge was passed down through the generations by the oral tradition.

  2. the thought that came to mind while reading this was Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalogue. While the WEC was dedicated to products and where to buy them, the same form could be applied to a book of ideas and knowledge about maintaining the best we have achieved over the centuries that could be used as a foundation or starting point in rebuilding after the Big Collapse

  3. Since reading this gem, I've searched for such a book for my own library, to no avail:

    'An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship,' by a man Tower, Towson—some such name—Master in his Majesty's Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough, with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures, and the copy was sixty years old. I handled this amazing antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness, lest it should dissolve in my hands. Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle, and other such matters. Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light. The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real. Such a book being there was wonderful enough; but still more astounding were the notes penciled in the margin, and plainly referring to the text. I couldn't believe my eyes! They were in cipher! Yes, it looked like cipher. Fancy a man lugging with him a book of that description into this nowhere and studying it—and making notes—in cipher at that! It was an extravagant mystery.

  4. I am excited that this important topic is being taken seriously by others. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking this up.
    Please read my ruminations from a couple of years ago.

    I guess my assumption is different in that perhaps our species will succumb. In which case my emphasis is more to preserve the story of who we were and what we did, rather than somehow preserve a dignified human culture by way of technology.

    Now as to the hows and wherefores: The text needs to be rosettaed i.e. multiple languages intertwined so it can be decoded. It needs to have redundant copies. It needs to have markers which are obscure to all but those looking for them. It needs to be durable.

    There are two distinct methods which make sense:
    - durable engraved stone in geographically stable locations.
    - molecular codes attached to DNA.

  5. McGraw-Hill has published some good handbooks. "Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers" is a classic. "Standard Handbook for Electrical Engineers", too. "Reference Data for Radio Engineers" covers a lot more than just radio and television, but all kinds of communication systems. The "CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics", I'm afraid, would be too abstract to be appreciated by anyone not intensively trained in the art. The "ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications" is the new title for the Amateur Radio handbook, and contains numerous construction projects for DIY communications. The "U of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook" is also in my library, to assist with food production.
    In another vein, we'll need "The Foundation Trilogy" by Asimov, as a gentle introduction to the theme of collapse, self-sufficiency, and rebirth, and "Collapse" (Jared Diamond) to illustrate what we're up against (yet again).

  6. Maybe I'm missing something, but why not just mirror I think that would be sufficient, and certainly easy.

  7. I have been collecting books, myself for this very reason. To teach the children of our children. Subjects that include: Mathematics, Tarot, Astrology, the Tao, Bhuddism, Vedic writings, Vedic Mathematics, Gardening and Permaculture, Psychology as Carl Jung, NLP, the use of plant medicines, Psylocybin, and Ayahuasca as plant teachers, wooden boat building, survival training in the wilderness.
    I've also wondered about how we will cordon off the decayed nuclear power plants form hapless wanderers since our language will be outdated in a thousand years or less. Keep Out, Radioactive!
    I believe that if we really wanted to keep knowledge for future generations, it will have to be in the oral tradition, a living link for the future generations. Each person understanding the significance of sending the remnants of past civilizations plus the best and useful parts of the present civilization, must be set themselves to memorize and pass on these gems.
    In the end, it is our relationship with our Mother Earth, our star the Sun, and the Universe and asking for help that will give us the real wisdom.

  8. There's another way to look at this. Everything we have learned has gotten us to where we are today, the verge of a complete collapse of a ruined society. Better the survivors strike out in their own direction, and not follow the ruts we have left in the road.

  9. The question will be able what level of information do we want to keep. Specialization is prevalent and which makes it very difficult. A fail-safe method for knowledge retention has to be used. Something that can be read and understood in the absence of tools, electricity, electronics etc. A book is the simplest method. Fragile, yes. But something that can be read under a candlelight on the run if needed. In a major catastrophy most likely the specialized knowledge will be retained in the heads of the experts. Medicine will suffer the most. Gone are the days of medications prepared by the pharmacist. Complicated methods and tools are needed to make today's medicines. Engineering, agriculture are the easier to maintain.

  10. Lost Horizon makes poignant rereading at this point in our history. I start at the assumption that energy-dependent technologies cannot be maintained. Books are our slim hope of saving the good. Most of our accumulated 'culture' is rot, and it's not being coy to ask whether a 'dark age' is something to be dreaded or heralded; whether a 98% catastrophic mortality may be the only real hope this species has of not wholly self-destructing. Books, then. Speaking from experience of small-town cultural desuetude (I hope I chose the right word, I can't check the web and my dictionaries are packed at the moment), caches of books in out-of-the-way places would probably survive, simply because few people read anymore, and the books would be undisturbed so long as there is plentiful other tinder in the areas. A pity there aren't more secret monasteries about, with biddable primitive agriculturalists nearby, willing to suppost priestly castes of bibliophiles.... My own cultural keening moves me to save books of fibre technologies, design, and pre-industrial technologies. It will be a sad, harsh world with the loss of so much 'experienced' knowledge of basic technologies -- most techniques, and the collection and processing of raw materials alone for those technologies!, will have to be re-invented before the very 'idea' of them is gone out of minds; and much will be lost.

  11. You know, it's inconceivable that anyone who's read and been moved by A Canticle for Leibowitz shouldn't also have read and been moved by The Marching Morons. Why don't we form a similar association, starting from this blog? I just reviewed Kornbluth's story, and I suggest there are nowhere near three millions of *us*, and terrifyingly more than five billions of *them*, which is just all that much more dystopic than Kornbluth's dystopia. Admission automatically denied to the tattooed and/or pierced, and all ATV and snowmobile zoomers. I am so desperately isolated I even read the prepper blogs of Christian bigots. Let us unite. Please.

  12. I just finished reading "Earth Abides", in which a plague wipes out 99.9% of humanity. The main character tries to preserve civilization's knowledge for future generations by trying to teach his children to read. By his grand-children's generation they had reverted to the more practical application of nomadic hunting with arrows. They maintained a body of knowledge, myths, and beliefs; all transmitted through the oral tradition.

    I guess the point is that what is necessary will be preserved. The rest will fall by the wayside as superfluous.

  13. Try the book When Technology Fails by Mat Stein. Mat is an MIT trained engineer and was 'tapped' to create a manual of how to do things when the SHTF. I attended one of his seminars - there is a lot to be said in favor of his work. Otherwise, there are some old texts from the 1840's that may just do the trick. Enjoy!

  14. I have 60-70 books on vegetable gardening, first aid, survival techniques, handyman tips, frugal living, electrical and plumbing repair, longer term medical care, etc. They are divided between 2 places several hundred miles apart. I continue to haunt new and used book stores for more books. I hope some of them survive.

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