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New World

The Retrospect Project

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


he New World column is my attempt to make sense of the impact technology -- particularly computer and information technology -- has had on our lives. If there's an underlying philosophy to the articles, it's that culture is shaped by tools. New technologies let us see the world in new ways, consider perspectives that would have previously been unthinkable. Applying the new tools -- or the concepts behind them -- to age-old problems can, sometimes, allow entirely new ideas to emerge.

Take the idea of making backup copies.

Everyone who has worked with a computer knows the trauma of losing data. Sometimes a machine crash only takes out the last few minutes of work; other times, an entire life's opus can be destroyed in an instant. The only way to keep the information safe is to make backup copies and keep them off-site, so that they aren't destroyed along with the original (in a fire, for example, or an earthquake). The copies have to be made on a regular basis, so nothing new is lost, and have to be made in a medium and format that is both survivable and readily accessible when -- not if -- they're needed.

The same logic should be applied to the most precious information set we have, human civilization.

Right now, everything that we know as a species, everything we believe as individuals, everything that we are as a global civilization could be gone in an instant. Human civilization could fall victim to an uncharted asteroid crashing into the Earth, the release of a bio-engineered plague, or even global chaos from a Y2K-like disaster; by having our civilization and all that we know in just one place -- the Earth -- we are extremely vulnerable. Engineers refer to this as a "single point of failure" problem: the loss of a single element dooms the entire system. Good engineers try to avoid these sorts of problems whenever possible. Right now, the Earth is our single point of failure. We need to create an "off-site backup" for human civilization.

Here is my project for the new millennium: we should create a backup of everything that we, as a world, know and believe. This would include everything from scientific knowledge to oral histories, proprietary research to genetic maps, great religious texts to comic books. Everything. This would become an ongoing, living record of who we are as a global civilization. Once collected (which could take a generation or more), the backup must be updated regularly to keep it complete. And it must be someplace off-site, someplace not vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed along with the original.

This would have some extraordinary benefits. Compiling that much data over what would likely be a very long term would require research into novel storage technologies. Concerns about media format, translation, and data compression would be confronted, along with seemingly intractable issue of copyright. The Off-Site Backup project would force us to answer many (if not most) of the critical questions of the digital age. Most importantly, the Off-Site Backup Project would allow human civilization to rebuild after the unthinkable happens.

And the unthinkable *does* happen. It's widely accepted that an asteroid strike killed off the most successful biological family in Earth's history, the dinosaur. A disaster so unlikely that it only happens "once every ten million years" has already happened 500 times over the Earth's lifespan.

As with the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, it is highly unlikely that a global disaster would wipe out every living thing. Human beings are particularly resilient. Those people that would remain, however, would struggle to rebuild, and much of what humankind had learned would be lost. The off-site backup would keep human knowledge intact, available in such an emergency. It could even be set up with a "dead man's switch" that would start transmitting retrieval instructions if the backup site didn't receive a particular signal for a year.

The backup would need to be "off-site", meaning somewhere off of Earth. Our Moon is a good candidate for a first attempt at such a backup. It's easy to get to (relatively speaking) and not vulnerable to the sorts of erosion one finds in a world with an atmosphere and active geology (the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts, for example, will last millions of years). It would be a good test site, to make sure the system works. But the Moon has one major drawback over the long term: the Moon is an utterly lifeless body, and humans could never easily live there in great numbers.

A living, growing human colony alongside a storehouse of civilization's knowledge, would make it nearly impossible for a disaster to wipe out all of humanity. A permanent, self-sustained colony off of Earth would be this sort of civilizational protection. Mars holds the potential for being the next place for humans to live.

Not in the immediate future, of course. Even setting aside the difficulties of getting there in the first place (a 6 to 12 month trip each direction), the Martian environment is currently quite hostile to Earth life. It is too cold (at its warmest in the northern summer, the daily high is barely above zero degrees celsius) and the thin atmosphere is composed largely of poisonous gases. But, given enough time, this can be changed.

There is water trapped underground and in the northern polar cap, and the southern polar cap is made of frozen carbon dioxide. If it is heated enough to "outgas", the increasing atmospheric pressure and the CO2 greenhouse effect would start to warm the world significantly. A high CO2 atmosphere and temperatures hovering around freezing would allow the gradual introduction of plant life. Over time, the oxygen levels in the atmosphere would increase, allowing for the gradual introduction of animal life.

Transforming Mars into something almost liveable -- a process known as "terraforming" -- would take generations. This must not deter us. The concept of starting a project that our grandchildren's grandchildren might finish is one that was commonplace throughout history. The great cathedrals of Europe took centuries to complete. Only in more modern times have we developed an impatience that makes us dismiss projects that can't be completed within a single television viewing season.

A terraformed Mars would become a second home not just for our knowledge, but also for ourselves. Once we have a foothold on another world, we break out of the single point of failure and cast aside the vulnerability we now face. Our civilization will then reach across the vacuum of space, secure in its past, confident in its future.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - July 21, 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.



* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online
* Mish Middelman: Dr Byte


* Comments to Jamais Cascio
* Jamais Cascio homepage


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley