Discover more from Ethersampler
Deep Time infrastructures
Why Deep-Time Organisations and Infrastructures Matter
The rapid advancement of human civilisation has led to our ability to significantly impact the planet, altering it in ways that will affect future generations. For example, maintaining biodiversity, biogeochemical flows, and land-use changes require protection over long durations to be effective. Carbon sequestration, storage, and nuclear waste management also demand stable institutional safeguards and communication systems lasting centuries or longer.
And even though movements like effective altruism encourage people to consider the welfare of species thousands of years from now, there hasn't been much thought put into developing institutions and supporting infrastructures that can last for a very long time to steward the survival of human civilizations. But why should we consider this angle? Because agency is distributed among generations and the obligations of the present generation to the future generation are complex. This means, humans not only need to safeguard and protect their communities and environment, but also need to transfer forward knowledge, resources, and objects that must be protected (e.g., wilderness), artificial objects created by humans (e.g., nuclear waste or scientific knowledge), and hybrid objects characterised by flows between humans and their environments (e.g. agricultural land, carbon storage).
In this blog, I will explore the need for long-lasting organisations and infrastructures, including their design principles and some longevity challenges in storage media, as well as how to create unified storage frameworks to preserve records, knowledge, and memory for future generations.
Organisational Design for Longevity
Deep-time organisations can be categorised into projects that take a long time to create (e.g., cathedrals) and those intended to last a long time (e.g., Svalbard Global Seed Vault). There are many examples of long-term planning, as catalogued by Roman Krznaric.
Here I’m interested in projects intended to last a long time. Existing deep-time organisations, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Memory of Mankind project, Rosetta Project, and KEO space-time capsule, have, respectively, made efforts to preserve genetic information, historical records, and cultural artifacts for future generations.
These initiatives highlight the importance of long-term thinking in organisational design. Translating our deep-time interferences into organisational capacity requires identifying some design principles for "deep-time organisations.” Depending on the issue, organisational agency plays a vital role at various stages of multilevel governance in the Anthropocene. For instance, space mining may necessitate a reformed United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. At the same time, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault requires a polycentric web of regional, national, and local seed banks. These organisations require multiple levels of governance right now and are opening the field of multi-temporal governance.
The Long Time Project also asks important questions about the institutional innovation needed for deep-time planetary stewardship. Fruitful research questions include exploring how organisational structures, regulatory systems, and processes support long-term thinking. Other important questions include identifying the role of rituals, routines, norms, and behaviours in fostering long-term thinking attitudes in organisations and investigating the significance of symbols, stories, and myths.
Preserving records, knowledge, and memory across generations is crucial for lengthy and complex decision-making processes. How do humans effectively preserve knowledge and memory over generations? The RK&M initiative compiled a list of 35 mechanisms grouped into nine broad approaches that include the following:
Dedicated record sets and summary files;
Memory institutions such as archives, libraries, and museums which acquire, preserve and make information accessible (in the form of records, publications or artefacts.
Markers, both above and below the surface;
Time capsules; A time capsule is a purpose-built, sealed enclosure containing a historic cache of information to be used as a means to inform future generations at a specified time or upon accidental discovery.
Culture, education and art, e.g. cultural heritage; alternative reuse of the disposal site; education, research and training; works of art;
Knowledge management, e.g. knowledge retention tools, knowledge sharing philosophy;
Oversight provisions, e.g. monitoring, clear and planned responsibilities, and land use controls;
International mechanisms, e.g. international regulations and agreements, international inventories and catalogues.
Another favourite example comes from a DOE-funded project tasked with reducing the likelihood of unintentional intrusion in nuclear waste sites (special report "Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia"). The taskforce focused on long-term communication over 10000 years and established the field known as "nuclear semiotics." Their main recommendations were a dire warning in several languages and symbolic warning objects. Three proposals stand out to me:
Nuclear priesthood is a system of "legends and rituals" whose task is to keep nuclear waste knowledge alive but secret. The concept boils down to instilling superstition among the "uninitiated" and reserving knowledge of the disposal site for a "priesthood" of academics, which would select its members as a self-perpetuating intellectual oligarchy (Wikander, 2015: p. 115).
The Ray Cat would be genetically modified to change colour when coming near radioactivity, thus serving as living indicators of danger.
The Landscape of Thorns, a piece of sculptural art, aimed at giving off the feeling of a non-natural, ominous and abhorrent place so that no one would intrude the nuclear waste site.
The challenge of longevity in storage media
All long-term data storage methods face similar challenges, such as deciphering historical data, ensuring storage media accessibility, and maintaining data integrity. Many storage media products today, such as hard disc drives, flash memory, optical discs, and magnetic tape, are susceptible to environmental factors that cause data loss or disintegration over time.
Until recently, magnetic tape was the longest-lasting storage medium, lasting up to 30 years in optimal conditions. The need to preserve and make accessible the world's cultural, historical, and scientific achievements has resulted in the development of various long-term data storage technologies. Several advanced materials show promise for long-term data storage because they are durable, stable, and resistant to environmental factors. Among these materials are:
Fused quartz or silica glass: Fused quartz has been researched for storing data for extremely long periods. Researchers have created storage media that can potentially last for millions of years without degradation by using ultrafast laser optics to etch data into the material. Peter G. Kazansky and his team at the University of Southampton have developed a technique for etching data in fused quartz crystals, known as "Superman crystals." These crystals can potentially preserve data for the entire lifespan of the universe at temperatures as high as 200 degrees Celsius. Moreover, Microsoft's Project Silica is another interesting data storage project. The primary challenges for scaling up fused quartz or silica glass include high manufacturing costs, the need for highly specialised laser technology to etch data, and the requirement of advanced reading devices to access the stored information.
Ceramic-based optical discs: Companies like Millenniata have developed M-Discs, which use a ceramic-based material instead of traditional plastic. The data is etched into this ceramic layer, making it resistant to environmental factors like temperature, humidity, and oxidation, potentially preserving data for up to 1,000 years. Some scalability bottlenecks include the need for specialised writing and reading equipment and potential difficulties in compatibility with existing storage systems.
DNA storage: DNA has unparalleled storage density and can last thousands of years if properly preserved. Researchers are exploring synthetic DNA as a storage medium, encoding digital data into DNA sequences and decoding it back into digital format when needed. Microsoft has recently joined the race by purchasing synthetic DNA strands from startup Twist Bioscience to test their viability for data storage. DNA storage faces several challenges, such as high costs of DNA synthesis and sequencing (which is, however, rapidly decreasing), slow data read and write speeds, the need for sophisticated error-correction techniques, and the development of standardised methods for encoding and decoding data stored in DNA.
Single-atom magnets: Researchers are experimenting with single-atom magnets, such as holmium, which could provide a new frontier for data storage. These magnets have the potential to retain data on a smaller scale with greater stability, although further research is needed to make them viable for commercial use. Scientists at EPFL have developed a single-atom magnet using the rare earth element holmium. I’m less confident about this technology as there are currently several bottlenecks to scaling, including the need for ultra-high vacuum environments and extremely low temperatures for stability, limited knowledge about single-atom magnet materials, and the development of practical methods for integrating single-atom magnets into existing data storage systems. Maybe that’s one for space manufacturing.
Fluorescent dye mixtures: By using mixtures of commercially available fluorescent dyes, researchers have developed a novel storage approach that can store data in the form of binary molecular messages. This method requires further development but may offer a unique approach to long-term data storage. A novel storage approach utilising mixtures of seven commercially available fluorescent dyes has been developed by researchers in the lab of George Whitesides at Harvard. This technology has been licensed to a new digital data storage company, currently in its early stages, and is seeking partnerships with data storage providers. The extent of the potential degradation of dyes over time is unclear, and I think it will require the development of efficient error-correction methods to ensure data integrity.
Two-Dimensional (2D) materials: 2D materials like graphene and other layered structures have unique electronic, mechanical, and thermal properties, making them an area of interest for next-generation storage technologies. Researchers are investigating the potential of 2D materials to improve storage density, stability, and energy efficiency. These materials would require more mature manufacturing processes if they are to be used as storage media and address potential issues with material stability over time.
A Unified Knowledge Repository for Humanity
Unifying these technologies would require addressing the aforementioned challenges while considering compatibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness. For each advanced material, overcoming these bottlenecks will require significant research and development efforts, collaboration between academia and industry, and the development of standardised techniques and processes to ensure compatibility with existing data storage systems. A unified knowledge repository has the potential to integrate various long-term data storage technologies into a more coherent system through:
Creating a standardised cataloguing and retrieval system for different storage media. The SNIA Long Term Retention working group is working towards this direction and is developing a Self-Contained Information Retrieval Format (SIRF) standard. This standard provides a logical container for digital preservation objects and a catalogue of those objects, ensuring related data is stored together and can be read by future applications even if the original program no longer exists.
Designing universal adaptors (physical and digital) for seamless data transfer between different storage media;
Developing oversight provisions for monitoring and maintaining the repository, including land use controls and clear responsibilities.
Establishing international mechanisms for collaboration, such as international regulations and agreements, as well as inventories and catalogues.
The past and present into constant dialogue
Our connection to the past is an ongoing dialogue that shapes our present and future. As we stand on the shoulders of giants, we must consider the role of deep-time organisations and infrastructures in our lives. By actively engaging with our history, we can create interventions that facilitate this dialogue and strengthen our collective knowledge.
Incorporating messages from past generations into contemporary frameworks can also help us make better-informed decisions today. The Japanese tsunami stone markers serve as an excellent example of this practice.
These markers contain valuable information, which generally falls into one of three categories:
Commemoration information: “On 15 June 1896, a big Tsunami reached here. Over 600 people were killed, and over 500 houses were damaged in this area.”
Warning prediction: “If an earthquake comes, beware of the tsunami.”
Warning advice: “Run to the highest place. Do not run only to far places because tsunamis will catch you up.” or “High dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunami. Do not build any homes below this point.”
Although many of these stones have survived for centuries, their historical significance has often been overlooked as the immediacy of their messages waned. The Japan Tsunami Trace database, developed by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) and Tōhoku University, demonstrates how modern generations can harness the wisdom of the past. Established in 2007, the database collects and analyzes historical tsunami records to inform safety evaluations for nuclear power plants. Field survey teams can use information from the stone markers to pinpoint past tsunamis' impact locations and gather more detailed data. As part of this work, field survey teams used information written on the stone markers to identify the location of the impact of past tsunamis and collect more detailed tsunami data. Similarly, repository markers may carry information that future specialists may want to collect in a database.
Deep-time organizations and infrastructures are the tsunami stone markers of our collective memory and responsibility. As we continue to advance as a species, it is our responsibility to invest in developing and maintaining such systems to safeguard the welfare of future generations and the natural systems upon which we all depend.