Let's say, all human civilization were abruptly destroyed tomorrow. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe in a thousand years, or maybe in a million. Maybe by Vogon constructor fleets, maybe by an asteroid, or maybe our own doing, such as a fatal side-effect of global warming. This isn't very unlikely, mind you, because a large part of a very interesting culture was almost wiped out by hurricane Katrina in the not-too-distant past, and I'm talking centuries into the future.
It would be arrogant of us to proclaim, today, that the artifacts of our age will survive indefinitely, so I'm thinking that there will be a time when all of our culture will be wiped out too. But presumably, life will continue ("Life finds a way." -Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.) I would trust the inhabitants of our space stations to re-colonize the earth if Darwinian forces do not, so let's just continue with this for the sake of argument. Now, what will archaeologists of that age discover about us when they look back?
When we look back today at the Tomb of Tutankhamun, or the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, at the Nazcan lines, or at the elaborate city planning evident in the lost cities of Mohenjo Daro or Harappa, we draw our conclusions based on what we see. We see richly-decorated mummies, ultra-large-scale surface drawings that are only visible from the skies, or urban artifacts that we notice because of similarities to our own culture. All in all, whatever we glean from these past cultures is because of the intense visual similarities with what we see in today's world.
But will today's world bear any similarity to the world that will come millenia from now? Think about this a moment: today, so much of our "civilization" is defined by the information we have created. Information that every single soul on this planet creates, unknowingly, unwittingly, relentlessly, every moment of their lives. Will our descendants be able to decode this all? Think about how much a simple piece of information is encoded.
Let's pick this very blog as an example (and I get a little technical here, so please bear with me - it's relevant to the point I want to make.) To be able to read this blog, you must first know English. That language itself codifies so much meaning, so I can use building blocks called 'words' without having to explain the meaning behind each. I use words as a layer of abstraction over meanings and concepts.
Then there are the obvious technological features: if an alien being were to understand my blog, he/she/it would need to locate it from the alternating pattern of 1s and 0s in magnetic form from the platter of a hard-disk by feeding it the right combination of electrical signals, encode the stream into ASCII (or lately, Unicode), understand HTML, and finally ascribe meaning to it using a language which we call English. Compare this with hieroglyphics etched on a wall, many of which are pictures, not text, that a later civilization has been able to (at least partially successfully) interpret.
So, my question is, how much of today's information would
tomorrow's a later millenium's civilization be able to decode? Couple that with hard numbers: every time I take a digital photograph, I am creating millions of bits of information. There are billions like me, taking billions of such pictures per nanosecond. By making information easy to create, we have empowered a whole generation to keep creating information with no limits, no boundaries. Old information does not go away or get recycled, like old paper does.
There is no Law of Conservation of Information, so theoretically, there is no limit to the amount of information humankind will create. If the proverbial million monkeys on a million typewriters can generate the works of Shakespeare in a million years, is there a holistic summary that might come out of all the junk we are creating today, including this blog?
Are we those monkeys, and if so, who is Shakespeare? And more importantly, how will our children know that they are looking at the entire published works of Shakespeare when they see it all?