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Gideon's Bible of SCIENCE!
April 6, 2010 9:58 PM   Subscribe

A Manual for Civilization : the Long Now Foundation is assembling a book to help us survive an apocalypse, based upon James Lovelock's Book for All Seasons. Some Potential Candidates for Inclusion.
posted by mrstrotsky (35 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd buy it!
posted by mrstrotsky at 9:59 PM on April 6, 2010


I love thinking about this sort of thing: what would be the minimal sort of knowledge needed to "reboot" society. There is a surprisingly large amount of knowledge needed just to attempt any simple-ish modern technology.

e.g. what would be the point in giving (future) primitives plans to a steam engine if they don't have the metal working skills to make the thing, or if they don't have the foundry skills to make strong enough iron and steel. and on and on.
posted by selenized at 10:18 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Personally, if I wanted to restart civilization I wouldn't want to limit myself to scientific discoveries. I would include some histories, the full Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Iliad and Odyssey, and so forth, and distribute these everywhere. For people to live together peacefully they must have a shared cultural vocabulary. Otherwise everyone will go all "Darmok and Jalad" and a second apocalypse will be shortly forthcoming.
posted by shii at 10:21 PM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Reminiscent of the society reboot manuals as described in Vinge's Deepness books. Which I thought were a cool concept...
posted by flaterik at 10:25 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think society, in the sense that humans are really good at maintaining cohesion, is persistent. However, I think high-tech, modern society is remarkably fragile, depending on what you constitute "reboot".

I suspect that if you lost certain non-trivial production abilities (e.g. making tantalum capacitors), you would loose vast swaths of modern production capability. I don't think most people realize how easy it will be to loose these capabilities, how critical they are, or how few people need to die to eliminate the knowledge required to continue this capability.
posted by kjs3 at 10:31 PM on April 6, 2010


Listen, it's pretty simple. Start with a worker, go straight for bronze working. Chop forests to rush the oracle, take metal cas- ohhhh. I see what's going on here.
posted by battlebison at 11:06 PM on April 6, 2010 [16 favorites]


Certainly is interesting to think about. Reminds me of the Primer from Sagan's Contact.

It feels like everything presented should be available in every language presented, but that would get really drawn out, I suppose. Maybe present everything in English, and then in the case of texts that didn't originate in English, present them in their original language (or the closest equivalent) as well?
posted by jiawen at 11:22 PM on April 6, 2010


I'm a bit skeptical of how effective this would be in terms of manufacturing and technology.

The classic essay I, Pencil points out that even apparently simple products actually require huge numbers of people, embedded in large trading networks, with lots of specialization. One community in a little valley or island won't be able to rebuild industrial civilization from scratch, however great their manual is; though that's what usually happens in post-apocalyptic SF.

David Edgerton's book The Shock of the Old points out that technological developments only spread very slowly, limited by the cost of replacing old stuff, the infrastructure required to support the new stuff, and the gradual refinement of manufacturing techniques.

Fiction tends to suggest that the important thing for technological progress is the original invention, and the rest is just details. But in reality, inventions seem to happen almost simultaneously, as soon as the prerequisite technology is in place, by multiple people. Look at the controversies over who actually invented the telephone, the television, the aeroplane. The invention is the easy bit, the hard part is making it cheap and commercial, which depends on scale and circumstances.

So, I think the useful parts of the manual would be fairly basic stuff about sanitation, medicine and agriculture (crop rotation for instance).

It might be more important to preserve culture, literature and philosophy. When those works are gone, they're gone. Future generations might regret the loss of most Shakespeare as we do the loss of most Greek drama.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:25 PM on April 6, 2010 [8 favorites]


Also in terms of basic science, I'd wonder if it's a good thing to encourage a civilization to think that the way to gain knowledge is to look stuff up in a big old book. When they reach our current level, are they going to be able to progress further, or will their culture be too reliant on the wisdom of the ancients to do original research?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:20 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The level of technology that a population can sustain really depends on the resources available and how many people can be spared from food production.

It seems this manual could be divided into chapters that take this into account. Just like any tech web for a video game.

What would be really interesting to me is how fast we could rush through all the stages if they were mapped out for us.

Unfortunately I don't think we have really advanced far enough to make a better society than what we have now, even if we rebooted. Maybe someday we will be able to include the psychology in the manual that would help us to avoid all the stupid human tricks we play.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:38 AM on April 7, 2010


Chapter 341: "How to build a microfiche reader to read Chapters 1-340"
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:56 AM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of course! I always carry around a Chemistry 101 textbook in the boot of my car so that in case I get sent back to the dark ages I can repair my robot arm and turn my car into a giant lawnmower to defeat the advancing zombie hordes.
posted by Joe Chip at 2:53 AM on April 7, 2010


Rebooting technologically would be trivial. With the right library, you could do it in a hundred years from scratch. But I hope this manual is going to include instructions on more than just how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, because technologically advanced + morally primitive = kaboom and back to the drawing board.

For instance, is there room in such a book for explaining to people that there is no magic and there are no magicians, and showing them how to demonstrate it to themselves? That there is nothing you can do to make a god happy or unhappy (because there are no gods), though you sure as hell can frighten and anger people just by saying you don't believe in their gods?
posted by pracowity at 4:04 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Chapter 1: Why?
posted by crazylegs at 4:16 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


My worry is that it also feeds off a (likely incorrect) feeling that somehow collapse might be a fun challenge to live through, and that everyone kind of wants to be the monk in A Canticle For Leibowitz or Mel Gibson in Road Warrior.

Oh, that's ridiculous; I'm clearly gunning for more of a Master Blaster role.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:19 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Chapter 1: Why?

That's easy. Even if you don't civilize, your neighbors will, and then they'll absorb or eliminate you and your flock of sheep and the hill they're grazing on. All you can do is try to build a better civilization before a worse civilization comes to get you.
posted by pracowity at 4:40 AM on April 7, 2010


I wonder if they're taking suggestions.

The Foxfire books.
Soap (requires lye, or at least ash).
Gunpowder.
etc.
posted by kalessin at 4:42 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've heard some compelling arguments for why we should not be doing this. After all, remember the last time we decided to do this? Ptolemy's Almagest? It had an earth centered solar system.

Also, how useful it would be depends on the nature of the collapse. Social uprising and dissolution of government? Rampant global warming? Peak oil? Peak oil especially because it renders many manufacturing philosophies obsolete by standing economies of scale on their heads, and pushes conventional agriculture out of the picture (along with our simple minded conception of ecology).
posted by symbollocks at 5:47 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, how useful it would be depends on the nature of the collapse.

We'll always benefit from a decent medical library, even if some of the enabling technologies look like science fiction to the reader. The aim is to create extremely narrowed search paths and highly realistic goals, so that what took us many years of fumbling experimentation to find the first time will be certain knowledge the next time. Not "I hope we can find a cure for A some day," but "There is at least one good cure for A. It looks exactly like this. This method saved many thousands of lives in the past. To make that happen for us, first we need to do x, y, and z. Let's get cracking."
posted by pracowity at 6:13 AM on April 7, 2010


I love thinking about this sort of thing: what would be the minimal sort of knowledge needed to "reboot" society. There is a surprisingly large amount of knowledge needed just to attempt any simple-ish modern technology.

I never understood this sentiment. Surviving after an apocalypse implies that the apocalypse didn't poison the air, water or ground, left trees and animals, and enough humans to repopulate the species.

Under those assumptions, the apocalypse really only rolls the clock back a couple of hundred years. Assuming you have a high school education, you technically know more than Ben Franklin did. From the technological standpoint, it should be relatively easy to recreate a comfortable 18th or 19th century lifestyle. Add to that some 20th century knowledge about construction, insulation, and medicine, it isn't such a bad life. You could even get electricity from wind with a bit of effort. From that point, bootstrapping the heavy industries is a matter of finding a university library intact.

The problem is not technology. The problem is civility. The survivors have to have an innate love of civilization, of the calmness and order that accompanies it. Because that is going to allow any community that forms to maintain civility and order without a government to enforce it.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:15 AM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Personally, if I wanted to restart civilization I wouldn't want to limit myself to scientific discoveries.

Thus the inclusion of the Harvard Classics.

The classic essay I, Pencil points out that even apparently simple products actually require huge numbers of people, embedded in large trading networks, with lots of specialization. One community in a little valley or island won't be able to rebuild industrial civilization from scratch, however great their manual is; though that's what usually happens in post-apocalyptic SF.

I find these things to always be overblown. To make a pencil that is identical in form to the one you are using right now, yes, it takes a lot of technology. But do you really need a pencil identical in form to the one you are using right now? Does it really need paint and embossing? An attached eraser? A precisely-measured graphite vs clay ratio?

A single person can make a rudimentary pencil from a burned stick in about 10 seconds. Iterate improvements from there.
posted by DU at 6:55 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stay away from my bobblehead collection.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:59 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The perfect foundation already exists: Pocket Ref.

Ok, it won't be much help if you are starting from the "And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys." stage.

It's more of a "we're in the midst of an apocalypse and I need to fix this car/board up this window/reattach this finger" guidebook. At least that's why I've got it packed with the emergency supplies.
posted by m@f at 8:43 AM on April 7, 2010


Pastabagel: I think the long now is operating on the assumption that whatever happened eliminated civilization in general. Like the collapse of the Mayans sort of thing. Even an 18th century level of technology requires a fairly sophisticated civilization to build it.

I also think that what the average modern person knows would be almost entirely useless to a significantly less advanced civilization. Excepting maybe basic sanitation.
posted by selenized at 8:47 AM on April 7, 2010


There's another problem that I rarely see pointed out. Our current industrial civilization grew up by utilizing various non-renewable resources (ores, oil, ...). We started with the easiest to get at, and as we got more technologically capable we were able to do more and more difficult extractions.

So if we "reboot" we can't grow industrial civilization in the same way. We have presumably used up the easy-to-get-at stuff. Mines don't grow back. In the event of a reboot, we will lose access to many raw materials because we will lose the capability to do the difficult extractions that are all that's left in the wild. Industrial civilization will have to grow along a significantly different path. Probably by scavenging materials from the previous go-round and utilizing something other than oil for energy. Assuming that we have generally taken the path of least resistance the first time through, the second time through will be more difficult. Possibly much more difficult.
posted by madmethods at 8:53 AM on April 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


And I freaking love that the Gingery books are the first thing on the list. I had some fun times doing aluminum casting in my backyard after reading those. Everybody should browse through them, and genreally browse around on the Lindsay books site.

(realistically, though, wilderness survival and food gathering and agriculture and such would probably come before Gingery -- gotta eat before you can rebuild industrial civilization)
posted by madmethods at 8:59 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, that's ridiculous; I'm clearly gunning for more of a Master Blaster role.


But which one are you going to be, the dwarf with the speech disorder or the mentally-handicapped giant? And really, can't we all just get beyond Thunderdome?
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:30 AM on April 7, 2010


But which one are you going to be, the dwarf with the speech disorder or the mentally-handicapped giant?

Depending on whether I find either a hulking dude twice my size or a tiny man who's good at persuasion, I'd be happy to play either part; they both pay the same.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:40 AM on April 7, 2010


Reminds me of the Primer from Sagan's Contact.

I immediately thought of Settembrini's Humanist Encyclopedia in Mann's Magic Mountain.
posted by oraknabo at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2010


Depending on whether I find either a hulking dude twice my size or a tiny man who's good at persuasion, I'd be happy to play either part; they both pay the same.

If you can't find a willing partner, there's always a shoulder dummy and a little ventriloquism...

"HWruo. Wrun. Brtrtwn?!"
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:17 AM on April 7, 2010


a book to help us survive an apocalypse...

Oh shit, I just broke my glasses!
posted by banshee at 11:14 AM on April 7, 2010


So how much of this could I fit unto a tattoo?
posted by mouthnoize at 11:26 AM on April 7, 2010


@symbollocks: I've heard some compelling arguments for why we should not be doing this. After all, remember the last time we decided to do this? Ptolemy's Almagest? It had an earth centered solar system.

This is an important point, and one I saw made well recently by John Michael Greer; the need to differentiate science as product and science as process. Aristotle and Ptolemy were brilliant, but uncritical acceptance of their theories (books = science as product) arguably held progress back for several centuries. The survival of the scientific method (process) is at least as important. Beware of dogma.
posted by sapere aude at 8:45 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


What was it they saved in Lucifer's Hammer?
posted by Chrysostom at 8:18 AM on April 8, 2010


I think I remember it included The Way Things Work and maybe The Boy Scout Handbook but that was a long, long time ago.
posted by Zed at 8:27 AM on April 8, 2010


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