March 10, 2022•777 words
Reading time: 5 min
Landscape of Thorns. Concept: Mike Brill, Drawing: Safdar Abidi, Image courtesy of BOSTI. Image retrieved from here.
Conveying messages across time
A thought experiment, if you will:
Imagine we are octopus, beings with no vertical transfer of knowledge. How can we prepare something that can pass knowledge onto the next generation, with no altered meaning, while having no direct communication between generations?
It's impossible to write or draw something to convey a message across vast periods of time.
Without the interference of life, the material you inscribe your writing on can change and disintegrate. You might be able to overcome this by using a highly stable element such as gold.
With the interference of life, and generations of humans to pass on the message, the meaning of the words and symbols change across time. The skull and crossbones symbol is now used to indicate poison. Except, you can readily see it on kids pirate costumes. Before its use to indicate poison, it represented funerary and piracy, among other meanings. It's possible that the fear connotation associated with funerary and piracy helps people understand the significance of poison, but it's not a universal symbol.
"The Skull and Crossbones symbol has not always proved effective. Prior to the War on Terror, widely distributed bags of corn seed infected with arsenic were labeled with skull and crossbones symbols. Many residents were unaware of the symbol’s connotations, leading to a number of fatalities."
Reproductions of a message can also change over time (think broken telephone).
Without human intermediaries to directly pass on the knowledge across generations, future humans (or other intelligent lifeforms) cannot interpret the message to mean the same thing. This is a criticism of the Pioneer plaque, a message for intelligent alien lifeforms, featuring an arrow to show the trajectory of the Pioneer spacecraft leaving Earth. How would other lifeforms know that an arrow signified direction towards the arrowed tip? It might make sense to hunter-gatherer societies due to the use of bows and arrows, but not all civilizations will have such a heritage.
(Although, taking the Dark Forest theory, aggressive, expansionist civilizations are the ones that become the dominant lifeform on habitable planets. Consequently, perhaps more often than not, any other civilizations that do exist out there might also readily come to understand how pointy weapons work.)
Conveying the danger of radioactive waste
One attempt to make a message with the same overall meaning last for 10,000 years is this project, to prevent future human activity from affecting radioactive waste storage areas. How can we make humans up to 10,000 years from now actively avoid a particular area on Earth?
- Text in major languages are considered. However, language as we know it in the current day would not stay unchanged in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation.
- Symbols and pictographs are considered, but how can we know that cultures of the future read in the same direction we do now, and interpret symbols the same way we do now?
- Hostile architecture (spikes, pillars, and markers akin to Stonehenge, and unnatural blocks) are considered, but just like Stonehenge (what has originally been a monument to the ancestral dead, or at least proposed to be) can become an architectural attraction.
See the image at the top of this post as an example of the spiked landscape.
The biological hazard symbol
The standard biological hazard symbol (☣) was chosen as, based on a survey, it had the highest memorability and least meaning among a number of proposed symbols.
Its meaning had to be taught, to mean a biological hazard. One issue with this is that the meaning had to be perpetuated artificially across generations. It means nothing on its own.
Post-2017, I'm certain some could mistake it for a fidget spinner.
- I remember as a child, the biological hazard symbol, without understanding its meaning, gave me an uneasy feeling.
- Anecdotal evidence online suggests that others also experienced something similar, that the biological hazard symbol gave off a scary, creepy feeling, both for children (according to memory) and current adults.
- Something about the design must have done well in producing both fear and memorability, instinctually, in modern humans. Perhaps how unnatural and unfamiliar the design is.
- (Depending on where you live,) a physician could technically write a prescription on toilet paper, and it would pass as a legally valid prescription. Pharmacies won't take it, however, as the toilet paper prescription may or may not disintegrate before the number of years required before a pharmacy can dispose of a prescription passes.