Andrew Revkin has been posting about “disaster memory” here, here, and here. He cites studies which suggest that it takes three generations after a disaster for a population to stop taking precautions — after the last person who experienced the disaster firsthand is gone.

This makes perfect sense in a culture whose history was transmitted orally, like the ancient Aleutian Islanders of Alaska. Archaeological records show that Aleutian villages would repeatedly relocate to higher ground after a tsunami, only to move back to the coast about 100 years later. This is even true of elephants: During droughts, older females lead younger elephants to distant water holes they remember from droughts of their youth.

But it doesn’t make sense in the present. You would think that now we would be even more prepared and our disaster memory would last longer, since we have all sorts of scientific and archaological data that warns us of these dangers. Actually, Revkin thinks our disaster memory is shrinking, referencing the lack of preparation for a tsunami by nuclear facilities, as well as examples in various parts of the world in which real estate on the site of a natural disaster is bought cheap and quickly redeveloped. He quotes earthquake expert Costas Synolakis:

Communal memory of rare disasters is worse in more developed societies because knowledge now is passed on in schools, movies or the internet leaving no time for oral history or reliance on the elders to learn about the world.”

This AP article by Jay Alabaster tells of stone tablets as old as 600 years in Japanese villages, bearing inscriptions such as:

High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.

If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis.

Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables.

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Through these markers, ancestors are communicating directly with their descendants. In some cases, these markers did their jobs, providing a disaster memory six times longer than usual. The village of Aneyoshi is built entirely on high ground, heeding the warnings of the markers. The students there studied the tablets in school.

This reminds me of this Long Now Foundation seminar given by Clay Shirky called Making Digital Durable: What Time Does to Categories. He tells a story about how the BBC annotated and published the Domesday Book, a British document dating to 1086, on videodisk for its 900th anniversary. Less than ten years later, the videodisk version was obsolete — unviewable, and retrievable only at great cost and effort — while the original version was still “chugging along”.

So lo-fi and durable lasts and communicates best over centuries. For the first time, I’m interested in making something from stone.

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5 thoughts on “Stone

  1. Too early for me to write anything eloquent about this post other than awesome, awesome, awesome. You should make something with stone!

    1. Thanks Simone, now the question is what to make! Reminds me of those time capsule or letter to aliens assignments in elementary school. What would you say to the people of the future???

  2. “It may be possible to fit all the essential information needed to bootstrap the infrastructure of civilization into 10,000 books or so. And unlike the Universal Library of Google, it would be on paper. In a century or so, paper-based books will be rare. But paper books will outlast any digital platform and paper requires the least amount of technology to access. Paper will be universally readable at any period. You can’t say that about floppy disks, CD-Roms, and PDFs.”
    http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/04/the_library_of.php

  3. I honestly don’t know what I would have to say to the people of the future that would still be relevant six hundred years from now. I think that’s what’s so striking about those stone markers in Japan – hundreds of years later, and they’re STILL right! I mean, what will still be true of New York City 600 years from now? Overcrowding and tourism? Rats and cockroaches?

    Also, yes, paper!

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