How do you write down instructions that could be read and interpreted by people living 10,000 years from now? In 1992, a multidisciplinary team sat down to answer this question as they grappled with creating radioactive contamination warnings that would stand the test of time. This struggle highlights a more basic challenge that we all face when it comes to long-term information retrieval — a phenomenon that internet architect Vint Cerf termed “bit rot.”
In 1979, Congress authorized the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, to be built a few miles outside the New Mexico town of Carlsbad. WIPP was designed to store defense-related radioactive waste in the region’s geologically stable salt deposits. But among the many challenges the site faced was how to communicate the dangers of the buried waste to future generations.
Because of the radioactivity of the materials being disposed of, the team was tasked with creating warning “markers” that would not only endure for 10,000 years but also still be understandable by whoever was around to read them 10,000 years from now, when language and even the means of human communication could be unimaginably different.
Designing these markers was the task facing the 1992 team. And it was a tough one. First, the markers needed to be durable. They needed to withstand, in the words of the team, “the tendency of human beings to vandalize structures.” They needed to provide information to future societies who might not share the designers’ language, or who exhibit very different cultural norms and expectations than we have today. And they needed to convey highly complex information about the dangers of the buried material, and how it changed over time.
In other words, a simple “Danger: Do Not Enter” sign wouldn’t hack it. Neither would print documents, digital files, or “Googleable” warnings.