I love post-apocalyptic fiction, and to a lesser degree movies/television shows in the same genre. What fascinates me most about these scenarios is that they all start with immediate survival, and then (sometimes) follow up with future plans – at least for those lucky or resourceful enough to make it past the initial collapse. The question that always sticks with me is “If we had to completely reboot technology, how long would it take to get things back to where we are now?”
My son (an Engineering student) and I have talked about these ideas at length and the discussion always seems to come back to the fact that we have this amazing foundation of technology that holds up our civilization. We have engineers who can construct microprocessors, but what value is that knowledge if we no longer have the ability to mine or refine silicon? Do computers do so much for us now, that if they were lost would today’s skills have any value? Is there any type of infrastructure that we can put into place now that would facilitate a more efficient technology/civilization reboot?
Obviously, the catalyst for requiring such a reboot is a catastrophic event that removes a significant percentage of the populace and damages or destroys key infrastructure like the power and fuel generation, power distribution, water supplies, etc.
In Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, one scientist has stashed a set of key technology and how-to books in a septic tank. Great concept but I’m not convinced books are a viable means of preserving knowledge. They are bulky and heavy, easily susceptible to damage (moisture or fire) and make a very convenient fuel source for heat or cooking fires – at least for someone who is trying to get through one day and not looking forward to any type of future. Literacy may also be a huge concern for generations after this kind of disaster.
In our discussions, we think that instead of relying on existing libraries to still be there and hoping that books will be available and accessible, a better approach would be to develop and mass distribute a type of “knowledge capsule” which provides access to volumes of acquired knowledge. This capsule would provide both theoretical and practical information, and provide details on very basic and easily usable technologies and the path to modern technologies we take for granted today.
What will this “knowledge capsule” look like? I think the place to start is with requirements in order to survive and be usable after a catastrophic event:
- Compact – Easy to Transport (minimal bulk and weight)
- Hardened – Can survive shock, fire, water, EMP
- Environment – Usable without current power sources, harsh environments, usable in darkness
- Usability – Intuitive interface, needs to be able to accommodate illiterate user
Our picture of how this device would look is a very hardened suitcase-style computer/e-reader. The Kindle style e-Ink display would provide visibility with minimal power use. There would need to be multiple power supply options all within the case: solar, fuel cell, bio-fuel, crank or water-wheel. Finally there would need to be a keyboard and/or touch screen to allow the user to access the necessary information.
With today’s modern technology, developing, mass-producing and distributing such a device would be fairly trivial and reasonable as far as cost goes. Ideally, a device would be distributed to every city in the USA (roughly 30,000) although larger cities would require many units. Perhaps some symbol could be devised and used to mark the location of the capsules so they can be recovered following such a disaster.
What information needs to be in the capsule? I’m probably not the person to make that call, but here is a quick brainstorm of possible subjects:
- Language – English literacy, Other Languages, Classic Literature
- Food – Viable Wild Food Sources, Agriculture, Domestication, Preparation, Storage
- Shelter – Basic Shelter, Building Design, Skyscrapers
- Survival – Crude Weapons, Snares, Hunting, Militia, Defense, Firearms
- Water – Basic Water Gathering, Water Borne Disease, Filtering, Reservoirs, Sanitation
- Medicine – Basic First Aid, Body Physiology, Disease, Surgery, Medical School
- Animals – Training, Veterinary, Animal Driven Machines
- Mechanics – Basic Machines, Crude Manufacturing, Power Generation, Automobiles, Modern Manufacturing
- Metallurgy – Metals, Mining, Steel, Design, Mechanical Engineering, Machines
- Mathematics – Theory, Computing, Computers and Electrical Engineering
Of course, the final question is who pays for this? I have no idea. Government comes to mind, but they are mostly broke right now and I’m not in favor of additional projects until their fiscal house is back in order. It might make for an interesting kickstarter project.