The Rosetta stone is one of the most important archeological finds in history — the parallel inscriptions of ancient languages famously allowed historians to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, and to unlock a much broader understanding of past cultures. And an acute understanding of the past is, of course, an essential pillar in the foundations of current societies.
Which is why a number of scholars, archivists, and historians have long been concerned with the concept of digital obsolescence. There are vast stores of invaluable data held in various mediums around the world — and right now, the primary information vaults are much more complex than libraries and museum archives. They’re computer hard drives, the digital cloud, and a range of storage devices from thumb drives to CDs to smart phones.
And all that data they store is actually extremely vulnerable — yet all of it relies on having the right ‘readers’ to access it. As technology advances, those readers get rendered obsolete: think cassette tape players, Betamax, VHS, and so forth.
And it may seem outlandish to consider right now, but data storage technology will probably evolve beyond computer hard drives — which would present historians and archivists with a major problem in transferring the massive current body of knowledge. It could even get locked up and encrypted to future societies, much the way hieroglyphics were to us. Knowledge of cultures, languages, and local histories could be lost to future generations if an effort isn’t made to adequately provide ‘decoders’ to give the historians of the future an adequate ‘key’ to unlock it all.
Which is why the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project created the Rosetta Disk — think of it as the Stone’s digital successor. The Rosetta Project describes their creation thusly:
“Our first prototype of a very long-term archive is The Rosetta Disk – a three inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface. Since each page is an image, rather than a digital encoding of 1′s and 0′s, it can be read by the human eye using 500 power optical magnification. The disk rests in a sphere made of stainless steel and glass which allows the disk exposure to the atmosphere, but protects it from casual impact and abrasion. With minimal care, it could easily last and be legible for thousands of years …
The Long Now Foundation chose to begin by creating a key, a kind of “decoder ring” for any information we might leave behind in written form – in any language. The Rosetta Disk collection has as its core a set of “parallel” information – the same texts, the same set of vocabulary, the same kinds of description – for over 1,000 human languages.”
And yes, this Rosetta Disk has actually been built — a prototype, anyways. And this non-digital container of hundreds of a languages, designed to last for thousands of years, has now been released to the public. The estate of one of the first prototype’s owners have donated it to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Here’s a snapshot of the world’s languages and modern culture, condensed into the palm of your hand:
This is just the outside protective sphere, made of stainless steel. Inside, it looks like this:
And there, in the tiny, microscopic images, lays future civilizations’ key to decoding the modern era.
Read more about the project at the Long Now blog.