A "bug-out" bag. Image: Jessica C/Flickr

​Dawn of the Digital Preppers

It’s the end of the world, and somehow you and your Kindle have survived.

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May 29 2015, 11:30am

A "bug-out" bag. Image: Jessica C/Flickr

It's the end of the world, and somehow you and your Kindle have survived.

Alone in your radiation-proof underground bunker, surrounded by canned foodstuffs, ammunition, and your trusty Crovel Extreme (a combination crowbar and shovel tool), you browse your virtual library. Would its contents be enough to sustain you for the rest of your life? Could these books provide a guide for rebuilding civilisation?

The post-apocalyptic library makes for a compelling mental exercise: a literary survival kit, prepared in addition to the duct tape, water purifying tablets, and swiss army knives which comprise the standard "bug-out bag" ("bug-out" is an adapted army term, meaning "to leave quickly" and go underground or on the run during an apocalypse).

Though "preppers" are most often associated with IRL survival skills rather than prepping through technology, the idea is nonetheless entertained within the community. Blog posts detail how to create a "bug-out" flash drive, virtual prepper libraries are compared on survival subreddits, free ebook collections are distributed within the community, and USBs loaded with homesteading and survival skill PDFs are sold as "Emergency Digital" on eBay.

Were I to spend the rest of my life with only a few books, I think I'd go for the classical texts. An Odyssey or Iliad perhaps, and maybe Infinite Jest (because I might finally have time to finish it). Some dystopian fiction might work, given the circumstances, though I'd steer clear of The Road for morale-preserving purposes. Some might opt to stockpile porn, but its effects might be ruined slightly by the knowledge that the actors had long since been nuked, or eaten by zombies.

Less unwieldy in digital form. Image: JustTooLazy/Flickr

Author and astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell has his own take on the "bug-out library". His book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, attempts to cover every skill you might need in a post-apocalyptic world: from the basics, such as how to start a fire and build a shelter, to how to reconstruct innovations like radios and medicine from materials found in the home. Dartnell considers the merits of a digital survival kit too, rather than purely advocating Bear Grylls-style survivalism. Technology might yet have a place in our apocalypse.

"If you wanted to take the apocalypse seriously, which I don't think you should," Dartnell assures me, "you could make yourself a post-apocalyptic library, and have thousands of Kindle books in the palm of your hand, and power it with a solar panel when the grid goes down. It would give you a fair shot at rebuilding everything from scratch. Knowledge is power, after all."

I'm speaking to Dartnell over Skype. The transmission is patchy—I presume because he is speaking from an underground bunker somewhere, but he says otherwise. Though his work as an author might imply it, Dartnell is no apocalypse prepper. Currently a research fellow with the UK Space Agency at the University of Leicester, he doesn't believe the apocalypse will happen in our lifetime. His book is meant as a thought experiment, though not all its readers see it that way. Dartnell has been criticised for not having included enough passages about guns, as well as for the perceived folly of publishing his book in Kindle edition, a format apparently doomed to die out when the power grids fail due to solar flares, or nuclear warfare causes electromagnetic pulses to destroy the Earth's technology.

There's the obvious trade-off: You can load up a lifetime of reading material, but the device might break.

The digital side of prepping is rife with contradictions and curious leaps of faith: how would our hardware and the internet survive an asteroid, or tidal wave, or thermonuclear catastrophe? Much of the content saved by preppers dates from a time long before Project Gutenberg. "There are people who curate these big online databases of free texts," says Dartnell. "Anything out of the public domain. They're usually books on permaculture, homesteading, tool-making or blacksmithing, written in the 50s and 60s. People will have scanned them onto microfiche, which has in turn been scanned to digital as PDFs. You can download four megabytes in one go."

Tech's presence in the traditional bug-out bag is hotly contested. There's the obvious trade-off: You can load up a lifetime of reading material, but the device might break and not be fixable. And it can't be replicated, unlike paper. "One of the things which I was quite tongue-in-cheek about in writing The Knowledge," Dartnell says, "was that in it I explain how to reprint the book itself. I explain how to make paper and ink, and how to construct a rudimentary printing press. The joke is that this manual contains the genetic instructions for its own reproduction."

Though his experimental apocalypse guide sells on Kindle, Dartnell places more faith in paper. "If you keep it well protected, paper will not rot, it won't mold, it won't burn, it won't explode. As long as you keep it dry and protected, it's a pretty good data store."

It's an opinion shared by the creators of similar "doomsday books" cited in Dartnell's bibliography. There's the crowd-funded proposal to print Wikipedia as 1000 hardback encyclopaedias, and Wikipedia's own "Terminal Event Management Policy", which, in the event of an "extinction level threat", advises the immediate printing and climate-controlled sealed storage of the entirety of the site. In 2011, Kevin Kelly and the Long Now Foundation proposed a similar "Library of Utility", hidden safely on a mountaintop.

Read: The Doomsday Librarian Preparing Our Reading for the Apocalypse

"A lot of preppers fear coronal mass ejection (CME)," Dartnell tells me. "It's where there would be a big flare or mass ejection from the sun. If that hit the earth it would begin to knock out the power grids." The range of options for what might destroy the world and its technologies means that digital prepping is a fringe activity within an already niche community. Forums are full of scorn for tech preppers: on prepperforums.net one user says, "The only tech I carry is a 40 year old boy scout compass and my brain….Old school rules. Gadget geeks will perish in my opinion." Another user agrees: "I have my flashlight and my pistol and I'm ready."

"I think the main thing they fear is the collapse of technical civilisation," says Dartnell, "so they can justify knowing how to kill a man or skin an animal or how to start a fire, but they don't see the point in trying to keep the internet going."

Sufficiently prepared, the tech-savvy maker stands to inherit the Earth.

And yet a strong contingent among preppers support the idea of a digital bug-out. Meshnets (off-grid internet) are a popular concept, as is Bitcoin. The rural Italian village of Verrua Savoia, neglected by internet providers, created a people-powered high speed internet (called "Without Wires, Without Borders") which inspired preppers to potentially do the same.

Dartnell also refers to The Restart Project, a maker community in London that educates on how to repair and rebuild hardware. Press coverage of his book alighted on the fact that you could survive for 55 years in a supermarket if you had the place to yourself (63 if you were willing to eat dog food), but surely the proprietor of a post-apocalyptic hackspace would be in a similar position of power. If sufficiently skilled and prepped, the tech-savvy maker stands to inherit the Earth.

British officer Leonard Beckett with a DIY radio he made in a prisoner of war camp. Image: Public Domain/Wikimedia

Dartnell cites historical inspiration for such DIY technologies. "During WWII, soldiers in internment camps were able to build radios from stuff lying around," he says. "They made capacitors from cigarette packaging… And now there's this resurgence of craft. I think people are tired of being given a device that's pretty, but that you can't fix if it breaks. We're removed and disconnected from knowing how our technology works."

There is, however, always the possibility of taking things too far: preppers who hoard and hoard data, pursuing the Sisyphean task of assembling a future library not only for themselves, but for the good of the human race. The business of organizing and reorganising such a library is described in the below post from the Prepper Forums:

I went through a "collection" phase where I was downloading sometimes thousands of titles a day into one big "uncategorized" folder, intending to sort them later. This got old fast and I ended up dumping most of these. I now work on specific sections at a time, renaming them in a consistent format and putting them in their place as I get them.

The apocalypse so frequently acts as a canvas on which the commercialism of fear plays out: for one person, learning to repair a laptop is enough, while for another they'll need to stockpile terabytes of unread e-books. Let us not forget that digital hoarding is an actual thing, another facet of the apocalypse industry which creates a demand for canned goods and bunkers and crovels that have made its inventor a millionaire, but that will likely never be used to fight off armies of the post-apocalyptic undead.

Knowledge might be power, but when the power grids go down and the sun burns out, and aliens finally try to nuke the White House, no amount of e-books can protect you from a zombie.