Story by Rebekah Dare Guin
HALLSTATT, Austria — Deep in the Austrian Alps sits the beginnings of an international treasure.
After a long and dangerous climb up the mountainside, or a lift ride for those without any treasure hunting experience, the entrance of a historic salt mine awaits.
Just inside the cool dark tunnel entrance sits a collection of heavy boxes packed with gold? Government secrets? The Ark of the Covenant?
They’re filled with ordinary bathroom tiles. Maybe they are not exactly like the ones for sale in a Home Depot, but they are close enough.
The difference is on the surface. Each surface tells a story with text and images. Each tile is a puzzle piece to telling the global story of our time.
Paper degrades, and digital memories can be wiped out by the technology that created it. But, the information left on the tiles is designed to carry information of a digital world for the next million years.
Martin Kunze, a ceramist living in Gmunden, Austria, was inspired as he read “The World Without Us,” a non-fiction book by Alan Weisman that explores what would happen to the Earth and all of its manmade structures if man suddenly vanished.
“The most widespread writing to be found will be the embossing on stainless steel cooking pots and the backsides of bathroom tiles,” Kunze said. “It could be the case that company logos on ceramic sewer pipes are the only written traces of our era.”
Kunze and his wife, Masha, run a shop that sells dishes, art and, most importantly, custom tiles. He has worked with ceramics his entire life.
What would happen if the etchings found on bathroom tiles were not meaningless serial numbers and logos, he wondered. What would happen if they contained a complex record of the world?
Memory of Mankind was born.
An hour away from Gmunden is the sleepy town of Hallstatt. The classic architecture and wafting smells of warm pastries give the impression of stepping into a diorama of a fairy tale nestled in the Austrian Alps.
The region has been settled for more than 7,000 years, so there are more than enough photo ops to satisfy the eager traveler. Little do most of them know that nestled high above them in the world’s oldest active salt mine is the beginnings of what Kunze hopes will be the world’s largest time capsule.
Stacked in boxes tucked away in a little alcove are all the tablets that Kunze has made in the past five years. Some contain historical text, some personal stories, some artwork, some photographs, some newspapers.
Personal stories are a big part of the archive and one of the things that sets this collection apart from others.
“Of course, you can reconstruct history from contracts, but to reconstruct our daily life is only possible when you are given insight into our daily life,” Kunze said. “…These personal stories are a good way to show what we live for.”
The former chief officer of the Salzwelten Mine signed a contract with Memory of Mankind that the archive could remain there rent-free forever. However, the organization is responsible for any costs to expand and open additional spaces to preserve the archive as it grows. This could be a cost of around 200,000 euros per expansion.
Other costs of the non-profit organization are kept low because Kunze can do most of the work in his home studio. Memory of Mankind is always crowdfunding to add additional tablets and expand the space.
Scott Yelich, a self-proclaimed lover of archives living in New York, is planning to design one of these tablets this summer with his family. He wants his children to connect to the past and the future.
“It is so easy to destroy things,” Yelich said. “Whether you see people blowing up ancient artifacts, or things just degrading over time. I think it is almost natural that things degrade and go away. I think it is harder to create things that last.”
Kunze believes that this generation of tech users has been lulled into thinking that their photos, videos and social media accounts will make their memories immortal.
“Due to digital overload,” he said, “I think it will happen in the very close future that we have to delete a lot of information just due to using too much energy.”
Kunze believes that we cannot store everything forever, and it will not be up to individuals to work out what should be locked in a keepsake box and what should be dumped in the trash. Humans will not get to select which items are of value. Kunze said that items such as family photos might be the first to go.
“There will be a time of deletion by algorithms,” he said. “And that means that the picture our grandchildren have of our time will be created by machines.”
Who will create these algorithms? Big players like Google, Facebook and Apple all have set up camp in North Carolina with major data centers. Can they possibly keep up with the ever-expanding demand, or is Kunze right and the omnipresent “cloud” will suffocate us in the end? If this comes to pass, ethical dilemmas of digital data storage might end up closer to home than some might want.
Paul Jones, a professor with a dual appointment in the School of Information and Library Science and the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH, said the culling information is what libraries and archives have been doing for centuries.
“If it gets used a lot, it will be kept,” he said. “But if no one uses it, and you are short space, then it really is not worth keeping.”
Even if family photos survive digital cuts, Kunze is not optimistic about the long-term viability of digital information. If key pieces of information, such as bit rates and byte size, are unknown, lost or forgotten, decoding digital data becomes an encryption nightmare. Kunze said that without those key pieces of information, not even the world’s fastest super computers could figure it out.
“It is mathematically impossible in the duration of our universe to decipher digital data,” he said.
Jones said that digital transfer is a problem.
“Bands who were only on 8-tracks and never upgraded are gone now,” he said. We are about to see the same thing with CD’s.”
As for the likelihood of restoring digital information, Jones is on the fence. If you start from ground zero, he said it could be impossible, but he doesn’t believe any society would actually start from zero.
“I guess it depends on how stupid you think future intelligences will be,” he said.
Kunze believes that the answer to the digital problem can be solved by going back to the basics and storing it on a pressure and heat resistant material that is clear and readable. No technology needed.
Catherine Plaut, who joined Memory of Mankind last November as an ambassador, said this process of ceramic tailing is the first data solution that has made sense.
“Somehow, every project I have heard of preserving the way we are today with this conflict between analog and digital and physical storage, they turn out to be like when the dog bites his tail,” Plaut said. “They come with a solution that is actually the problem.”
In addition to being durable data carriers, Kunze has another reason he chose to work with this material. Clay is as cheap as, well, dirt.
“If the material the data is on is ever seen as more valuable than the information then the information will be lost,” he said.
The information is printed on a special transfer paper with a ceramic stain that is then baked in a kiln. The process is similar to the way family photos are placed on the coffee mugs that sit in every grandparent’s kitchen.
Additionally, he is developing what he calls ceramic microfilm, which is a rock-hard sheet about as thick as two pieces of card stock, and 5 million characters of text that could be read with a 10x magnifying lens.
“If you want to store the whole Harry Potter volume of the seven stories, it takes you two ceramic microfilms,” he said.
Many believe that this is nothing but a doomsday project. After all, preparing for the end of the digital era and the human reign on the earth by storing human knowledge in a salt mine could come off as a little crazy if presented that way.
The archive was designed with two timelines in mind. The first timeline is why Kunze said he would not consider his project to be a doomsday vault.
The first timeline was to connect grandchildren to their grandparents. In order to combat this generational disconnect, he built a familial element into his project.
He hands each contributor to the project a small symbolic token with the instructions that they should be passed down every other generation. Every 50 years, starting in the year 2070, token-holders will be called to take part in a reevaluation of the contents of the archive.
These palm-sized ceramic disks serve another purpose that relates to a larger span of time. It is a time that no one’s children, or even their great grandchildren’s great grandchildren, will ever see.
A million years might be nothing more than a hiccup in the history of our universe, but for many people, it is a hard number to understand.
Will humans still walk over the globe, or will we have all gone the way of the T-Rex? To Kunze, this answer seems obvious.
“When you are talking about that much time, the question is not if, it is how and when,” he said.
By the time man leaves the earth, whether that is 200 years or 200,000 years down the winding road, Kunze hopes to see thousands of his tokens scattered around the globe.
Each token is etched with a symbolic map that would guide future intelligent societies to the mine and to the story of our time.
The map is intentionally cryptic. He fears the archive falling into the hands of an immature society. He does not want a people similar to the ancient Greeks and Romans stumbling onto the mine and not truly understanding the importance of the material.
But Kunze hopes that when a modern society comes along, that they will be able to follow the treasure map all the way to the perfectly preserved archive.
One of the ways the content is being preserved has to do with the looming mountain itself. However, they are not as imposing as they once were.
An opening carved into the mountain will slowly close at about the same rate fingernails grow.
Not everyone believes in the token’s ability to lead society to the archive. Dr Jennifer Gates-Foster, an archaeologist and a UNC- Chapel Hill professor, said that finding the archive, even with advanced mapping technology and a thorough understanding of geology, might not be that easy.
“I think you would have a bunch of very confused archaeologists in the future,” she said.
However, she is optimistic about the future, saying that archaeologists have put together ideas of societies even without time capsule projects. She does not believe that digital information will make it impossible to understand our time.
“The impermanence of human communication is a permanent feature of human society,” she said.
If future societies do stumble upon the treasure in the salt mine, they might read Shakespeare side-by-side with Harry Potter. They might read controversial tweets from modern politicians, and they might read Grandma’s chocolate chip cook recipe that she swore she would take to the grave.
“Of course, there are people who will say that it is better that everything will be forgotten from our time,” Kunze said.
Nonetheless, Kunze wants everything of significance to have a chance to be remembered. In addition to personal contributions, he is working with universities, historical organizations, major publications, libraries and other museums to gather texts and images worth preserving. Of course, he also has the ability to preserve whatever he believes is being left out.
At this point, Memory of Mankind is accepting all contributions as long as the contributor can make an argument of its importance – chocolate chips included. This is what sets his work apart from a government archive governed by strict sets of rules and political bias.
“They are top down archives, and this project is the complete opposite,” he said. “It is a bottom-up project.”
Sarah Knoots, North Carolina’s state archivist, runs such a government archive. The State Archives of North Carolina are appointed to contain everything of historical significance to the state. Everything from birth certificates to World War II letters can be found in the collection.
Knoots became aware of the challenges of preserving digital history while working on a collection of Vietnam era records from state veterans. She said the recording of current wars would not be the same.
“You are not going to find boxes of texts,” she said.
Kunze sees state and national archives as flawed but valuable. He just wishes that they took him as seriously.
“They don’t like the idea that private people can create collections and preserve a history of our time,” he said.
He feels that his project should not be disregarded and should be seen as a viable archive that will serve as a window as it is currently understood for generations and species to come.
“They disregard the fact that all big museums worldwide started as private collections from some crazy people,” he said.