end of the world.jpgThere is are major problem with ebooks, or any digital archive, and that is what is the shelf life of the documents and if current technology fails then how do we read them. At least with paper books you don’t need electricity or computers to access the information.

io9 has a summary of a recent New Scientist article on just this topic:

A recent article by Tom Simonite and Michael Le Page in New Scientist tackles this question by positing a minor cataclysm: something bad enough to tear apart civilization as we know it, but not quite enough to kill off humans entirely. Candidates include a pandemic, a financial collapse that would make 2008’s pale in comparison, a severe natural disaster, or just the slow accumulation of decay in society’s foundations.

The question, then, is in the absence of most of the raw materials that powered the construction of our current industrial civilization – there wouldn’t be nearly enough fossil fuels to rebuild from scratch, for instance – whether the survivors of this collapse could make use of the one great resource we would leave behind in huge quantities: information. If we could leave behind the equivalent of a cheat sheet for these post-apocalyptic survivors, could they perhaps bypass the trial and error of rebuilding science and jump straight to the achievements of the 21st century?


  1. Unfortunately this is a bad analogy, as there are messages on paper or papyrus or stone that are not readable today. In what language would you prefer these paper documents if the only survivors were the people in Peru that don’t speak Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, Italian or French?

  2. If we lost all decoding technology and the people with know-how to kick off reconstruction, then we’d have to start over, wouldn’t we? Things haven’t worked out so well with clay tablets: they’re scattered all around the world, both in private and public collections, and most of them came from looting or irresponsible archeology work, so they lack provenance data; laser range 3d scanning proves tough for this objects, it’s a big big jigsaw puzzle; so in a way we’ve lost them

  3. Hum, which would I rather have? A few moldy volumes or a complete library on a low-power-usage device with a solar recharger. Give me a day’s warning and I’ll assemble a pretty good technological and literary collection. Could I really assemble the same depth of paper? Not sure.

    Of course, deciding we need to keep paper books because maybe, someday, there will be a weird disaster that wipes out electrons but leaves paper untouched is sort of like deciding to catch cow-pox because smallpox might make a resurgence. It’s logical in its own context but it’s not a low-cost solution to the problem…which strikes me as a low-likelyhood event in any case. (Except in libertarian fantasy novels)

    Rob Preece

  4. Any industry that becomes overly dependent on electronic delivery of physical products is doomed. The recent examples of such collapse include sectors as diverse as the automotive, music, electoral governance and finance industries.
    Regardless of such indicators, every sector is under pressure to embrace economies of electronic products. Slow to transform, the print publishing industry remains focused on the physical print book and has elected to apply digital technologies to production rather than to transformation of the product itself. This may prove a visionary approach.

  5. We are only a few decades into the process of creating digital archives of our information, and there is no doubt that technologies and archiving procedures will improve (as well as ways to generate power). Considering that the overriding bulk of paper documents created since there was paper have actually rotted away or been destroyed, leaving only a small percentage of the original total of documents available today, such doom-and-gloom comments directed at electronics is pretty weak.

    And since an electronic archive can be duplicated quickly and cheaply, and disseminated over potentially thousands of storage locations, on- and off-planet if necessary, the likelihood that such a disaster will “wipe out” all digital information is equally weak.

    This “electronic data will not last” talk is mostly scare-tactics, but it does serve a purpose: It tends to remind us that we need to improve our routine archiving, backup and storage habits. Knowing how to fix things up won’t help if a disaster falls before we fix it.

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