All of Human Knowledge Buried in a Salt Mine
Fearful of digital decay, a ceramicist wants to return data storage to a more lasting medium: clay.
By RICHARD KEMENY
Jan 9 2017
Martin Kunze wants to gather a snapshot of all of human knowledge onto plates and bury it away in the world’s oldest salt mine.
In Hallstatt, Austria, a picturesque village nestled into a lake-peppered region called Salzkammergut, Kunze has spent the past four years engraving images and text onto hand-sized clay squares. A ceramicist by trade, he believes the durability of the materials he plies gives them an as-yet unmatched ability to store information. Ceramic is impervious to water, chemicals, and radiation; it’s emboldened by fire. Tablets of Sumerian cuneiform are still around today that date from earlier than 3000 B.C.E.
“The only thing that can threaten this kind of data carrier is a hammer,” Kunze says.
So far, he has created around 500 squares, which he allows anyone to design for a small donation. Many preserve memories of the lives or work of people involved in the project. Around 150 of the tablets showcase items from collections in Vienna’s museums of National History and Art History. Some local companies have been immortalized. One researcher’s CV now lies in the vault.
But Kunze aims to expand the project, to copy research, books, and newspaper editorials from around the world—along with instructions for the languages needed to read them. For this, the clay squares he’s currently using would take up far too much space than could be set aside for such an audacious undertaking. So Kunze also has conceived of a much thinner medium: He will laser-print a microscopic font onto 1-mm-thick ceramic sheets, encased in wafer-thin layers of glass. One 20 cm piece of this microfilm can store 5 million characters; whole libraries of information—readable with a 10x-magnifying lens—could be slotted next to each other and hardly take up any space.
“We can have the whole Harry Potter series on two ceramic microfilms,” Kunze says.
The goal of the project, which he calls the Memory of Mankind, is to build up a complete, unbiased picture of modern societies. The sheets will be stored along with the larger tablets in a vault 2 km inside Hallstatt’s still-active salt mine. If all goes according to plan, the vault will naturally seal over the next few decades, ready for a curious future generation to open whenever it’s deemed necessary.
To Kunze, this peculiar ambition is more than a courtesy to future generations. He believes the age of digital information has lulled people into a false sense that memories are forever preserved. If today’s digital archives disappear—or, in Kunze’s view, when they do—he wants to make sure there’s a real, physical record to mark our era’s place in history.
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In 2013 alone, humans produced 4.4 trillion gigabytes of data, according to the International Data Corporation. This number doubles every two years. By 2020, it’s predicted that 6.1 billion people will use a smartphone, and that “connected things”—everything from self-driving cars to artificially intelligent toothbrushes—will constitute almost a third of the digital universe, which will have grown by an order of magnitude from today.
Much of this information goes into digital storage—ranging from servers on personal computers to colossal data centers, like the NSA’s facility in Utah. Such sites are growing to accommodate the surge in data; one currently under construction in Nevada will cover nearly 6.5 million square feet when completed—113 football fields of server space.
But this method of storage has inherent problems. Digital space is finite and expensive. Digitally stored data can become corrupted and decay as electrical charges used to encode information into binary bits leak out over time, altering the contents. And any enduring information could be lost if the software to access it becomes obsolete. Or a potent, well-timed coronal mass ejection could causeirreparable damage to electronic systems.
“There’s no getting around the risk of catastrophic loss in our culture,” says Robert Darnton, the librarian emeritus at the Harvard University Library. “Digital texts are much more fragile than printed books.”
In the face of such concerns, collaborative projects have been popping up around the world with the explicit intention of preserving history. In 2013, Darnton helped launch the Digital Public Library of America, an initiative that links digitized collections from museums, libraries, and historical societies across the country. In the United Kingdom, an organization called the Digital Preservation Coalition provides digital-preservation guidance to a growing network of members, from the BBC to the Bank of England.