Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Culture Considered as a Generation Ship • by Bruce Bethke

I made a disturbing discovery the other day. 3M’s Scotch 206/207 recording tape, the standard for pro audio studio work in the 1970s through the 1980s, is unstable unless stored under exactly the right conditions of temperature and humidity. Given enough time and less-than-perfect storage conditions, the adhesive holding the oxide to the backing will deteriorate, causing the oxide to flake off the moment the tape is loaded onto a deck and played back. When 3M made this stuff 40-some years ago they apparently never imagined that this might happen someday, or that customers might be keeping reels of tape for so long.

Of course, 40-some years ago 3M also never imagined that the linings of their toxic waste landfills would also deteriorate someday, permitting their carcinogenic chemicals to leach into the underground aquifer and contaminate all the drinking water wells in this county. And yet people still ask why I am an environmentalist...

Rewind. (An obsolete verb: ask your parents what it means.) The reason I find the Scotch 206/207 issue so disturbing is that I have miles of it in storage, waiting for the day when I would have a little free time and be able to put my recording studio back together and resume puttering with electronic music again. An entire career—nearly 15 years of original master tapes—is possibly reduced to unrecoverable fragments of oxide now. I have not yet been able to work up the courage to open any of the boxes and find out.

Ironically, this is not the first time something like this has happened to me. Twenty-some years ago I had a little free time and started transferring some of those master recordings to CD-R’s, along with the backups of otherwise unrecoverable files from the first twenty years of my writing career. Unfortunately the brand of CD-R media I used for those copies and backups turned out to be made with an organic dye that unless stored under exactly the right conditions of temperature and humidity (do you detect a pattern here?) is prone to developing the same kinds of fungal infections that can invade and destroy the coatings on old 35mm camera lenses.

Hours upon hours of original music masters. Twenty years of manuscript files. Reduced to a stack of unreadable fogged-up CD-Rs that may as well be plastic coasters.

Reading, writing, and recording are the collective memory of our species. We write and record—well, often in hopes of getting paid for doing so, of course—but fundamentally, to transmit information to others. This information can be profound, amusing, entertaining, fatuous, irritating, or any of a half-dozen other things, more often determined by the perception of the receiver than by the intention of the transmitter, but unless it is recorded in some medium, information is above all ephemeral. An idea is a firefly, here and gone in a flash.

On the other hand, once it’s recorded, information may persist and be transmitted across the miles and years, but only at the mercy of the recording medium.

Mechanical recordings endure. All those 78 RPM phonograph records your grandparents collected are still playable today, if you can find a turntable that spins at 78 RPM. Using lasers it’s even possible to recover the audio information recorded on century-old wax cylinders, which has been an incredible boon to ethnographers.

The persistence of audio recordings pales in comparison to that of the written word, though. The written word can persist across millennia. The only older medium is the spoken word: the story remembered, retold, and handed down from generation to generation. Where the written word improves over the spoken word is in the stability of the medium. (Assuming the right conditions of temperature and humidity, etc. etc.) As anyone who has ever played the Telephone game knows, the spoken word tends to change every time the story is retold, as the teller embellishes or abridges the story to suit the audience.

The printed word is not immune to this. I cannot read French, but have been told that reading Jules Verne in the original French is a vastly different experience from reading it in English. Verne’s original UK publisher’s translator cut out a lot of material he felt would be offensive to English readers.

Still, with a reasonable amount of care and absent intentional interference, a writer’s original words can endure across centuries, and with some effort it can remain possible to discern the messages the writers intended to transmit when they wrote those words. Which is what makes it such an atrocity when libraries, museums, bookstores, and piles of books expressing “undesirable” ideas are burned.

And yet, every three to five generations or so, our species seems to feel compelled to do exactly that, if not to burn the heretical writers themselves.

One of the grand old idea of science fiction is that of the generation ship: the enormous spacecraft big enough to contain an entire ecosystem and society as it slowly travels across space, while generations of people are born, live, and die inside of it, all the while carrying on the mission of the culture that originally launched the ship. I am not averse to the idea—after all, I did buy and publish Henry Vogel’s novel, The Counterfeit Captain, and liked it so much I spent a small fortune on doing the audio book adaptation—

(Going on a long road trip this weekend? The Counterfeit Captain makes great reading or listening! Available now on Kindle, in print, on Audible, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers!)

My problem with the generation ship concept is this: we already live on a generation ship the size of a small planet, and yet I’m hard pressed to find a single example of a closed society that has survived beyond five generations, much less carried on the original mission of the culture that spawned it. The few examples that come close seem to fall into one of two categories: either brutally repressive police states or tottering societies afflicted with advanced cases of cultural sclerosis, ready to topple if given just a slight push.

And then along comes a generation that wants to give it that push—to burn the libraries, smash the hallowed relics, wipe the memories of the old ways, and create a new society in its own image—and everything comes tumbling down.

For a long time I thought the answer lay in advanced technology: that if information was preserved in digital form it would be impossible to make any idea disappear completely, at least not without smashing the computers, wiping the cores, and taking society back to the stone age. These days, I’m not so sanguine. We are already at the stage where we can’t trust photographs, at least not without asking, “Is that real or photoshopped?” We are fast approaching the stage where we can’t trust any audio clips or video recordings, without demanding to hear or see the original unedited audio or video. We are already seeing that “written” information on the Internet can appear, disappear, or be completely rewritten in the time it takes to click the refresh button. How much longer before we find ourselves pining for the days of mere human censors, because A.I.-driven algorithmic censors, editing on the fly in real time, will make some ideas simply impossible to write, read, or discuss?

In the end, printed books will remain, to transmit our messages to the generations to come.

If we take care to make sure that they do.

—Bruce Bethke

P.S. Speaking of books and generation ships, be sure to watch for “Outrider” by Helen French, coming soon to Stupefying Stories!


WaterBoy said...

Interesting article I read recently adds another twist on the generation ship problems:

Researchers foresee linguistic issues during space travel:

"It lacks the drama of a shape-shifting alien creature, but another threat looms over the prospect of generations-long, interstellar space travel: Explorers arriving on Xanadu could face problems communicating with previous and subsequent arrivals, their spoken language having changed in isolation along the way.

Therefore, a new paper co-authored by a University of Kansas professor of linguistics and published in a journal affiliated with the European Space Agency recommends that such crews include, if not a linguist, members with knowledge of what is likely to occur and how to adapt.

Though the changes between British English and American English aren't very difficult to suss out, we've had the advantage of cultural interaction over the years to keep some kind of continuity between them. This might not be the case with a generation ship.