A key moment in cybernetics was Von Neumann’s attempt to figure out what the smallest possible self-reproducing machine could be (even though he never published this work). There were plenty of examples of large self-reproducing machines – all living creatures – but what was the tiniest thing that could reproduce itself? Out of that line of inquiry came his seminal ideas of automatons, and eventually a lot of artificial life work. Recently biologists have begun to ask the same question: what is the smallest living thing we can imagine; how small can life get? Out of this line of thinking exobiologists and origin of life researchers have experimented with the smallest possible bits of self-reproducing RNA – which are much smaller than what we find in the wild on earth.
I’ve been thinking of civilization (the technium) as a life form, as a self-replicating structure. I began to wonder what is the smallest seed into which you could reduce the “genes” of civilization, and have it unfold again, sufficient that it could also make another seed again. That is, what is the smallest seed of the technium that is viable? It must be a seed able to grow to reproduction age and express itself as a full-fledge civilization and have offspring itself — another replicating seed.
This seed would most likely be a library full of knowledge and perhaps tools. Many libraries now contain a lot of what we know about our culture and technology, and even a little bit of how to recreate it, but this library would have to accurately capture all the essential knowledge of cultural self-reproduction. It is important to realize that this seed library is not the universal library of everything we know. Rather, it is a kernel that contains that which cannot be replicated and that which when expanded can recover what we know.
Seeds are good for many things. They are good for next season renewal, or in dormant mode for some species, for continuity over long gaps. They are also food (input) for other projects. We know that oak trees can be compressed into acorns, and whales compressed into a fertilized zygote, so I think civilization can be compressed into a library of sorts. The unpacking of this seed requires the right environment and time scale (in the whale’s case it needs a mommy whale, and an oak needs a forest and soil) so the creature is not entirely compressed into the seed alone, but still it is handy enough.
I also believe, but cannot prove, that there is more than one seed. There is likely more than one way to compress and encapsulate the complexity of the technium, just as there is more than one way to fold a protein. We can imagine all kinds of seeds (libraries) that could continue some aspect of civilization by being replanted, rediscovered, or simply renewed. Some may be bigger than others. What is the smallest library that could contain the essential bootstrapping notions and knowledge of civilization? The smallest must in fact only contain information, since via the correct information, any tool needed could be built.
The seed of the technium must be a bootstrapping device. The foundational information provides the guidance to construct the tools which are used to unlock yet more knowledge, which in turn is used to understand the remaining instructions, which are used to create yet more tools and understanding. Ad infinitum.
Clearly such a library would have to be able to convey, among all the other things, how to make a library full of books, since that is in many ways an essential part of civilization. Thus we have the library that can self-replicate, the forever library. What is the smallest possible self-replicating forever library? It is possible that with digital technology it will someday be no bigger than a book today. And since it contains primarily information we could think of the self-replicating forever library as a self-replicating book, Forever Book.
I have been thinking about what it would take to construct a Forever Book just as an experiment.
On the first level this is a book that tells you how to make itself, and more. Upon contemplation I realized my project would actually be a series of books. Each edition would improve upon the basic idea until the last book contains a recivilization kit, a book that can continue to replicate itself forever.
Here is how the series goes:
Version 1 is a laser printed book that reprints portions of old manuals on how to make paper, how to do movable type and how to book bind, etc. It thus contains the general information on how to make another book like itself. (This is the stage I am working at now.) It works at the concept level, but may or may not be very practical. Making paper and ink is not very hard, but making type is.
Version 2 is a laser printed book that has similar information of how to make a book from scratch but this information would be modernized, synthesized, and tested expressly for this project of making only a few books by hand. Using version 2 you could make a book, but not the book you started with.
Version 3 is a fully handmade book made entirely by this elementary process. Within its pages is the information on how to make another one just like it. On handmade paper pages it would show you how to make the very page itself, and the chapter on ink would be printed with ink made by the process shown, etc. It is a true forever book.
The next step would be an expanded Forever Book that would be more like a Forever Library.
Version 4 is a DVD or equivalent that tells how to make a DVD (or equivalent) starting with the skills of a handmade book. I am not certain you could contain all the knowledge need to re-create a DVD from elemental materials like silicon, aluminum, petroleum and copper into on DVD. There might be a whole shelf of DVDs needed.
If you keep expanding the notion, you come to a library of DVDs, hard disks, computer networks, and the web that contains all the knowledge needed to replicate the library of hardware and software that holds the knowledge. This library is essentially a recivilization kit, a self-replicating knowledge that captures some basic civilization skills. It is can be very big. At the extreme, the meta-library of all the books and documents on earth today is a forever library. Surely everything we know includes the information about how to do it again.
But the trick is to encapsulate into one source, the minimum amount of knowledge to restart civilization somewhere along the lines we are now. What is the least amount of knowledge you’d need to restart the technium in, say, three generations? Or one?
One’s definition of technology and civilization will vary, and so there will be many approaches to this seed. This is the fun part. It’s like doing backups. Different needs will drive different strategies. Some people would aim for a self-replicating library “seed” that restarts fast – an ten-year instant start pack. Maybe you want one of these for a space ship. Or you might want a civ-seed that unpacked very deeply, but slow, taking much nurturing but yielding a very robust technium. Or some forever seeds might be designed to produce a very directed type of civilization, say one that either avoided or embraced religion, or shifted the notions of women. Two other versions of the seed: The “feral” version is a seed able to sprout in a waste land, with no mommy, no soil, the after-the-Armageddon version. It is able to restart civilization with little nurturing. This version would have to be completely self-evident and able to withstand the ignorant. The second, is a seed that must sprout to maturity in competition with other emerging forever seeds, or even an already established culture. It must be aggressive, weed like, and resilient to disruption by other seeds. There might be thousands of ways to unroll a forever book.
I don’t imagine anyone beside me being interesting in making a version 1-, 2-, or 3- of the Forever Book – that is a book made from mulberry bark and soot ink. But I can imagine many people being interesting in making up a version 4 Forever Book. They would spend years carefully studying, selecting and balancing the content of books, video, music, knowledge, websites that would entail a self-replicating library embedded in a modern media. The popularity of lists on Amazon, bibliographies, and lists of links on blogs and elsewhere attests to the appeal of making the Grand List of Most Essential Knowledge. Their ultimate list of sources would have to enable any reasonable person studying the material to reconstruct at the very least the medium of the list itself and to reproduce the contents of the list. This is a big job, one that gets more difficult as the media becomes more sophisticated. (Imagine the instructions need to teach someone to build a DVD). And of course the library of what we know expands every day.
However the real challenge to constructing a deep Forever Book of the technium is that I suspect that most of the knowledge require to reconstruct technology is not even recorded. There is a vast amount of implicit knowledge in expert’s head which is passed on in the factory or office and not all at documented, especially in a library. Extracting such fundamental knowledge may not be possible for amateurs.
Yet I can imagine the Forever Book project becoming an enthusiast’s passion, with personal versions shared and admired. “Wanna see my version of a Forever Book?” Who else is going to take such a wide cross-disciplinarian view of what we know? Who else will try to reconstruct the steps needed to arrive where we now are?
A Forever Book also can serve as a pedagogical device, too. As Stewart Brand said about the idea: “The appeal here is that every new human, through their education, in effect restarts—or at least rediscovers—civilization.” Trying to assemble and working through the elements of a civilization-restart manual is potentially the best education there could possibly be.
I can imagine the Forever Book League, which is an elite meritocracy, a club whose members have all achieved the following:
1) Every member has created his/her version of a Forever Book which contains instructions for making at least 100 copies of itself. AND
2) At least one recipient of those copies has made a second generation copy.
One could speculate there would be “races” between libraries. The way to win is to be clear, logical, and orderly enough in constructing your Forever Book so that someone else could make your “book” by following your book. This is a race to the second generation.
This encourages trans-generational communication because a prospective member of the Forever Book League can’t gain entrance unless they secure evidence that a second generational participant has succeeded. (There may be an additional motivation needed for second generation makers to communicate with the first generation makers.) I’d like to be a member of the Forever Book League. If this idea appeals to you as well, let me know.