The Technium

The Forever Book

[Translations: Japanese]

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.

  • Robert

    You take as a given that all books available today would be sufficient to recreate civilization. If we go back a thousand years, “all books in the world” is an amount we could wrap our minds about, but would it be sufficient to recreate the civilisation of that day? If not, when did the libraries attain this critical mass?

    Considering how little we understand of the dynamics of our own cultures, why wikipedia works, how some countries avoid war, e.t.c how can we know that some of our achievements are all documented in books and not ingrained in the somewhat accidental cultural “system configuration” itself?

    As an apropos, Jorge L. Borges wrote a story about a weed-like forever book which replaced one culture with another.

  • WalterRSmith

    I’m not clear on whether you mean to imply that all the knowledge necessary to restart civilization could be captured “formally.” Various writers disagree on the extent to which you can capture knowledge formally, but my impression is that they’d mostly agree that something on the scale of civilization has too much tacit connectedness to be bootstrapped from a single document. I agree that significant “formal attractors” could be reproduced….whether a self-reproducing civilization could ever result is less clear.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Walter, the bootstrapping knowledge is not a single document. It’s a library. Can all knowledge be formalized? No. But enough may be. It’s worth trying the experiment.

  • Ryan Somma

    I keep thinking of these knowledge seeds in terms of computer programs. Books and DVDs can present nice algorithms to start human beings and civilizations off on a lifetime of reconstructing knowledge about the world, but a computer program can perform the reconstruction far more quickly.

    Assuming someone had a computer at their disposal and a Seed Software for the subject of Mathematics, they could set the program running to discover all mathematical knowledge and beyond. The program would come up with its own names, in the form of identification numbers, for every mathematical statement(?) (ie. Pythagoras’ Theorem would be “91254987”), and would not value one statement over another (ie. Pythagoras Theorem would be as important as “2 + 2 = 4″).

    It would be fascinating to see how the knowledge would unfold. Unlike humans, computers would have no bias toward two or three dimensional thinking, and could run away discovering mathematical concepts of little use to the human user.

    Somebody needs to get Stephen Wolfram working on this. : )

  • A very interesting idea. But, the first ‘Forever Book’ – the start of the Technium – may have started with a creature who wanted something badly. And it could not get it without a tool.

    So… the smallest Forever Book may be nothing more than desire.

  • Shaye Horwitz

    This actually reminds me somewhat of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in “The Diamond Age,” which made an initially illiterate girl into a queen. Of course, she started with spoken language and knowledge of some stories.

    How exactly would this go down? Say you start with a post-apocalyptic scenario, with civilization reduced to a hunter-gatherer level – and then what? How does the book come to have an influence? Does someone just pick it up out of curiosity? And then what, does it teach them a language? How durable does this thing have to be? Would it be shaped like a monolith? (Kidding on that last one…sorta.) What if the very fact that the civilization acquires all this knowledge “from Heaven” inevitably screws it up, makes it overdependent?

    Hell, all the monolith in 2001 had to do to kick-start humanity was teach them how to think and how to use tools. Then it just vanished.

  • Interesting idea. Two thoughts on that: First, as you already mention briefly, there probably would have to be many Forever Books, because they depend on what you already have. As the chicken egg needs a mother to incubate it, the Forever Book needs at least some natural fiber to created paper from etc. Not very helpfull if you are stranded on the moon or something. So where is the boundary between what you take for granted and what can be taken from the environment? Can a Neandertal man use your book? Maybe you have to teach him language first and writing?
    I can imagine that it would be possible to create such a book though. Maybe for a kind of Robinson who learns how to create such a book again on his island. He’ll need a few years, but he’ll be able to do this.
    But the DVD is much much more difficult. You need actual computer chips and chip factories to do this, probably one of the technically most difficult things to do. We only had DVDs for a few years now. So it would be impossible for one person, even a thousand persons to create this from scratch in a few years. You’ll need many people and probably many generations. But if your instructions are to be complete, don’t you have to teach those people also how to stay alive in the meantime? How to feed themselves when half of the population is working on this DVD project. How to not kill each other when they disagree. You have to teach them how to communicate effectively, how to travel to other parts of the world to get raw material, to get this material out of the ground, to build international trade, basically you have to teach them how to build a society. Because only a complex society like ours has the means to (re)build the Technium. So there have to be many things in this DVD, not only those things you directly need to make a DVD but all the things that support those things, on those that support those…
    On the other hand: The first time we build this Technium all we started from was the big bang. Maybe thats all the instructions needed. It worked the first time around, it might work again. So maybe your seed is really small, just a few laws of physics?

  • Kevin Kelly

    Yes, Jochen, there would have to be different books — different seeds — for different staring fields. A stark moon, or a biologically rich planet, or our own earth in some dark age.

    And I agree that recreating a DVD is a gigantic undertaking. But it is not impossible. And it may be that if you only wanted to teach how to make a DVD and nothing else, it may be a shorter path then you think. (It’s easy to tell someone how to do a cataract surgery if that was only what you needed to learn.)

    However you do ask a reasonable question about survival in the development time. A seed that took 50 years to fruit would need to convey the essentials of surviving for 50 years.

  • David Donachie

    There was a similar idea in the story Hegira by Greg Bear written in 1979. In that the knowledge of civilisation was inscribed on the sides of enormous multi-mile high obelisks, starting from the simplest knowledge at the bottom with ever increasing complexity as you went up, including the knowledge needed to evolve a culture that *could* go higher up.

    Part of the theme of that book though was the fact that the knowledge was interpreted differently by whoever read it, and the cultures the obelisks created were never the same.

    • @David: Thanks, I did not know about Hegira. I’ll have to check it out.

  • rook

    enjoyed the article, i was wondering somewhere along the lines of this conversation article, if anyone has thought of life itself, the very essence of existence, being a living alphabet.

    then if this were correct, in relationship to light, we see the light that is refracted from an object’s un-absorbed energy (something like that..)

    so if everything was a living alphabet, eating up little letter E’s and leaving behind D’s and somebody comes along and pops a P out there. would maybe the things that i finally end up saying be due in part because i could only absorb (n) amount of the total letters, and then my brain would begin assembling a message to output that letters (1->n) were all i had available to me.

    and that it would also work on an emotional level as well, an alphabetical substratuum of emotion layer. one for physical. so on.

    but in the end of all that, its been a long day and i don’t know if it was worth mentioning this at all. feel free to contact me. KK*

  • My comments are less about metallurgy-anvil-machines unfolding and more about semiotics. And I’m mixing content levels by bringing up religious fundamentalism as part of the manual interpretation process. I realize Forever Books are more towards road building than happiness or personal mission statement building.

    Coming from the USA Southeast, and raised in an environment
    where protestant fundamentalism was a norm, I saw how a large book took on a high degree of effect in building the society.

    I am concerned about the interpretation/extrapolation process
    in a Forever Book. A circular response loop starts between the
    source and interpreter. I guess it is that unfolding ripple effect that my post is pointing at. And this sometimes invisible
    loop is intertwined with the stuff called anvils and satellites.

    I recommend a Forever Book (especially the feral version which is what we needed in my home country of Arkansas) contains some help, e.g. interpolation, in avoiding traps of misuse of some instruction statement.

    At a meta-level, in your quest into the Technium questions,
    maybe the question I am raising is related to your muse on the Amish selection of technology, and also the
    happiness/consumerism ratio. What cycles of thought/lifestyle/epistemology cause the herky-jerky motion of unfolding the ForeverBook into its iterative stages?

    One of your central tenets of evolution is central to this undependable punctuation of unfolding : disequilibrium.
    I guess my post, at first, was an expression of discomfort over the tension supplied by disequilibrium. But I can see a level of
    cross-purposes where the Forever Book writer may have to make a decision that is a hard one. If the goal is civilization, how much disequilibrium is the book creator comfortable in generating?
    Should this Forever Book aim for utopia? Or the world like we have now? I could try to be rhetorically clever and say “should it have a social goal?”, but that conveniently forgets that the book has to have a goal.

    Is the summation in the book “Out of Control”, or is there more to it? I guess thats why you’re writing this new book.

    Finally , its ironic that the Forever Book concept comes along so far upstream from the origin source of civilization. It is in of itself a paradox.

  • Kevin Kelly

    No, Lance, the Forever Book does not deliver, or try to deliver, utopia. It is an unfolding, a process that never finishes, and that is, because it is real, a flawed, imperfect tradeoff of various benefits and their side effects — and many unexpected things.

  • mr oktagon

    In Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky a group of college students are (seemingly) abandoned on a foreign Earthlike planet and attempt to reboot civilization in lieu of rescue. They make a good point that governance is an important part of remaking societies – without at least primitive distribution of labor (in the case of pregnant women, for instance – pun intended) there won’t be any room for error or failure on anyone’s part; “every person for themself” means no sharing, breeding, etc., all focus is on day-to-day survival per individual – competition is at a maximum, especially with limited resources.

    I think the first “Forever Book(s)” should be a series much like progressively-graded children’s textbooks; first-year language, math, science & “humanity” will be modern kindergarten alphabet primers, basic math tables, a basic survival guide (a la Boy Scouts) and a book of simple moral fables (don’t steal because it’s not nice & so forth), all designed to be taught by whomever is left after the world ends/leaves us behind/takes us elsewhere. Second-year stuff will be basic nouns & grammar, simple fractions, basic earth scientific concepts, basics of simple governance (team leaders, games). Third year more complex, etc. etc. thus bootstrapping complex society as a natural progression in lifecycles.

    Unlike Nell’s primer [Diamond Age] this book series will not be interactive – real humans should hopefully still be around to raise some kids and teach them this stuff in all the forms of learning (practical and theoretical). There won’t be simple computers included yet – that will be Forever Series 2, recreatable upon completing Series 1. Said series will attempt to seed a simple-tech learned agrarian/pastoral society somewhat like Ancient China in structure, allowing for population & farming/herding to grow to a level where it can sustain an industrial-revolution-sized mass of humans. Series 2 rolls out the industry from concepts in Series 1, making mass communication trivial and internationalizing transport, development and resource sharing. Series 3 brings on the college-level society with bioengineering, space travel (or at least experimentation), life extension, skyscrapers and networked supercomputing: now, or ’roundabout now (2010-level tech). Forever Series 4 will have to wait until we all get there – humans don’t have enough experience with space travel yet to realize an interstellar community…

    My personal wish is for something like this set of Civilization 1-2-3 books to get the “seed” treatment and shot out to every star in the galaxy. What better way to spread ourselves (and our horrible, horrible planetary population problem) throughout the universe than to freeze a chunk of this place (surplus people included), pack it up with seeds and embryos and mail it out every week or so? Sure, we might start denuding the planet of resources… but it’s just YOLK. We’re more than the sum of our biosphere now that we have stepped outside it (satellites, et al)… plus, the law of averages says SOMEone has to make it ok.

    Am I wrong here? I just stumbled across this blog and haven’t taken the time to read more of it yet, but quantifying civilization as a replicable, living thing seems to be a theme of what you’re driving at… to make a broader analogy what I’m thinking of is like DNA for the superorganism – instructions for a small cell of society to survive, divide and begin to specialize into a full-grown global civilization.

    There could be a literally failureproof “hard backup”; granite like the Georgia Guidestones, and a timebase like the Long Now clock. All could be enclosed in a huge complex, like the designs conceptualized to mark nuclear wasted deposits for 1,000s of years, possibly with knowledge etched on the stone construction elements (the goal of studying it to be replication of Forever Series 1 in distributable book form). You could cryptographically or steganographically encode Series 2, 3, 4 etc. in the minutiae of the Series 1 books and the hard backup. I (personally) would invent a neutral language to put all this knowledge in… but you could encode the Rosetta Project in all of this, too. Maybe bury the Stones themselves in the Forever Complex, or etch the language primers in the walls (if there is room). Hell, you could cut matrices in the walls and make 2D barcodes for the complicated stuff – society would have to evolve from steps 1, 2, 3 to understand how to get it out of there. It would provide impetus to continue studying the site – indicate the strange glyphs on the walls have hidden meaning: see page 3 for how to build a machine that understands (page 2 for what a machine IS). Mystery and demystifying things is an important motive for humans; curiosity kills more little kids than kittens EVERY YEAR :)

    Who do you think could make money from creating a disaster-proof backup of humanity/Gaia Seed? I am anxious to quit my job – I’d rather work for them… :)

    • @mr oktagon: I love your ideas. Thanks for posting them. Do you want to try to make a Forever Book, series 1?

  • mr oktagon

    Hell yes I do! Contact me at the email address your blogware delivered to you when I commented; I’ve got plenty of free time to collaborate on things like this…

  • Bryan Arnold

    I enjoyed reading about this idea (as I have when reading anything related to The Long Now). I found some similarities in efforts at my workplace, a huge auto manufacturer. We have been trying to capture all of our “working knowledge” to facilitate training and recovery from catastrophic events.

    My questions about the Forever Book is:

    1) Who is the audience for such a document? This is critical to determine the medium or media used in the book’s construction. If your audience is alien, pre-literate, illiterate, etc., then spoken/written word will not work. The book will have to be visual, at least up to the point of teaching language, assuming the audience can even develop language. And a visual Forever Book assumes that the audience can see things and perceive them as we do now.

    2) What is the purpose for such a document? Of course, no matter the purpose, there are huge educational benefits to just creating the thing – the best way to learn is to teach. But if the purpose is a back-up for future generations of humanty after some catastrophe, the Forever Book takes on a more narrow form and I think is quite useful. Other than that, I’m not sure what it would be good for, but it is quite a captivating idea.

  • Berend Schotanus

    A seed can recreate an organism, not an ecosystem. I think the technium is more an ecosystem than an organism.

    I would love to have a look on the earth in the early days when life just started. However, apart from lack of time machines, I wouldn’t live very long. There wouldn’t be oxygen because there were no plants to produce oxygen. There wouldn’t be anything to eat because there wouldn’t be anything to harvest.