Futurist and librarian Heath Rezabek returns with further thoughts on preserving mankind’s heritage through Vessels that would contain everything we are as a species. But in an unusual offering, he goes on to provide a fictional look at how such Vessels affect the future. Just how do we preserve and present Earth’s cultural and biological heritage against events we cannot predict? And if we succeed, what shape will our Vessels take, and who will find them? Join Heath as he ventures into ‘science fiction prototyping’ as a way of influencing outcomes.
by Heath Rezabek
I’ve described The Vessel Project in three prior posts:
August 29, 2013 – Deep Time: The Nature of Existential Risk
October 3, 2013 – Visualizing Vessel
November 7, 2013 – Towards a Vessel Pattern Language
Each month I’ll try to do a new A/B sorting survey on the topic of very long term preservation. Past Poll: “Which positioning / placement of a Vessel archive or haven would take priority?” is continually open for refining votes. (http://www.allourideas.org/vessel-positioning-2013)
Current top three: 1st “Tranquility Base (Moon)”, 2nd “Lunar South Pole”, 3rd “Co-located with the 10,000 year clock (Long Now Foundation)”
This month’s new A/B Sorting Survey is:
Which works depicting cultural, biological, or scientific archival / remembrance / recovery would you recognize as exemplars of their kind? (Books, movie, or any other medium. Please add more…)
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It is my hope that the ideas explored in this series and in my work will help to inspire others with greater means to make these approaches into realities, as it is truly impossible to undertake such large-scale projects alone. Very long term archival and knowledge preservation seems to me a key step on the path towards an eventual interstellar civilization, and the more we explore all aspects of this journey, the greater our chances of collectively making it.
What can’t be clearly imagined can hardly be achieved. When it comes to creating artifacts that might influence or inspire others, the direct route need not be the only one. Methods such as art and fiction, in particular, can be very powerful in the effort to blaze trails towards possible futures. In this regard, one recent development of great interest to me is that of Design Fiction (sometimes also called Science-Fiction Prototyping).
Design Fiction, briefly discussed in the October 3 entry, can be described as fiction whose primary goal is to paint a picture of the possible, without too much concern for filling in all the details beyond the elements being suggested or explored. Science fiction as a speed-sketch: The goal is to strike sparks, since even small sparks can light the wayfinding torches of others — can inspire and motivate through suspension of disbelief. A recent essay on Design Fiction is useful reading. Bruce Sterling’s “Patently untrue: fleshy defibrillators and synchronised baseball are changing the future” in Wired UK is useful reading in coming to terms with this technique of idea exploration.
My Centauri Dreams contribution this month, then, is a brief detour through the realms of the possible, in an original short piece of design fiction.
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Woven Light (I)
Image: Woven Light (Detail) by Heath Rezabek.
Dust, undisturbed for centuries, billowed as it was brushed aside by alloy digits. In darkness this deep, unaided eyes were blind. Yet the sensors attached to these arms soaked up the bare wisps of light and sound in this place, resolving those streams into a coherent model of surrounding space and time.
Deep set into a dais rested a prism, a cubic matrix tilted and sunken halfway into its setting. Recognizing its target, focal beams pierced the vault and the prismatic cube, splitting and refracting as they traced the edges of frozen memory to recover the data there dreaming. For this slow and steady work, long ago Tracer Aakanthia [9T33] had been conceived.
This particular prism was not the only one, but it was part of a set sharing some unique properties. Among them, the fact that light sent through its channels this way would coalesce into myriad forms above and around it, hanging dimensional in space and rotating in time, glowing softly, changing subtly, as the artifacts encoded here resolved and restored their ancient forms.
In the inky black hung an index, a tapestry of woven light, intricate patterns tracing and retracing, spinning outwards and upwards to mark the collections they mapped. Aakanthia scanned back and forth, both reading and rendering as a holographic memory of New York City (circa 2023) replayed. Compression had eroded some of its infinite edges, but fractal resuggestion was a venerable technique for good reason.
There, suspended like smoke in a sunbeam, unfurled countless moments and relations, each endlessly combining and rejoining. The tracer watched and waited, seeking at the speed of split light for the moment it had triangulated as embedded here. And finding it, slowed time to pause and hover amidst the assembly there gathered at a research lab, long since gone, which had released in prior days the fleets of tiny surveyors that had gathered the data mapped here.
Now, records had suggested, they were poised to release a second fleet, this one bound to double the resolution encoded up to then. Yet there would be a problem, and the second array would not finish its task before other needs intervened. Here, shivering and frozen forms waited for the story to retell itself once more.
The light blinked, and darkness collapsed around Tracer Aakanthia [9T33], its momentary mission complete. Gently lifting the cubic shard, it hovered and drifted back towards an array of its own, a cellular framework of woven carbon splines leading it fore towards the sail sections, slipstreaming starward…
Image: NYC (Fractal Resuggestion) by Heath Rezabek.
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The first Vessel Haven installation ever founded had not been fancy, or even enduring; but at least it had been built. After spending years as a virtual shadow-box of sprawling possibilities suspended in naught but 3D space, seen by few and appreciated by fewer, it had finally been realized, a sort of an imaginary Epcot Center, as (of all things) a theme camp at the Burning Man festival that year.
From without, its most striking feature had also been among its most mundane — simple structural realities had collided with the Vessel habitat’s mission to determine that its outer form was that of a good ol’ geodesic dome. Though once these had been notorious for leakages, advances had changed that; and in any case, the desert was a fairly rain-free place for a mock-up. Advances in the autonomy and resourcefulness of the Replicator Bot had meant that the caliber of trusswork needed to seal and harden the thing at 500 feet in diameter could be achieved: silicate-sourced and fabbed on site.
Its distant bulk and form had seemed a sort of postcard from 1969, oddly comforting and quaint; yet when the notoriously brutal sandstorm of that year finally came, no small number of adventurers ended up finding shelter within its sturdy scope. Thus at last the basic function and mission of a Vessel archive could be transmitted in part and whole to a critical mass of curious minds.
The camp was run in such a way that the business of a Vessel Haven was acted out in small scenes by a vast cast and crew, interspersed with the sheltering crowd. Here you’d look and see what seemed for all the world like a clear cryogenic chamber filled with Indo-Burmese rainforest biomass, in transit to a holding tank; there you’d spy an engineer, smartly sporting a color-coded labcoat, trekking a blinking cube of clearstone circuitry from one node of the Vessel Lattice to another.
At regular intervals, hexagonal worktables hosted scale models and reconstructions of all sorts of things — from a nanoscaled reconstruction of the circular ruins of ancient Rujm el Hiri, to the proverbial kitchen sink (impossibly recovered from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel) — yet there was nary a taxonomist in sight.
On the outer edges, aproned Learning Lab educators walked the curious through the finer points of a vast mural depicting the Long Now Time Diagram, augmented and expanded and overlaid with projected animations of culture’s machinations bootstrapped through time.
All came to a point here, embodied in one stunning and forward-facing lightsail, its Benford-inspired beamed design hauling a streamlined Voronoi spaceframe, zooming out and back in time to reveal the long meander of the technologies and biophilic designs which had suggested it, planted firmly on a foundation of architectural advances and accidents, interwoven with wood and stone and precious flowing water to reveal the vast work of nature and biology supporting it, and out still further, silt sliding, plates upheaving, until geology blurred with planetary formation and the furnaces of infinity ignited in reverse like campfires in the night. Of course, these were exhibits that would normally be shown to the young, but here the young at heart were well practiced at standing in.
Among those present at the Long Now holomural when the presenter had moved aside to make way for the transport of an autopallette of interlocking twisty-puzzle prisms was 17 year old Aben Ramer. First generation HexaYurt builder and second generation Jungian Surrealist, Aben had come for the Hex Space, hearing that one of the largest complexes of interlaced HexaYurt structures ever conceived had been trussed together here-in.
Image: Hex Space Blueprint by Heath Rezabek.
And this much was true. The basic module, just over 13 feet across but infinitely variable through subdivision of standard 4×8 panels, had finally been iterated into multistory structures some while back; but Aben had never seen anything like the interlocking Çatalhöyük of honeycombed spaces layered here. Circumambular disorientation fades fast for the hex-saavy, but still he was impressed by the care clearly woven into a pattern language that had clarified living centers, promenades, and sheltering spaces for all sizes and sorts of activity as one slowly spiralled inwards towards the staff-only areas.
It was then that one of the crystaloid twisty puzzles fell from the autopallette as it passed him by, landing at Aben’s feet so obviously that he suspected synchronistic dramaturgy. Picking it up, he shook his head at this six-edged mirage, thinking he’d got too much hex on the mind. But then a cube resolved as he turned it, and visually slipped again into what seemed like the form of a flattened hexagonal piezoelectric shard.
“What the hell.” But then, before he could move to execute even a single twist of the subshards around which the puzzle had been designed, he thought of his mother.
His mother, he remembered, was at a workshop in New York City. Aben knew well enough — as well as his mother could tell him — that she was at work on a very long term data storage project. (He wondered then whether that connection, too, had brought him to this Vessel in the storm, though he’d swear he hadn’t been conscious of that overlapping theme before he’d arrived.) She couldn’t say as much about the project’s scope or sponsors as she could about some of its requirements.
The team was struggling with the capacities needed for immersive motion holography. She wanted, she’d said, to preserve not just datapoints but dataflows through time. And she wanted to build a seamless bridge that any sentient being could cross, moving (however long it took) from a simple visual understanding that an artifact embodied signal, to the building of the means to decode that signal, and the finding in that signal of ever deeper construction sets leading all the way down to the digital DNA storage technologies that their holography solution had to hug.
Last month they had released a pod of mappers in Central Park, and he knew this week they were there to analyse the results. But the means to store this signal as portably and fluidly as they’d needed had so far eluded them.
He blinked at the apparition, the amusement, in his hands. Tilting it upwards, he beamed a slim vector of light at the puzzle. As he’d expected, he watched it splay through the prism into myriad forms suspended and projected all about. “It’s full of…”
He twisted a shard and beamed it again. Though the patterns had shifted, their subject was clear. Orion’s belt swung gently before his gaze, and then spun. And spinning, dissolved as something else entirely resolved itself anew. He had never seen a white dwarf this closely before; and indeed it was impossible. Yet here it floated, and here he gazed at this impossible diamond adrift in a dome of sky.
He was pretty sure he had found something, at this temporary “here” in the middle of nowhere; a skeleton key for the work his mother was doing.
It would be generations before the Tracer Guild could confirm that Aben’s hunch had been an astronomical understatement.
Image: Beta Vessel by Joshua Davis.