Sic transit

3 10 2009
The Spotty Dog

The Spotty Dog

Bud Parr at Words Without Borders features a photo from the 9/18 reading in a recent blog post. More photos from the event pictured above can be found here.

Agur’s story, in WWB’s September issue, contains this memorable image:

“But the marvel of it strikes me: the cemetery is like a phone book engraved on pages of marble. Except that here, instead of being alphabetized, the names are arranged according to some hidden logic of fate, and the numbers represent years of birth and death. Only one rule is followed: a man always lies beside a man, and a woman beside a woman. So that no shame should ensue, God forbid, on the day the dead are resurrected.”

It resonated with me because a month earlier, I’d had an idle thought about the striking vulnerability of every storage medium we’d devised, as if we’d deliberately chosen the flimsiest substances to perform the work of memory for us. Books burn; brittle paper crumbles; ink runs and blurs; hard drives are wiped clean by a magnet’s pass, or without the right equipment to access them are reduced to mere mute talismans; negatives are sensitive even to fingerprints, and photos like paper to water and fire. We’ve all seen the endless ribbon entrails of cassettes, discs smashed or scratched. Few things we commit secrets to can’t be warped, cracked, torn, or crumpled, and human memory itself is famously shifty. Is there no lasting repository where we can safely entrust memories—our own and our civilizations’? The most durable process I’d hit on was inefficient engraving, on the low-density medium of stone, and even that, as we know from cemetery walks, is subject to weather and lichen, which remove names layer by imperceptible layer until they’re too shallow to read.

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2 responses

3 10 2009
Shauna Roberts

The most durable medium is probably baked clay. The cuneiform on baked clay tablets from 5000 years ago is still clear. Although even clay tablets can break when dropped and crumble at the edges, particularly if not fired well.

3 10 2009
Ken Schneyer

How durable do you want? Shauna’s baked clay works pretty well, as do carvings on stone. Greg Egan once suggested blasting impressions (binary, of course) into a pattern on a mountainside. But someday the sun will expand; stone melts at a high enough temperature.

Could one write one’s message into the pattern of matter itself? Could we alter the absorption spectrum of Hydrogen so that it spelled our name?

And if we did, who would read it?

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