Thursday, 12 November 2015

"We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture..."

This place is not a place of honour.

No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

Nothing valued is here.

This place is a message and part of a system of messages.

Pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

The danger here is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

Picture above – Spikes bursting through grid, view 2 (concept by Michael Brill and art by Safdar Abidi)

The philosopher Timothy Morton adopted the term "hyperobject" from computer science to describe objects or processes that "stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or [are] massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience." Examples include nuclear weapons and global warming. Now you don't have to worry, I'm not a big fan of philosophy and academic theory, so this article won't be drowning in jargon, but I did think this was a really interesting concept. As Morton points out in a blog post (, the temporal reach of hyperobjects into the far future poses fascinating questions - this is the first time we have really had to consider the impact our actions will have in a hundred or a thousand generations. Certain types of nuclear waste could easily be hazardous for "twice as long as the whole of recorded human history thus far [approximately 10,000 years]." - Will the people they affect in the future "even be human in the currently defined sense?" Will they have the cultural or intellectual framework needed to understand our actions?

Nuclear weapons and nuclear waste cannot be "destroyed" in the conventional sense. Once they're created, they will exist far into the future in some form, perhaps only just as an idea - even if we achieved total global nuclear disarmament, and intentionally destroyed all information on the manufacture of nuclear weapons, their re-invention could occur at any time. Whichever way you spin it though, in the few decades that nuclear energy has been exploited, we've already generated huge amounts of waste that aren't going to stop being dangerous for a LONG time. Nuclear waste doesn't just consist of the used fuel itself - that's referred to as "high level" waste. In fact, there's a lot more "low level" waste, meaning any protective clothing or machinery that has come into contact with nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for 24,000 years.

How to safely store this waste is a huge problem, which the USA attempted to solve with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). This facility in the New Mexico desert buried waste 2150 feet underground in salt formations that had been tectonically stable for 250 million years. The technicalities of the facility aren’t the concern of the article, but instead the question it gave rise to – how to warn people of the future that its contents were dangerous. A task force of linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, materials scientists, science fiction writers, and futurists was commissioned by the US government to pool knowledge and create a system of warnings. They faced a formidable set of challenges –

“The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations. National institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years. Even religions are not older than a few millennia and do not typically hand down scientific knowledge.

The written historical tradition of humanity, in contrast, is only about 5000 years. Warnings in cuneiform script could be interpreted by some specialists, but others, such as the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, are already illegible after a few thousand years.” (From the Wikipedia page on the WIPP - I know Wikipedia is a crappy source, but whatcha gonna do)

This might all seem a bit dramatic – after all, industrialised civilisation has spread across the world. How could people forget how to read English? To put it the other way – how well can you read Latin? The Roman Empire was just as sure of its infallibility. It existed for about a thousand years, considerably longer than the industrial age, and still it crumbled to dust. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are at the apex of history with very little justification.

Seldom do we have to think across such time scales. As Peter Van Wyck points out in Atomic Culture -“The ability to engineer materials for this unprecedented duration is and remains hypothetical at best”. So self-assured is our civilisation, so certain of its own greatness, so focused on short term gain, that it is easy to forget how new and fragile it is. In terms of the history of the human race, it has arisen in the blink of an eye.

Accordingly, as they had no way of knowing if the discoverers would come from a civilization more or less advanced than our own, the team designing the WIPP decided to adopt a four tier approach to warning future interlopers of the danger at the site.


The first of these was to make the surface area above the WIPP feel unwelcoming. On the assumption that things that we find emotionally unsettling are based on primal responses (fear of bodily attack, fear of illness, fear of pain etc.) that are deeply engrained in the human experience, this was achieved through incorporating “shapes that hurt the body… and communicate danger” into the surface structures themselves. This is where it really starts getting weird. Proposals included:

• Acres of stone spikes, several times taller than a person, emerging from the ground at peculiar angles

• Giant concrete thorn trees

• Earth berms in the shape of lightning bolts emanating from the centre of the site

The fascinating element of the whole undertaking is that I can’t think of any other structure in human history that has intentionally been designed to be terrifying. Certainly castles and bunkers are intended to be imposing and discourage approach, and places such as concentration camps can be become retrospectively imbued with terror. However, it seems that when we build a structure intended to last a long time, the concordant outlay of skill, time and resources needs can usually only be motivated by some kind of religious or political ideal (to build cathedrals or monuments like Mount Rushmore). Ours is not a civilisation that readily acknowledges negative emotions, least of all shame. For it is shame that created the warnings at WIPP – shame at the legacy we were leaving for the future.


The second level of warning consists of images and simple text, written on freestanding stone walls, consisting of the easiest way to visually convey revulsion and horror to a potentially illiterate audience – human faces.


The third level features more detailed written messages, like the one at the start of the article. The messages would be recorded in the six official languages of the UN (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic) as well as the Native American language of the region, Navajo, in the hope that at least one of them would remain intelligible for some period of time. Space was also left for the discoverer to translate the message into their own language, if they spoke one as yet to emerge.


The fourth level of warning would assume the discoverer was part of a civilisation at least as advanced, or more so, than our own. It would feature detailed, scientific explanations of why the waste was dangerous, along with diagrams such as a periodic table with the dangerous elements present at the site circled. This data would be presented in a roofless room, so it was not mistaken for a place of shelter.


Something that occurred to me, and that the design teams also acknowledged, is that innate human curiosity might override any sense of foreboding generated by the unsettling atmosphere of the site. There’s no way to know how people will think in 5000 years time – consider how different we were just 200 years ago, a pre-industrial society without telecommunications or motorised transport. Perhaps the most definite method of communication would come from a rather unlikely source – French authors Fran├žoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed the creation of a breed of “radiation cats”. They noted the long historical record of cats cohabiting with humans, for reasons that would still apply in many possible futures – in a more primitive civilisation, they would be useful for pest control, whereas in a more advanced one they would likely still be valued for companionship. The cats would be genetically altered so that they changed colour in the presence of radiation, and the importance of this warning would be re-enforced through fairy tales and myths.

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