News That Can Last a Million Years

(Quelle: The New York Times)

In a year that felt apocalyptic, Martin Kunze has been making plans for the actual end of the world, with some help from The Times.

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Inside an ancient salt mine, on the edge of a small Alpine lake in Austria, Martin Kunze is preparing for the end times.

He is not a doomsayer or a conspiracy theorist. A ceramist, Mr. Kunze simply inhabits a longer view of history, one in which humans are the dinosaurs, facing down a probable extinction. He knows we’re poised to leave our foam cups, shattered Ikea bowls and slowly decomposing trash islands for a future species to decipher. Still, he’s holding out hope that a few more meaningful items will manage to survive, too — including the work of The New York Times.

Mr. Kunze is an artist and researcher based in Hallstatt, Austria, who founded the Memory for Mankind (or MOM) project in 2012. Inspired by the Paleolithic ceramics that stayed intact through the last ice age, MOM is a time capsule designed to survive at least one million years — making our history legible in a post-digital age.

Mr. Kunze is filling the capsule with ceramic tablets microscopically imprinted with a history of our species. Stored deep inside a mine, the tablets contain entire books, archives and blogs — with one tablet able to hold up to 1,000 book pages. But with so many versions of history that could be told, Mr. Kunze is faced with a daunting task of curation. In the process, he has turned to The Times’s journalism for help.

In the capsule, Mr. Kunze regularly includes daily newspaper articles and editorials from around the world for a high-level snapshot of what our society deems newsworthy. This year, that has meant using The Times’s coronavirus briefings to document the pandemic’s spread across the world.

But while the capsule is filled with histories of the sweeping and spectacular (accounts of other global pandemics, the moon landing, the discovery of gravitational waves, the works of Carl Sagan), it also includes the quotidian. In a year lived inside and online, Mr. Kunze believes recording the intimate details of people’s lives is “more urgent” than ever.

“We want to collect the mundane,” he said, “and tell it to the universe, tell it to eternity.”

Over the past few months, Mr. Kunze has selected for preservation stories from The Times about lives lived in quarantine, including backyard concerts in lockdown and first-person accounts from students adapting to a new normal. With their inclusion, he hopes to record for the future “all the fears, visions, ideas, ideals, daily lives and the social structures of our societies.”

In total, Mr. Kunze has added nearly 30 Times articles from this year to MOM, archived chronologically. He said he hopes to add a Times coronavirus retrospective once the pandemic is over. When asked why he has turned to The Times in this process, he said in an email, “for the same reason I am a subscriber: The good job Times journalists are doing in respect of research and background information.”

The Times articles included in the archive go through a specially designed process to be transferred to ceramic tablets. First, a modified color laser printer uses ceramic toner (finely ground ceramic glaze) to print the articles on a paper that will then be coated, glazed, pressed, dried and fired onto the tablets at 850 degrees Celsius, Mr. Kunze said. The final products are capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and biodegradation.

Experts say these tablets have a better chance of surviving the centuries — or another ice age — than our current methods of data storage. “The stability of the data is as good as the solvency of the companies that store the data,” Harish Bhaskaran, a professor of applied nanomaterials at Oxford University, said. This means that as companies rise and fall, vast troves of data will cease to exist.

Mr. Kunze believes, in the long arc of things, the internet — with all of its clouds — will probably evaporate. Fragile servers will break down, the records they carry will be lost and, ultimately, our Instagram grids will prove to be just as insecure as we were.

“There will be very little permanent information left from our time because it’s all digital. And it will fade away, that’s not questioned anymore,” Mr. Kunze said.

In evangelizing this view in the eight years since he founded MOM, Mr. Kunze has garnered international publicity and become an advisory board member on the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit bringing together representatives from SpaceX, Microsoft and research institutes around the world to develop innovative data storage methods. Now, he said, his technology is of interest to big tech companies trying to find long-term data storage solutions, and he is working to develop more efficient means of storing digital data en masse on ceramic tablets.

“Every 10 to 20 years they need to migrate data or degradation takes place,” said Peter Kazansky, a professor at the University of Southhampton who researches long-term data storage.

But while tech giants scramble for durable solutions, Mr. Kunze will continue glazing his postcard to the future, soliciting contributions to the capsule from people around the world. In return, he sends his collaborators small ceramic coins, embossed with a visual map of MOM’s location inside the mountains of Hallstatt.

His hope is that these coins, scattered across the continents, will one day be unearthed by “future finders” amid the ruin. Though he isn’t sure who will find the coins (he jokes it will be an evolved society of raccoons), the coin’s maps are meant to guide them to the capsule, and, in a way, back to us.

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