Sunday, January 14

Downfall of civilizations

I'm thinking about the downfall of civilizations now, after having just watched "Downfall," the controversial movie about the end of Hitler's reign.

One of the parts that got me thinking was when he's in his Fuhrerbunker, looking over the plans for a redevelopment of Berlin to make it into a center of culture and art that will last thousands of years. It's insane, because he acknowledges the city is getting destroyed, and says the destruction makes the plan easier, because clearing the rubble away would take less effort than demolishing the buildings.

But as in so many other moments in this movie, there's the glaring inconsistency that somehow the characters overlook, like the simultaneous destruction and the fervently believed-in plans for a city that will never be destroyed. Or some of them know this, but will never let on.

It made me think of the library at Alexandria, and how that, too, was supposed to be a place to store the world's knowledge for posterity, and it was all lost. Today, in the U.S., it probably feels to most Americans like there's no threat to most of the world's writing, art, and so on. But if two World Wars and everything else that happened in the past 100 years has any message, it's that we're not safe, even from those we consider on our side.

I don't mean to encourage some kind of paranoid siege mentality. I'm just thinking that if we want to do more to preserve cultural artifacts, we should be working on that now, rather than when things seem under threat.

People are scanning all sorts of things into computers—like I went to the Clay Math Institute in Cambridge on Friday and talked to them about how, among other things, they've scanned in the earliest existing copy of Euclid's Elements, the book that (as I understand it) is the beginning of geometry as we think of it today.

They have beautiful scans of the book taken with an ultra-high-resolution camera, but where are the images stored? How many servers hold them? Basically, for all our access to things online, how vulnerable are these things to getting wiped out? My guess is, pretty vulnerable.


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