THOMAS A. SEBEOK   Pandora's Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future


    Purpose of the report

The main reason for elaborating thisreport by Sebeok,as the time working as a consultant to the Human Interference Task Force for Betchel Group was:

To design a reasonably fail-safe means of communicating information about the repository and its content, such that the system's effecttiveness would be maintained for up to 10,000 years (about 300 generations).

-Because of the potential for exposing unsuspecting populations to releases of radioactive materials for extended periods
-Because future societies may need to use the materials at present considered to be wastes. For that reason draft EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] would preclude tamperproof non retrievable systems.

The prime objective is to transmit knowledge of the repository to future generations, allowing them to plan their activities accordingly. The report was submitted to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, via the US Department of Energy in 1981.

Semiotic Techniques

This method to prevent human interference with repositories during the first 10,000 years after their closure, relies on semiotic techniques designed to restrict, if not altogether prevent, access to the material.
Over a long period of time spoken and written languages are sure to decay to the point of incomprehensibility, making necessary to use a method that goes beyond linguistics. Semiotics is the discipline which brackets the conjoint scientific study of both verbal and averbal systems of communication, symbols can be used for transmission across space and through time, the formulation or encoding of these symbols from the source, their trasmission through a medium, the interpretation or decoding of these symbols by the destination and finally their signification is the main interest of semiotics. The context in which any message is emitted, tranmitted and admitted influences its interpretation, and vice versa:the context is continously modified by the messages baing interpreted.
Differences between input and output can be limited using redundancy, which is introduced by the source to decrease the probability of tranmission errors.

Distinction between verbal vs averbal messages: the verbal messages are the study of linguistics, one of the moost sophisticated and formalized branches of semiotics, the averbal messages are by definition non linguistics, and they have not comprised a unified field of study. In Hippocratic writings (c. 460-c, 377 B.C.) semeion indicates "symptoms" by which a physician identifies a disease and forecast its outcome.

Distinction between conventional vs natural messages: conventional messages are those whose power to signify depends on some prior agreement, presumed to have been reached at some temporal juncture and thereafter accepted as a matter of custom, natural messages have the power to signify the same things at all time and all places, their interpretation does not presuppose a familiarity with the conventions of a particular group.

There are also multimessages: i.e. a conventional gesture that has a number of totally distinct meanings, the choice of interpretation depending on the time and place.

Types of Messages

In Roland Barthes text "Mith Today" (1957) he states that any semiology postulates a relation between these terms: a signifier and a signified.
For Ferdinand de Saussurein "The Nature of the Linguistic Sign" (1916) the signified is the concept, the signifier is the acoustic image (which is mental) and the relation between concept and image is the sign (the word, for instance), which is a concrete entity. For Freud, in "Slips of the Tongue" (1901), the human psyche is a stratification of tokens or representatives.

We ca summarize as following:
SIGN (container+meaning) = associative total of the first two terms

Based on the theories of De Saussure/ Peirce and the previously mentioned references message types are either simbolic, indexical or iconic:
A symbolic message is one whose needs a pre-existing social convention, which specifies that the message will, to all who concur, stand for thus-and-so, in order to be understandable. The technical word used for highly formalized symbols in the visual mode is emblem.
An indexical message is one which "points to" an object or is a sample of it.
An iconic message is one which resembles-according to some conventionally accepted criterion-some agent of the real world to which it refers.

See further on mith as a second order semiological system in Roland Barthes, "Myth Today" (1957).

The author's Conclusions

The followings are the main conclusive points of Sebeok's report:
1. "Each mode of communication - iconic, indexical symbolic (or emblematic) - has a set of advantages and a corresponding set of disadvantages, which are both context-bound. Since the context is far from predictable at any stage over the next 10,000 years, and with the passage of time, is bound to become increasingly equivocal, it will be recommended that all signs be constructed of a mixture of the three modes. While this intermingling will still not be fail-safe, it is certain that the more redundancy is built into the system, the more this will tend to ensure accurate decoding by any destination."
2.The perception image-based coding varies across species, cultures and times. Images should be used, but selected with extreme forethought, and should always be incorporated into a framework that judiciously intermingles icons with symbols, supplementing the pair with indexes whenever is feasable.
3.Human senses register only a small portion of ambient stimuli. It is very difficult to foretell what sensory prostheses will be at man's disposal in future decades and centuries. Here again redundancy offers the best hope; all channels that seem technically feasible should be utilized.
4.Information needs to be launched and artificially passed on into the short and long term future with the supplementary aid offolkloristic devices, a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend, which would be a "false trail" for the uninitiated, who would be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowlwdge. A ritual annually renewed can be foreseen, with the legend retold year by year. The actual "truth" would be entrusted exclusively to an "atomic priesthood", that is a commission of knowledgeable physicists, expert in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, linguists, semioticians, etc.
5. Since abroad the human intrusion factor into waste storage sites is scarcely studied, planning should begin imediately to internationalize the communication measured previously discussed. The ultimate design adopted should enjoy the benefit of worldwide thinking about the problems we face and their implications.
6. Information tends to decay over time; that information may be dissipated but not gained is one form of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, that also states that the probability that the entropy in the system shall decrease is zero.
As a solution of this problem the author proposes a so-called "relay system" of information transmission by which the 10,000 years envisaged is divided in manageable segments of shorter and foreseeable periods. It is recommended that the messages at the burial site be designed for only three generations ahead. This message would have to be supplemented by a metamessage incorporating a warning that the object message at the site be renewed roughly every 250 years. For the informations kept in the archives a similar set of instructions should make it clear that , as the information starts to decay, it should be updated.

Discussion Topics

What if future generations won't obey to the instructions of the past?
Is it correct to keep the general masses in the darkness, using the mith/ritual message having only few experts aware of the "truth"?
May this lead to some form of tiranny? And what would happen if the few experts holding the truth all die for a sudden disaster wich wouldn't allow them to create new depositories of the truth?
Why to divide the 10,000 years is such small periods of time? Shouldn't we at least try to elaborate some sign/symbol which could stay for a much longer time? Would a stone sculpture (like the one on Easter iland, for instance) be a permanent enough sign? How should it look?

See "Swamps of Jersey, The Meadowland", from National Geographic, February 2001.

Readings done on the topic for my presentation:

Roland Barthes, "Myth Today" (1957)
Ferdinand de Saussure, "The Nature of the Linguistic Sign" (1916)
Ferdinand de Saussure, "Language and Linguistic" (1916)
Ferdinand de Saussure, "Linguistic Value" (1916)

Sigmund Freud, "Slips of the Tongue" (1901)
Michael Foucault, "The Discourse of Language" (1970)