This blog post is distilling some information from the excellent article/podcast from 99% Invisible.
How can we communicate messages deep into the future? This was the question that, in 1990, a gathering of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers were tasked with answering (just as an aside . . . where are the damn anthropologists?!). The United States government wanted to know how to communicate with human beings 10,000 years in the future in order to let them know to stay away from radioactive nuclear waste—specifically from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.
Although the WIPP site will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the federal government thought it to be impossible to communicate beyond 10,000 years. This isn't an outrageous sentiment. As a frame of reference, around 10,000 years ago, humans just began cultivating barley and wheat in northern Mesopotamia. I don't think humans today would be able to communicate with our ancient ancestors—who were first grasping the secrets of agriculture—and vice-versa.
At first, the panel thought about using the simplest of communicative devices: language. However, this was quickly shot down; from the perspective of those in the future, languages can change into incomprehensible gibberish (sorry linguists, I know it is more complicated than that) in a matter of 1,000 years.
The next suggestion was to use symbols; after all, there already exists a symbol that many in the world already associate with radioactive danger.
In fact, Carl Sagan—who was invited to this conference, but had to decline due to a scheduling conflict—suggested the use of skull and crossbones. However, the panel soon realized that symbols can change meanings in a matter of centuries, let alone millennia. In the Middle Ages, the skull and crossbones meant rebirth and resurrection and were often seen in artwork at the foot of the cross in scenes of the crucifixion. It wasn't until the 1700s—when the skull and crossbones were appropriated by pirates—that this symbol came to mean danger and death. Today, the skull and crossbones seem to be used more as an ironic, mundane symbol, garnering a chuckle—or more realistically, no reaction at all—when seen on a t-shirt sold in a Spencer's Gifts. This is in contrast to the urinating-on-yourself kind of fear that it may have elicited while on the high seas in the 1720s.
With simple symbols being discounted, one panelist, Jon Lomberg, suggested utilizing symbols in tandem with visual storytelling in order to warn humans in 10,000 years to stay away from WIPP. He drew the storyboard below.
However, the panel realized that if humans read the storyboards from the bottom frame to the top, it would look like—by approaching and interacting with radioactive waste—you would have diseases cured and would be happy! Or at the very least, maybe it would remove annoying t-shirt designs.
Landscape architect and artist Mike Brill suggested manipulating the landscape to warn people to stay away (his sketches are below). His suggestion was "a landscape of thorns"—needles jutting out of the ground in a threatening manner. However, who is to say this remarkably striking artificial landscape would not attract people simply due to it being an oddity (much like, as my wife suggested when we were talking about this, Stonehenge)?
Hopefully it is evident that talking in deep time is incredibly complex and difficult. But this conference was not the first to tackle this kind of problem.
In 1981, semiologists, science fiction writers, and philosophers were invited to the Human Interface Task Force to figure out how to prevent access to the deep geological nuclear repository of Yucca Mountain. This task force had far more innovative (read: wacky, but not in a bad way) ideas than the conference that took place 9 years later at WIPP. For example, science fiction author Stanisław Lem—author of Solaris—proposed a constellation of artificial satellites that would broadcast information about the nuclear waste sites for millennia. In tandem with these satellites, Lem also proposed creating information plants, which he called atomic flowers, that would only grow near a terminal storage site. The DNA of these atomic flowers would contain mathematical formulas that would warn humans of the dangers and contents of these storage sites. Lem eventually conceded that in 10,000 years, most humans would probably not know the significance of atomic flowers, and subsequently would not investigate the warning message encoded in its DNA.
However, the most interesting suggestion proposed by the Human Interface Task Force was put forward by philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri. Their suggestion was for the creation of "radiation cats" or "ray cats."
Bastide and Fabbri took a very anthropological outlook on how to talk in deep time. They suggested that cultural practices—myth, religion, folklore and belief systems—transmit through deep time more effectively than temporally static ideas like words, symbols and architecture. Their plan was two-fold: 1) genetically modify a species of cat that would change colors if they were exposed to radioactivity and release these cats into the wild and 2) begin creating cultural practices—writing songs, telling stories, creating art—that would contain the message: "If the ray cats begin to change color, get the hell outta dodge!" The idea was that the folklore about the ray cats would transmit through deep time no matter what language was spoken, what drawn symbols meant or what architectural styles were popular.
Nothing actually manifested from these conferences but the ideas are thought provoking. They are so interesting that in 2014, 99% Invisible created a podcast and article about these projects. They commissioned a song from musician Emperor X, who composed a folk song that—if Bastide and Fabbri's dreams became reality—may have been the start of this cultural transmission about ray cats. The song's titled "10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories (Don't Change Color, Kitty)." You can listen to it below.
About a year ago, filmmaker Benjamin Huguet filmed a short documentary on this subject and managed to interview Paolo Fabbri as well. You can watch the documentary below.
If you're interested in getting some ray cat swag, the Bricobio makerspace in Montreal is creating some ray cat t-shirts designed by students at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. If you sign up for their mailing list, you can get 10% off of the teespring campaign that launches November 10, 2016. Check them out at: theraycatsolution.com and remember: "don't change color, kitty, keep your color, kitty, stay that pretty gray, don't charge color, kitty, keep your color, kitty, keep sickness away!"
For more information about deep time communications in relation to radioactive waste, check out Kelli Anderson's thesis.
Anderson, Kelli. 2005. “Designing for Deep Time: How Art History Is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste.” Pratt Institute.
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