Freezing Your Branches Off

by Michael Szul on

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In the last episode of Codepunk for 2019, we did an extended dive into the GitHub Arctic Code Vault and their whole archiving initiative. Normally, I don't like to repeat content from one format into another, but writing does allow for some additional rumination on certain off-the-cut commentary from the podcast. Also… I really like this initiative because it blends a few of my passions: open source programming, long-term thinking, and historical archiving. I was a hoarder of books for a significant period of my life.

I mentioned in the podcast that I went on a bit of a guerilla archiving tear after Donald Trump won the U.S. election. Leaving politics aside, the Trump administration and the conservative party certainly had an inclination to de-emphasize climate change information and research. In my paranoid state, I downloaded and archived all of the Nasa PMC research that dealt with climate change, and posted it to the Internet Archive and other sources. It wasn't long after doing this that I discovered it was something of a trend, if not a valiant cause.

Introduced initially as George W. Bush’s time in office was coming to an end in 2008, the End of Term Web Archive is a collaboration between the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, University of North Texas, George Washington University, Stanford University, and California Digital Library, among other libraries, and is designed to serve as a permanent record of government-related communications during presidential transitions.

Beyond the immediate concerns of one person's (or one administration's) desire to reduce focus on a particular subject (this research was never going to actually go away), as human beings, we have a significant amount of paranoia when to comes to losing knowledge, and a great amount of interest in lost knowledge.

The GitHub Arctic Code Vault is more than an archiving initiative. There is an aesthetic appeal to it that fits more in line with the lofty philosophy of the San Francisco-area non-profit it's partnered with: The Long Now Foundation. The code vault's home page is plastered with a beautiful arctic backdrop, while a countdown clock ticks away the seconds until the first code deposit—an emphasis on time. This is more than a Big Tech initiative. Read this:

Future historians will be able to learn about us from open source projects and metadata. They might regard our age of open source ubiquity, volunteer communities, and Moore's Law as historically significant.

That's not a statement that's talking about 10, 50, or even 100 years into the future. What about this statement:

The introduction to the archive will include technical guides to QR decoding, file formats, character encodings, and other critical metadata so that the raw data can be converted back into source code for use by others in the future. The archive will also include a Tech Tree—a roadmap and Rosetta Stone for future curious minds inheriting the archive's data.

On the aforementioned podcast episode, I mentioned that I felt the very inclusion of "Rosetta Stone" (although it wouldn't be all that uncommon) made me wonder how much influence Steward Brand of the Long Now Foundation had in the creation of this program.

The importance of the Rosetta Stone to human history is rarely understated, but because it's such a well-known artifact, we can often hear its name without contemplating it's importance. That importance is immense: Scholars had no idea how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone. It opened an entire line of inquiry into Ancient Egyptian culture and language—a boon to historians and linguists alike.

The Long Now Foundation has it's own Rosetta Stone project:

The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages.

The Rosetta Project is a collection of initiatives that includes its very own artifact—a disk containing the same texts written in over a thousand languages. The Long Now Foundation considers it a decoder ring of sorts meant to catalog the languages of the world in a way that prevents the languages from dying.

From the Rosetta Project's information page:

Our first prototype of a very long-term archive is The Rosetta Disk - a three inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface. Since each page is an image, rather than a digital encoding of 1's and 0's, it can be read by the human eye using 500 power optical magnification.

The Rosetta Project has placed a significant focus on preserving language with several different projects, and I often look at programming as an extension of linguistics—special languages capable of world-building beyond storytelling; Languages that communicate in poetry and art disguised as science. To me, GitHub's archiving initiative is a natural extension of language and art preservation. The Long Now Foundation looks holistically at their projects—developing a story and aesthetic to solidify the value of the project in the eyes of its donors. They're creating sacredness as a way to propel scientific endeavor by treating the long now of humanity as a living myth to shape. GitHub is following suit.

When you land on the GitHub Arctic Code Vault home page, you're treated with spectacle on par with the Long Now's work, so it makes sense that the two (as well as others) are partners in this project. If you doubt that spectacle, take a look at their YouTube video and tell me they aren't aiming for the dramatic. A significant amount of effort went into that mini-documentary for a project that you and I won't benefit from, but people 10,000 years from now might.