Sunday, March 13, 2011

Applied Semiotics and Nuclear Disaster! Wotta Headline!

I love a story that combines really fundamental issues about how people apprehend meaning with the complexities of anticipating how our own technology will impact our cultural future. And no story combines these elements so elegantly and so surprisingly interestingly as the story of the Department of Energy's 1991 waste isolation report, as reported by Slate.

First, a brief summary of the problem the plan anticipates, as reported by the article: our nuclear waste and nuclear materials are going to last longer than us. That's just a fact of the chemistry of these materials. These hazardous materials will remain hazardous long after the possible collapse of all of society, or even the death of all man-kind.

So, in an effort to protect future human societies (and possible non-human ones) from the waste, we'd have to find a way of labeling this material as hazardous for a people whose language might look nothing at all like ours and whose society is entirely unpredictably organized.

The solution hatched by Sandia Labs, in a report commissioned by the Department of Energy, is a surprising but sensible one: hire a bunch of people that are experts at conveying information symbolically to come up with some immediately-recognizable sign or some information transfer mechanism to alert future societies of the hidden dangers we have created.

For those unfamiliar with it, semiotics is a branch of philosophy that deals with symbols. It's a study that seeks to explain how symbols indicate other things, how that indication is created, how the brain dives through layers of symbols almost automatically, and all of the different ways these symbols are manifested.

So expert semioticians are essentially people who are experts at how things MEAN other things. It makes sense, then, that these are the people hired to devise something lasting and language-independent that indicates danger to any observer.

The solutions they propose are just mind-bendingly clever. One proposal: build a lattice of sharp, dangerous looking rocks on top of the waste, discouraging exploration of the area. Another plan calls for building giant stone structures with pathways through them that are too narrow for people to set up camps and live there, thus discouraging settling in the polluted area.

Some rely on more complex systems not directly linked to the symbols themselves, but to how symbols gain meaning. One such proposal is the setting-up of a priestly class of sorts that would know of the dangers of the nuclear sites and would transmit this information in a form more akin to religious dogma than to scientific learning.

The whole discussion smacks of junk futurism and conspiracy theories, like Project Bluebook or a set of secret orders for the president on how to deal with an alien invasion. The difference is that the problem anticipated here is essentially a certainty, something guaranteed by the physical laws of the universe.

This is a forward-thinking approach to something that is essentially a predictable result of our current actions. We've created dangerous waste that, as long as it is on this earth, is dangerous to humanity for generations upon generations to come. The waste already exists. It is something that we KNOW will exist for a predictable time into the future. We're just attempting to mitigate against its ill effects.

I don't know how well the idea of an atomic priesthood is going to work. But I really do love the idea of landscapes constructed to be difficult to live in just to warn people off from nuclear waste sites. What if the darkest, most uninhabitable depths of the ocean are actually created by a long-dead advanced civilization to hide the technologies that became their very undoing?

I know it sounds like an INSANE stretch, but this plan seems to suggest that this scenario might be the reality of distant-future generations.

(Image from the original report, depicting a "menacing earthworks" approach to deterring people from disturbing a nuclear waste site.)


  1. This is a pretty silly approach to the problem. Obviously it's a real issue, but these thinkers are assuming that all knowledge of our time will be lost to future peoples(?) This just doesn't happen in history. Languages may die, but knowledge of ancient civilizations do not disappear, nor do understanding of their languages.

    Also, Star Trek The Next Generation has already shown us that in such an instance as imagined in the article, the primitive scientific knowledge of the people exposed to nuclear radiation will eventually figure it out - even if a amnesiac Data had to help. I'm pretty sure in that instance, the hazardous material was in a box with a pictorial symbol indicating the danger of its contents. And my understanding is that the current trend in signage is to come up with symbols that are intuitively understandable.

    Obviously, post-structuralism undermines the possibility of a universally recognizable symbol, but with just a little sense of history, literacy and intelligence, future societies would, I'm sure, have not too much trouble figuring it out - cf the Rosetta Stone and hieroglyphics.

  2. Yeah, while you are pretty much spot on here, I just wanted to highlight that your final paragraph includes a requirement for just a little history and literacy. There would be, in the case imagined here, literally ZERO history. So we have to imagine that even if history is gone, what clues could we leave behind to make it easiest for a future society to figure it out WITHOUT any deaths.

    In other words, the more likely scenario is the one you imagine, that there is some history to indicate what a warning symbol means. But it's not the only POSSIBLE scenario. These guys are envisioning a scenario in which humanity could have started over with nothing, something that IS POSSIBLE considering the long half-life on these dangerous materials.