The Millennial Warning Problem

I was thinking about the old problem of how to warn people not to dig open a nuclear waste repository that may be unsafe for an extremely extended period of time. There’s an article on Slate from 2014 here. The problem has been discussed for years though. I remember reading about it when I was a kid.

International radiation warning symbol. Click to view other related symbols on Wikipedia.

In the past, governments have tried crowd-sourcing a solution for a warning sign that will still be understood thousands, or tens of thousands of years in the future.

The problem specifically is that a sign, whether it consists of iconography or text, may not be understandable even after a few generations.

I can’t think of a specific example right now, but I’ve encountered examples of iconography from less than a hundred years ago that I had to look up. That obviously wouldn’t do for a sign warning of imminent danger. There’s worse things than accidentally entering the wrong washroom, after all.

What if, instead of crowd-sourcing the solution, we instead extended the resolution out over time? Time-sourcing it, if you will.

Picture the engraved side of a mountainous nuclear dump. You probably imagine the internationally recognized nuclear danger symbol carved into a raised square of rock.

What if there were a hundred, or a thousand blank squares on the side of the mountain instead though, and only the first one was carved (perhaps with the current standard warning symbol)?

The solution from the article on Slate talked about the notion of tradition, of ensuring that people retain the memory of what the warning symbol means.

Here’s a different approach: that once every generation the people in the surrounding area get together and carve a new danger symbol (or warning text) into the next blank square – a symbol that holds special meaning to that generation (and perhaps that generation alone).

Over time, the newest symbols would surely change, but perhaps the tradition would remain. Even if it were to die out, a collection of symbols that evolved over time would surely hold more meaning than one (or a small set) from a specific time and culture.

This seems like something right up the alley of the Long Now Foundation