Signifying into the Future

Proposed Architectures for Nuclear Waste Disposal Sites.

This post isn’t a book review, but I pride (or should that be “delude”??) myself in assuming that anybody who reads my blog will likewise be interested in functions of language beyond the immediately literary.

So, I saw this online and I thought it was cool.  It’s a shortened version of a report into the long-term storage of nuclear waste; specifically that waste which has a half-life of many millennia.  Any such site of long-term waste storage would need to remain undisturbed for as many as 10,000 years – well beyond the lifespan of any thus tested human civilization.  In 10,000 years’ time, maybe there will be no extant record of the English language? In 10,000 years’ time, maybe some atavistic catastrophe will have regressed human society to pre-industrial levels of technology. Who knows?  The problem this report attempts to address, then, is this: how do we transmit a warning sign into the distant future? The need is for some system of communication that isn’t dependent on our own, culturally-specific frames of reference and signs.  Our pictorial symbols for ‘radiation’ or ‘keep out’ might be completely meaningless to some far-future civilisations. Thus what’s needed is an easy to decode form of language that would survive tempestuous shifts in culture, society, technology and environment: we’d need to make sure that no wandering nomad (or who or whatever) stumbles upon the nuclear waste and starts digging around.

In essence the task at hand is this: to devise a system of language that will signify the concept “Danger!” without resorting to primarily textual or verbal lexical signifiers.

We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made in the overall framework of this system, in the marking of the entire site, and in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication. Thus, the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself.

As part of a system of message communications, we recommend substantial use of verbal texts and graphics, but with little emphasis on constructed, non-natural, non-iconic symbols. These texts and graphics act as indexes to each other, and act as indexes across message levels. We also suggest the site be marked so it is anomalous to its surroundings in its physical properties such as electrical conductivity and magnetism.

The writers identify four levels of message that would, ideally, need to be transmitted:

  1. Rudimentary Information: “Something man-made is here”
  2. Cautionary Information: “Something man-made is here and it is dangerous”
  3. Basic Information: Tells what, why, when, where, who, and how (in terms of information relay, not how the site was constructed)
  4. Complex Information: Highly detailed written records, tables, figures, graphs, maps and diagrams

The most basic solutions to these problems come primarily in the form of proposed above-ground architectures: grand-scale, durable constructions designed to function as linguistic signifiers of warning and danger. Basically: big, scary buildings that, through design alone, will encourage people to stay away from the site.  Any such markers should, of course, be constructed from valueless material in order to limit potential  stripping for minerals (a la the Pyramids), and they should be arranged in such a way that does “not suggest shelter, protection or habitation”.

The report contains some really fascinating detail about the linguistic potentialities of architecture, as well as some theories about pan-cultural communication. Symbols that have always been interpreted in the same way by many diverse cultures: “placement of anything at the dead-centre would suggest it is of the utmost importance, occupying the place of the greatest privilege.”

If you want to be twee about it, you could argue that the crux of the task is to discover the universal metaphors inherent in large-scale architecture:

In symbolic terms, we suggest that the largest portion of the [site] be kept left open, and few (if any) structures placed there, so that symbolically it is: uninhabited, shunned, a void, a hole, a non-place.

I won’t précis the whole thing, as I’m going to include a link at the end of this article. But the report made me think about language in unusual ways: cross-cultural, non-textual etc. etc. I’m sure architects are used to thinking about buildings in such linguistic terms, but perhaps not with such urgency and clarity as would be demanded by this project.

The report concludes with some design concepts: outlandish and intense stuff that poses a lot of questions about how buildings can “mean” but which also appeal to me on an OH MY GOD IT’S SO COOL level.

Here are some images, and below them a link to the report.

Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant


9 responses to “Signifying into the Future

  1. You know there’s a documentary all about this? I’ve yet to see it but it’s a fascinating topic.

    My concern, which they may address, is the Pyramids. Huge structures from a past civilisation, rumoured to be protected by curses, traps, whatever. We weren’t put off.

    8,000 years from now Arl Takamura, archaeologist, discovers an entry point to one of the ancient structures of the first industrial epoch. It is a huge structure, intimidating and clearly intended to terrify. It is covered with warnings which warn of terrible dangers within, and further levels of warning suggesting that some man-made danger so awful it could yet be deadly is hidden inside. It is guarded by fields of spikes, peculiar magnetic effects and the weak point where it proved possible to start digging within was buried deep in rock – only revealed after a recent earthquake.

    Clearly the ancients wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble for something of no value. This could be a grave for one of their President-Kings, a treasure house for goods devoted to their risen god Jesus Presley, one of their great sites such as the Wembley Stadium where they engaged in their ritual practices.

    Whatever it was it must have been valuable to them, else why would they go to so much trouble to deter tomb robbers?

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting – I didn’t know there was a docu about it. Whoops. Probably should have researched more thoroughly…

      The report actually addresses the Pyramid-type scenario you describe. The significant point of difference is that, unlike the pyramids’ “curses” etc., people really will start dying when exposed to what’s buried inside these sites.(Unless, that is, you believe that all of those spooky coincidences surrounding the deaths of the Pyramid excavators actually are ancient curses coming true…).

      One conclusion the report comes to is that the best deterrent, along with warning-like architecture, would be the 100% death rate of anybody who went digging around such a site. A new civilization sees the big spikes; they think something valuable must be inside; they go looking, and they all die. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it’s something like “the best marker to put off some future society from messing with such a place, is that anybody who tries will die. A small number of deaths may eventually deter other members from the same society from exploring the site”. Who know?

      Either way, it’s an interesting thing to think about. My interest here isn’t in the nuclear waste disposal site, specifically, but in the notion of buildings having “meaning” in a cross-cultural linguistic sense. Kinda like an architectural version of Chomsky’s so-called “Universal(/generative) grammar” – that there are certain linguistic structuralisms that are hard-wired into the human brain, regardless of culture etc.

      Thanks again for stopping by! 🙂

  2. The film’s called Into Eternity. There’s also a book you might like, by Gregory Benford the SF author and physicist. It’s non-fiction, and is about communicating across millennia. It’s called Deep Time.

    Also, if you read any Benford, his Timescape is one of the finest hard sf novels out there.

  3. An early Ian McDonald novel has an alien species who have developed their understanding of architecture far ahead of ours. They have cathedral like spaces which to humans feel profoundly spiritual, as churches sometimes do to us but more powerfully, but it’s an application of geometry coupled with an understanding of psychology rather than anything supernatural.

    Good as Ian McDonald is, he later wrote far better novels (I can’t even remember this one’s title now), but the concept as ever with McDonald is interesting.

    • I hang in my head in shame that I’ve not read any Gregory Benford, nor any Ian McDonald, – I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of your reading, Max! 🙂 Many thanks for the recommendations.
      Isn’t ‘Deep Time’ also the name of a concept Alastair Reynolds uses in ‘Pushing Ice’? Not sure – I might be remembering it wrong…

  4. Almost certainly, they have interests in common and it’s an idea that’s been floating around for a while, in part because of the nuclear waste thing and in part because of a concept called “clock of the long now” – though I’ll need to google to remind myself what that is.

    Loved Pushing Ice, Reynolds at his best.

  5. Makes one wonder what messages have been left for us that we have not yet understood, some of those ancient tablets from Egypt turned out to be lists of agricultural products, not sure if there were danger signs within.

    Seems a bit sad that any future people are likely to find such unpleasant deposits, whilst archaeologists today have all the fun digging up reasonably innocent remnants of a forgotten past – give or take a sword or torture weapon or two.

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