The year 2012: the end of recorded history?

The year 2012: the end of recorded history?

Summary: Our content is no longer visible to the naked eye without machine intervention.


A thousand years in the future, give or take two or three days...

"Professor 'osh, come quick. I think I've found another one!"

The man being addressed turned his head towards the voice. "Okay, 'onas, show me what you've found."

The younger man called 'onas was holding up a black and silver rectangular object. It was sleek, shiny black on one side, and appeared to be painstakingly crafted from a volcanic obsidian glass slab. The object was about 9 1/2 inches long, by about 7 inches wide (although neither 'osh nor 'onas thought in terms of those forms of measurement in the year 3012). The other side of the 9 millimeter-thick slab was silver, and it had a strange, lightly shaded image of an extinct fruit.

A woman named 'im was crouched in the dirt next to 'onas. "Professor, that's the third one of these trays we've found in the last week. Do you think this smaller tray goes with it?"

"Well 'im, do you see the markings on one side of the smaller tray?" The professor was referring to another obsidian slab, also about 9 millimeters thick, but this one made of black volcanic glass on both sides and about the size of a human hand. "It also has the image of the fruit. Notice how there appears to be a bite taken from it. What do you make of that?"

'im replied, "Well, we think these are eating trays. Perhaps the fruit is meant to symbolize their old religious theme of eating from the tree of knowledge? Do you think there's any relationship between that and why all writing on Earth stopped at the same time?"

"Ah, 'im, that is the question, isn't it? Let's make this into a teaching opportunity, shall we?" With that, Professor 'osh gestured towards other teams digging in the ancient ruins. "Go ahead and fetch 'ndy, 'ason, 'avid, 'ack, 'ames, 'arry, 'enise, 'teven and 'tephen."

Once the dig teams had put down their work and joined their instructor, 'osh began to hold court. "Why are we here? What are we looking for in these digs?"

'teven held up his hand and Professor 'osh nodded to him to speak. "Professor, what we're trying to find out is why all writing and communication stopped on Earth right around the year they called 2012."

"That's right. What evidence do we have that written history ended in 2012? 'ason?"

'ason looked up. "We've found ancient paper books, magazines, photographs, and even film reels indicating the people of 21st century Earth had primitive motion picture entertainment. But right around 2012, that all stops. We've found many full sets of the sacred books of Britannica, but the very last set found was in 2012. After that, there's nothing at all we've ever found that has more than three or four words."

'enise added, "We've found no pictures, audio recordings, music, or photography after 2012 either."

The professor looked out at his students. "What's academia's currently most accepted theory for why humanity dropped into a dark age and stopped communicating? 'ndy, we haven't heard from you, yet."

'ndy looked down at the small brush he still had in his hands from the digging he'd been doing. "Well, we think the Mesoamerican long count calendar might actually have been prophetic and, somehow, recorded history actually ended in 2012. The calendar covered 5,125 years, ending in 2012. Since we haven't found any writing from 2012 forward for hundreds of years, most institutions now think the Mesoamericans were onto something. We just don't know what."

Professor 'osh nodded, "That's correct." Suddenly, the professor looked to his right with an expression of annoyance. "'ason, what are you doing with that? Don't you know you need to be more gentle?"

The man 'osh was talking to, 'ason, had a thick red beard. He, too, was holding a recovered slab in his hand, an obsidian tray that was larger in size than the smaller tray, and yet smaller in size than the large tray. Unlike the other objects uncovered that had the symbology of a forbidden fruit missing a bite, 'ason's slab had the letters K-i-n-d-l-e on the back.

Rather than paying full attention to the professor's impromptu educational session, 'ason was rubbing his fingers along the edge of the food tray. He felt something different and pushed in, ever so slightly.

Suddenly, the black, glass side lit up, as if from a fire burning inside. 'ason almost dropped the tray, but quickly recovered his wits. Immediately, the attention of the professor and the other students shot to the object in 'ason's hands.

"Well, this is new," remarked Professor 'osh. "Okay, class. What can we conclude from this new discovery? Hands? Hands? Okay, 'ason, this was your doing, you answer."

'ason looked up with a very self-satisfied, knowing expression on his face. He looked at the tray, his professor, and carefully made eye contact with each of the other students. "Well, it lights up. Clearly, that means the people of this time were able to eat in the dark."

Everyone nodded, agreeing with 'ason's assessment. He was obviously quite right.

Back from the future

I wrote the preceding story in honor of the print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica's passing into the digital pages of the history books. Britannica, of course, isn't the only print form that's effectively extinct.

Live webcast: Is Print Finally Dead Yet? Tuesday, March 20, 2012 12:00 pm ET / 9:00 am PT / 16:00 GMT

Craigslist has decimated a valued profit center in the world of printed newspapers. Printed books have given way to Kindle readers on every street corner. Glossy magazines are desperately trying to find new life in interactive iPad editions. Meanwhile, most specialty trade and technical publications long ago felt the need to jump to the Web.

And now, despite almost of decade of Britannica's experts screaming into the wind that Wikipedia wasn't a legitimate source of educational information, Britannica's storied 244-year-old print edition gives up the ghost, due in large part to the existence of Wikipedia.

See also: Good-bye Encyclopedia Britannica: Good-bye to the printed record

Along with the demise of print has been the demise of human-readable content. Archeologists digging in ancient Egypt could read the hieroglyphic orthography on temple walls using the ol' Mark One Eyeball. Going even further back, archeologists could see and recover cuneiform script scribed into tablets by the ancient Sumerians. And, of course, all of us could read words printed on paper in books, see photos printed on paper, and even see movie frames through translucent film.

But our content is no longer visible to the naked eye without machine intervention. You can't thumb through the paper pages of Wikipedia. You need a machine of some sort to read digital data and present it on screen. Most of our photographs are stored on disk or on services like Flickr. Even this article isn't "real" -- instead, it's something you're reading through the intermediaries of a very complex network, many computers and servers, and the digital screen you're looking at right now.

The story above, fantastical though it may be, reflects on the transition of historical and archeologically-recoverable "content" from items that can be found and understood by the human eye, to objects that may still be found, but can't be understood or even displayed without the application of power and the translation of stored digital data (and that's assuming storage mediums like SD cards and hard drives can even survive over the millenia).

It is, therefore, an interesting (although very thin) inferential jump to relate the end of the Mesoamerican long count calendar in 2012 with the end of the print edition of Britannica, also in 2012. Let's be clear: the two really aren't related. But it's a fun exercise to consider, and the loss of human-discernable materials is a very real issue as our current culture fades into history.

Bringing this thought experiment back to the practical world, ZDNet's own Josh Gingold and I will be discussing new media's age-old question: is print dead yet (or is it merely a walking zombie)?

In tomorrow's video webcast, Josh and I will be looking at what's changed in the world of online content and how dead trees are being replaced by e-ink and retina displays.

Join us and discover how advertising reach has exploded, but the value to advertisers of each individual reader has dropped considerably compared to the level of engagement in print.

Together, we'll explore how we all have access to vastly more information and knowledge than ever before, how much of it is completely free, and how businesses small and large can profit in a dead-tree-less world.

Live webcast: Is Print Finally Dead Yet? Tuesday, March 20, 2012 12:00 pm ET / 9:00 am PT / 16:00 GMT

What do you think? Is print finally dead yet? Will 2012 mark the end of recorded history (at least in print form)? TalkBack below.

Topics: Mobility, Collaboration


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Star Trek: Next Generation

    Ah, but Captain Picard was often seen in his quarters reading an actual, physical book, that was, of course, very old. One reason he is one of all time favorite virtual characters.
    • And then there's DS9

      True. But what's been really fascinating me recently (confession: my very tolerant wife and I are watching our way through DS9 on Netflix) is that there are so many pads and tablets on DS9.

      What's even weirder is that from the back, and from how they hold them, the tablets look almost identical to Kindle Fires (most are 7"), and there are some (like the Earth's history tablet given to Nog before he and Quark crashed on Earth) that's just about the size and look of the iPad.

      Given that DS9 was produced in the mid-1990s, it goes to the point that industrial design for the human hand and eyeball naturally leads to certain form factors.
      David Gewirtz
      • Android vs. Apple

        Naturally DS9 is using Android tablets...they are far more versatile and can accommodate many different species. Meanwhile, I'm sure the iPad incorporates many of the Ferengi "Rules of Acquisition," along the lines of "charge more...offer less."

        I bet the Android tablets come from Vulcan too. It's the logical choice.
      • jvitous

        We attempted to use Android tablets, but found they operated as though they where manufactured using stone knives and bearskins.

        We use iPads, as we had found that the Lyre (or Vulcan Harp) App works smoothly, but is also not avaliable for Android.

        We are also very intrigued with the upcoming Windows 8 tablets, and will aquire some for study once released.
        Tim Cook
      • DS9's pads - a kidding

        How do we not know that a man from the 24th cenury is not employed by apple as a hi up resurcher? Every five years he goes in to his 24th century tech musium, steals a 21st century relic and brings it back.

        Or would this cause a casusality loop? ... think about it?
    • Picard's Book: Old or New

      Was it printed? ... or was it replacated?
      • Picard's Book: Old or new

        Fair question but, if my memory is accurate, the books were never shown to materialize but were either already in his hands or picked up from a desk or shelf. Besides, they always looked like hardbacks from 1930s and older that you would find in a used book store or your grandparent's shelves.
  • Remember the first ST:TNG

    In the first ST:TNG episode, Picard uses paper printouts to communicate.
    If print is dead, then why are printers still being sold?
    • If print is dead...

      Then why does this page have a Print button?
    • Remember the first ST:TNG

      Printed or replacted (created)?

      Also folks, who has not more then once, printed out a long email, grabed a hot coffee so one can lie in the hamic & enjoy nature?
  • Don't know if print is dead

    But your analysis is brilliant. I never thought of the consequences of requiring an intermediary to convey history.

    It's a huge throwback, isn't it, to the days when legends were born and history was handed down through word of mouth, from generation to generation?

    My God, it's frightening.

    Brilliant insights. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.
  • It's not just print

    It's not just print that's dead. To archive digital media often involves violating something or other, so it doesn't happen. So even if somehow our civilization's history-preserving organizations survived largely intact, we wouldn't have a clear picture of this time, particularly in niche interest areas.
  • print isn't dead...

    It just took a back seat. I have a gripe about the work "real" in the snese of paper vs digital media, but, aside from the fact that everyone is made up of atoms, most of which have electrons and create some sort of energy field, (i.e. how digital media is stored), if we really need to keep something backed up, we're not going to just rely on digital media to do it, or at least there will be considerable redundancy. for things that should always be available, they should be store in print and digital media. Lets not forget print can decay just like digital media, but things that are digitally stored actually benefit by being digital: they take up less space and are made readily available to everyone. Imagine how much stuff we would have lying around if we didn't store anything digital: all those old useless records from businesses, random thoughts that only matter to select few in the present and historians ans sociologists in the future and now imagine having to sift through it all. And whose to say we would actually store those things so that in the future they would be able to be found? Most people throw paper away, recycle it, or burn it, so the data it held is lost forever anyway. There needs to be a balance between the two. In my opinion, Britannica made the right move going to digital: so long as they print a new volume every once in a while to accumulate all of the new information.