The year 2012: the end of recorded history?

Our content is no longer visible to the naked eye without machine intervention.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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