Communicating with the future: a cockroach DNA archive of the New York Times


Jaron Lanier - Cockroach DNA time capsule

Jaron Lanier - Cockroach DNA time capsule

One of my favorite things to think about is the difficulty of communicating with humans generations from now, or even tens of thousands of years from now. An example: The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management overseeing Yucca Mountain, the proposed Nevada site for disposal of nuclear waste, has been working with artists to develop a warning system that would alert future visitors to the area of the dangers buried in the mountain. From the website, “The monumental challenge is to address how warnings can be coherently conveyed for thousands of years into the future when human society and languages could change radically.” The purpose of the warning sign is “to deter intentional or inadvertent human intrusion or interference at the site and to effectively communicate over the course of the next 10,000 years that the integrity of the site must not be compromised in any way in order to prevent the release of the radiation contained within.” It’s an interesting visual challenge that must not rely on our own cultural biases. Here’s one artist’s response to the challenge, though perhaps it’s too reliant on the 20th century “Radioactive Danger” symbol.

In 1999, the New York Times Magazine ran a six-issue Millenium special, one part of which was an invitation to artists, scientist, and other thinkers, to develop a way of communicating with the future. Jaron Lanier, researcher and scientist, proposed genetically engineering a DNA-coded archive of a year’s worth of the New York Times Magazine and inserting it into the common cockroach’s genome (and the New York Times’ discussion of the idea). Owing to the millions-of-years-long stability of the cockroach genome and the species tenacious ability to survive ice ages, floods, and other earth-altering natural disasters, the cockroach proves to be a perfect candidate. With careful gene splicing techniques, coded DNA could be inserted into unused areas of the cockroach genome, providing a carrier for what could be, if the encoded information expanded beyond the scope of the New York Times Magazine, a living, breathing, self-replicating, everywhere Library of Alexandria (the burning of which illustrates the importance of millenia-long preservation of our academic and cultural knowledge). Under Lanier’s proposal, cockroach reproduction would spread the DNA-coded archive into the every cockroach in New York City in just 14 years. Future humans or other visiting species would hopefully decode this time capsule upon study of the species and human knowledge will have survived across the millenia, regardless of extinction or other disasters.

Weird and ingenious.

(via Metafilter)


  1. Joe Richards says:

    this sounds like a bad idea

    [Reply]

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