The Rosetta Disk

The Rosetta Disk is the physical companion of the Rosetta Digital Language Archive, and a prototype of one facet of The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library. The Rosetta Disk is intended to be a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history. The  foundation attempted to create a unique physical artifact which evokes the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.

The Rosetta Disk is one small answer to the riddle of longevity. An “iconic object” designed to last about 2,000 years, the disk itself is heavy nickel, 3 inches in diameter, and decorated with the words “Languages of the World” swirling around a core of 30,000 microetched pages. The pages contain a small bit of text — 27 pages from the biblical story of Genesis — and some basic phonetic and grammatical details, printed in at least 1,000 languages, legible only under a 1,000x microscope.

The Disk surface shown here, meant to be a guide to the contents, is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in eight major world languages: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” The text begins at eye-readable scale and spirals down to nano-scale. This tapered ring of languages is intended to maximize the number of people that will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the Disk, as well as implying the directions for using it—‘get a magnifier and there is more.’

On the reverse side of the disk from the globe graphic are over 13,000 microetched pages of language documentation. Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).

The 13,000 pages in the collection contain documentation on over 1500 languages gathered from archives around the world. For each language there are several categories of data—descriptions of the speech community, maps of their location(s), and information on writing systems and literacy. Grammatical information including descriptions of the sounds of the language, how words and larger linguistic structures like sentences are formed, a basic vocabulary list (known as a “Swadesh List”), and whenever possible, texts are also included. Many of the texts are transcribed oral narratives. Others are translations such as the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The Rosetta Disk is held in a four inch spherical container that both protects the disk as well as provides additional functionality. The container is split into two hemispheres with the three inch Rosetta Disk sitting in an indent on the flat meeting surface of the two hemispheres. The upper hemisphere is made of optical glass and doubles as a 6X viewer, giving visual access deeper into the tapered text rings. The bottom hemisphere is high-grade stainless steel. A hollow cylinder has been machined into the bottom hemisphere that holds a stainless steel ribbon for disk caretakers to etch their names, locations, and dates – hopefully creating a unique pedigree for each Rosetta Disk as it travels through time and human hands. A small stylus tool is included for future caretakers to add additional information.

At the very least, the Rosetta Disk provides an informative overview of human linguistic diversity in the 21st century. However, it may do much more. The translations on the disk, for example, are a close analog to the Rosetta Stone, whose parallel texts (in this case unintentionally) enabled the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It isn’t a great stretch to imagine that the language information on this disk could provide the key to the (re)discovery of valuable society sustaining knowledge far into the future.

The Rosetta Disk is being designed and developed through the collaboration of artists, designers, linguists and archivists including Kurt Bollacker, Stewart Brand, Paul Donald, Jim Mason, Kevin Kelly, and Alexander Rose and Laura Welcher. Primary funding for the first Rosetta Disk and the project that grew out of it came from the generous support of Charles Butcher and the Lazy Eight Foundation.

“I don’t think it’s an apocalyptic object,” Mason says. The Disk might survive a nuclear winter, but planning for a total collapse of civilization isn’t the point of Long Now. “There’s a variety of purposes for the Disk, from the iconic to the actually functional.”

The Disk is already an icon, in fact, for a more awesome project — a massive effort to collect basic information about every existing language into a single online database, called the All-Language Archive. In some ways the Disk is beside the point: It has led to a practical, down-to-earth venture that may be more important than a bunch of microscopic Genesis translations. What started as a dreamy experiment by a handful of Buckminster Fuller-ish future theorists at a Presidio nonprofit has evolved into a serious effort to preserve the world’s dying tongues, and Mason — to his considerable surprise — finds himself in charge. Maybe that’s why he talks so stiffly sometimes, using a lingo one might call “visionary-bureaucrat.” He’s not an uptight guy, but he moves around the office with a stressed, intense concentration laid over his native bohemian looseness.

“We found ourselves in possession of a tool,” he says, “and a medium” —the Web —”that allowed for a collaborative creation of a very broad reference work, one that we’re now on the verge of recasting as an attempt to finish one of the [critical] data sets of humanity.” (The human genome map would be another major data set.) The goal, he explains, is to create “a record of human languages, tending towards All.”

Time is running short for this kind of work, because linguistic diversity is going the way of species diversity. Hundreds if not thousands of tongues are spoken only by a few isolated and elderly speakers, so linguists need to get to those speakers before they die —and take their rare words with them. The Rosetta Project wants to ease that problem, if it can.

The site lists 1,470 languages so far, out of about 4,000 worldwide that have paper documentation —either published in dusty books or “languishing away,” according to Mason, “in file cabinets and shoe boxes and closets,” where missionaries or far-flung researchers might have left it for posterity. The project’s goal for the next five years is to collect that written information on the rest of the world’s languages and put it online. This first step toward an All-Language Archive seems modest when compared to the company’s reallyambitious second step, though: collecting data on the remaining 2,000 or 3,000 languages that aren’t even documented. Of course, such a huge undertaking might not get funded by the Rosetta Project’s backer, the Lazy Eight Foundation, which supports unorthodox educational and scientific work.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/43530099″>Rosetta</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/scottoller”>Scott Oller</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

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One thought on “The Rosetta Disk

  1. Pingback: Africa Linguistics : The World Language Documentation Centre

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