Preserving Knowledge …

26 Aug

Do you know how to change the alternator on a car’s engine? What about how to weld two bits of metal together? How about amputating a gangrenous limb or making antibiotics or turning the wool from sheep into nice warm clothing? The chances are you don’t, but in a post-apocalyptic world these are all things you might find yourself needing to do. So how would you find out how to do them? In the world of today, you’d almost certainly turn to the internet and all the wonders it holds, but where would you go if this was no longer available to you?

This is an interesting conundrum. Nowadays we have become so used to storing everything electronically that we barely give it a second thought. Here I’m not just talking about your favourite songs or your holiday photographs but the very knowledge on which much of our world now runs. We may know more than we, as a species, have ever known before, but that knowledge is also now uniquely vulnerable because of how we store it. If the world were to fall apart tomorrow, there’s a good chance much of this precious information would be lost. If we’re lucky, the people who have the skills will survive long enough to record it again in some more permanent format; if we’re not, the information will die with them, plunging the world into a new dark age.

There are others who have foreseen this possibility and who seek to archive as much information as possible and there are many great libraries around the world which act as massive store houses of human knowledge. Yet, due to constraints of money and space, many of them are shifting towards storing their information electronically rather relying on paper and ink. However, this is short-sight. To read an electronic document you need a programme and a computer. You also need something to store it on and something to read it back. Then you need power to run the whole system. This means even if the electronic records somehow survive, there will be little chance of being able to access the information contained in it. With a book, you just need to open it and start reading.

Yet, even with books, we may be faced with problems with actually using the knowledge they contain. Take, for example, an instruction which tells you to measure out three feet of some material. Sounds simple enough, but what happens if you don’t have a tape measure or a ruler? How would you know how long three feet was?

This cast iron plaque on Glasgow City Chambers provides a reference for how long a foot is. In the event of the end of civilisation, it will survive long after all the knowledge on all the computer servers in the world has disappeared.

This cast iron plaque on Glasgow City Chambers provides a reference for how long a foot is. In the event of the end of civilisation, it will survive long after all the knowledge on all the computer servers in the world has disappeared.

In the past, before the ubiquity of computers and all the modern accoutrements we’ve become dependent on, these issues were well known and taken into account. For example, on the City Chambers in Glasgow (which doubled for Philadelphia in the recent World War Z movie) is a simple metal sign which provides anyone with the means to be able to accurately measure out units of one, two or three feet. This cast iron device, made in 1882 and provided as reference for the many industries in Glasgow which needed to know such things, will survive well after all the electronic information has evaporated into the ether and provides as permanent a record of units of length as is possible. Yet, in the modern world, such permanence of information is becoming increasingly rare.

While planning for survival in a post-apocalyptic world, we generally concentrate on our own personal survival and that of our loved ones. However, we should also consider how we will preserve the knowledge we’ll need to know not just to survive but to recover and re-build if and when the immediate threats are over. Some skills, such as fixing an engine or spinning fleece into wool, are ones we can learn for ourselves and preserve in our own heads, but others we’ll need to preserve in different ways. We’ll need to protect the libraries, with all the knowledge they contain, and preserve the information we need to use that knowledge to allow us not just to survive but also to thrive in a world which has been unexpectedly upside down. If we don’t we’ll be left scrabbling for survival, picking through the ruins of once great cities, wishing we knew how to do even the most basic things we need to survive. After all, would you know how to grow your own food or make your own clothes? And I’m not meaning from packets of seeds purchased from a garden centre or using material you got from your local haberdashery, I’m meaning would you be able to do these things from scratch?

Knowledge will be key to surviving in the long-term after any apocalyptic event, especially if we are to re-build any sort of functioning society. We’ll need to know how to make medicines and how to stave off illnesses, how to grow food and preserve it, how to smelt iron and forge steel. And we’ll need to know how to do this not on a modern basis, but in the way that it can be done with the resources which are likely to be available to us in a post-apocalyptic world: without electricity and industrialisation. And the only way we’ll be able to do this is if we preserve the knowledge we’ve garnered over hundreds and thousands of years in such a way that we can access it once the power goes and the world turns dark.

In short, we need to halt the rush to the paperless world that the likes of Google and Apple and Microsoft are intent on whizzing us towards and think, instead, of how knowledge needs to be stored so we can still access it if modern civilisation came to an end tomorrow and we were suddenly thrust into a post-apocalyptic world.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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3 Responses to “Preserving Knowledge …”

  1. RStorey 27/08/2013 at 03:30 #

    Excellent and thought bubble inspiring. There are so many ways to gather survival skills that I never thought about before. I need to utilize my free time and the skills that friends and family members have; mechanic for example. I don’t need to know how to rebuild an engine, but knowing how to keep my vehicle running could be the difference between life or death.

    With your permission I would like to do a post similar to this and referencing yours. I think I will write mine focused more on what skills and knowledge I find both valuable later and accessible now. Let’s face it. I live in Texas, not many sheep here to try and learn how to even sheer one let alone spin the wool. But there ARE skills that I could familiarize myself with.

    • cmdrysdale 27/08/2013 at 06:57 #

      I’m glad you found this post thought-provoking and I’m more than happy for you to use this post as a leaping off point for your own.

      There are lots of skills out there that we could learn if we just put a little time in. For me, top amongst these are first aid/basic medicine and mechanics. I figure both of these will greatly increase your survival chances – as well as being very useful even if the world doesn’t come to an end!

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  1. Valuable and Practical Skills | Storey on a Story Blog - 28/08/2013

    […] by Colin M. Drysdale’s post entitled Preserving Knowledge, my imagination really took […]

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