Table of Contents
Long Term Warning Systems
We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. By giving you this information, we want you to protect yourselves and futuregenerations from the dangers of this waste.
Long-term warning systems are proposed mechanisms meant to serve as a time-resilient communication method to warn a future generation -one so far ahead from our time that we can't quite imagine it, let alone theorize about their social structure- of a persistent danger. Originated from nuclear semiotics, this concept came up in the wake of the creation of mankind's first (that we know of) long-term dangerous element, radioactive waste; and although it wasn't the first time mankind tried to warn future generations of an impending danger, it is the first time that it has sat down to figure out a systematic, reliable way to convey danger to our descendants, regardless if they'll speak the same language as us or if their level of technological innovation will be superior… or not.
It is a standing semantic issue and an interesting thought experiment on multi-generational, long-term thinking, though one that, like many other “Long Now” thought experiments, is slightly Quixotic in nature and thus isn't particularly simple to solve. While originally thought for radioactive waste, the concept can perhaps be extended to any sort of generic long-term danger.
As said above, it isn't the first time a person or a community, knowing that someone will come after they're gone in the same way that they came after others have gone, have tried to indicate dangers to future generations. One such example are the flood stones that dot most famously the coasts of Europe and Japan, set up centuries past to try to warn future inhabitants of the location of former settlements washed away by tsunamis. Another one, which might also be the first instance of someone warning about man-made danger, are the accounts of historian Sima Qian about the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang and its artificial rivers of mercury enclosing the tomb itself - a passage that was assumed to be hyperbolic until studies confirmed ridiculously high levels of mercury present in the soil.
Another example worth mentioning of warnings about artificial dangers is one where the term “man-made” might just mean another thing entirely. The curses inscribed in some ancient Egyptian tombs, warning any future desecrator of the danger of horrible death or disease brought upon them by the spirit of the dead and/or the anger of the Gods1), weren't meant to actually warn someone of incoming peril but rather deter them from entering and looting. Or perhaps they genuinely believed these curses and were meant to be used as this threefold threat/warning/home invasion deterrent - though in the end it ultimately meant to drive people away from the tomb in question, which is essentially the base goal of a long-term warning system: if the receiver of the message can't understand the danger, make them at least understand that their presence is unwanted. The reason behind the construction of a warning system is thus, in fact, quite relevant to its genesis - an ignorant receiver must be notified that human intrusion is highly detrimental in order for the warning to have any sort of effect2); we'll get to this later. These warning systems were not future-proofed enough to be of any practical use over the years; surely, the ancient Egyptians expected their tombs to last forever given by their beliefs in the afterlife and the care they took in preserving corpses and sealing their resting places - but they committed the small oversight of assumming the language used would last forever as well3): by the time of the Muslim Conquest of Egypt by the Rashidun Caliphate, knowledge on how to read hieroglyphs was all but lost and grave robbing became rampant.
And these are only the warnings we know of, which also happens to be a very critical element in the confection of a Long Term Warning System. Just like with the Arabs and the hieroglyphs, how would we know a warning message has been set in place by an ancient civilization? Sure, now we know how to read hieroglyphs or even older language systems like cuneiform - so if the Ancient Egyptians or the Akkadians had found some Unspeakable Ancient Evil™ we would probably be capable of reading whatever warning they could've left behind4), and if this imagined situation sounds too familiar is because Hollywood is quite fond of it. But imagine instead that it was the Olmecs or the Minoans that have found an Ancient Evil (which might as well be something as mundane as a methane leak or a coal-seam fire), any warning written in the undeciphered Olmec language or the Minoan's “Linear A” writing system would not even be able to be recognized as a warning, no matter *how* this warning is even written. These are all issues that have to be solved when attempting to manufacture a future-proof message of danger.
But even if we could read it, would we be capable of grasping the reality of the danger in question? Perhaps the Ancient Egyptian curse was some very real type of harmful fungal growth that grew in tombs under certain environmental conditions brought upon after sealing and they didn't have the scientific knowledge to accurately explain the dying graverobbers in the early days of ritual burials other than through divine curses. We (myself included, probably) would laugh off any warning of a curse, break through the tomb entrance and choke to death by these deadly spores. This is, too, something very relevant to a long-term warning message system: The danger portrayed needs to be universally understood by both parties as something hazardous, and even if we can easily think of a scenario where the future receiver of the message can't understand the warning in full and therefore dismisses it, we could just as well turn the situation around - it shouldn't matter either if the full mechanism of the danger in question escapes the understanding of the *creator* of the message as well.
The first serious attempt that we know of, the first documented time that Man underwent the development of a very-long-term structure and the manufacture of a way to warn future generations of its existence, outside the realm of the holistic, developed during the 1970s and 1980s, after the world at large figured out that the best way to somewhat safely dispose of nuclear waste is through what's called Deep Geological Disposal - shove the waste several hundred meters deep into the Earth, encased in special containers and inside isolated underground facilities for the sake of guaranteeing a level of isolation sufficiently high to encase the dangers of radioactivity away from the outside world. As such, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was built in 1973 in New Mexico, US5), with the original goal of safely securing “transuranic radioactive waste”6) for the time that was back then considered to be enough for most radioactive products to decay to acceptable levels, determined as such to be 10,000 years7).
It is not easy at first to comprehend the scale of ten thousand years if not immediately placed in parallel with the timescale of known history. The earth mounds of Stonehenge are barely five thousand years old and they've only survived by virtue of them being a vicious carving of the ground. The Pyramids of Gizeh, mere skeletons of their former grandeur, have been hanging on for roughly 4000 years. And this consciously ignores the fact that nobody has really been able to predict the future ten thousand years from any given point in time. And even the conservation of these constructions are imperfect: The original meaning and purpose of Stonehenge has been effectively lost as the megaliths fell into utter ruin - we can barely, vaguely infer that it was used for something, but we can only theorize what it was used for, never knowing for sure how it was used; meanwhile, the Pyramids of Gizeh outlived their society, their looters, their religion and their surroundings through not much more than sheer size alone. How to ensure, then, that the site will remain intrusion-free and suffer no man-made containment breaches over the next ten thousand years?
This was formally addressed by the Human Interference Task Force, a fancy name given to “a team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioral scientists and others” which convened in 1981 by request of both the US Department of Energy and the Bechtel Corporation for the sake of addressing this problem8). Several proposals were made up until 1983 which, though slightly outlandish at face value (with their reports even including caveats such as not entertaining an extraterrestrial invasion or the nullification of gravity as a possible type of intrusion merely for the sake of simplicity, as these events albeit being very improbable, they were for the researchers still undeniably potentially possible ones), successfully underlined the need of finding a futureproof way of conveying a message of the dangers of radioactivity 10000 years in the future, trascending language barriers9) and the limitations of communication. As such, nuclear semiotics was born.
The concept was expanded further in the Sandia Reports, a set of documents written by members of the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico made as independent conceptual reports by the request of the Department of Energy. Sandia, the official science advisor for the WIPP project, compiled a total of over 80000 pages for the sake of certifying the nuclear repository's safety; among these documents, the ones that have cemented the theoretical visions of society's future and the practical applications of warning the humans of many possible tomorrows is the 1993 report “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Power Plant”10). This document (from now on referred to as “the Sandia Report”), its contents explained below, expanded upon and consolidated what's considered the most “realistic” of proposed theories of long-term communication of hazards: a physical implementation of warnings, free of semiologic elements contextually associated to present-time society, conveying a sense of danger through non-verbal, temporally-universal entities made in materials meant to survive both natural erosion and man-made alterations.
The latest development in the field involves a sort of “post-semiotics”, emerging from the undergoing construction of the Onkalo Disposal Facility in Finland. Set to finalize construction in the 22nd Century, the underground facility will be backfilled with concrete and left undisturbed for the now-updated timeframe11) of one hundred thousand years. Due to the incredible uncertainty of a timeframe ten times longer than the WIPP's scope -a timeframe twenty times longer than the age of the pyramids, twenty times longer than the entire history of China, the world's oldest continuous geopolitical entity!-, one of their working paradigms for minimizing intrusion is to let go of warning systems altogether and hide Onkalo as much as possible from any future civilization. One hundred thousand years, they argue, is enough for nature to swallow any visible hints that Onkalo was ever there, plus the difficulties offered by the predicted future climate (an inhospitable tundra) also comprise a barrier against any human intrusion. The best warning system, they argue, is no warning system at all. This approach, while interesting, is not free of criticism.
Possible Scenarios and Sociological Elements of a Future Society
Any idea of preserving a place free of human intervention is based on pure conjecture of the elements of a future society. The farther one gets from the present, the more blurred the line between grounded predictions and outlandish fiction becomes. In fact, when sufficiently far off into the future any theory is indistinguishable from science fiction: if you can imagine it, no matter how insane, it could very well become reality. Yet there is some vague extrapolation to be made, when looking back instead of ahead: 500 years ago, the American continent had only very recently been identified as such; 1000 years ago most of the world revolved around Medieval Europe, of which virtually no sociopolitical institutions have survived to the present day (with the Western Catholic Church being the most notable exception), yet a sizeable amount of buildings from the time have survived and remain in use to various degrees today - some social continuity persists, though somewhat tenuously, after the span of “only” 1000 years.
Beyond a thousand years, both history and social continuity become hazy. Historical accuracy can still be retrieved where records remain, but there are yet many holes that have nonetheless been patched with reasonable precision through assorted historiographical methodology. Ten times this timeframe, before all known civilization, before all conscious records, everything to be retrieved from this time is, in the end, nothing but inference from physical remains. The oldest surviving buildings of the time, while some of them vaguely approaching the 10000 year mark (such as Göbekli Tepe), are archeological milestones with a purpose long lost to time.
Nevertheless, broad statements can be made about the possible development of society, at least in the aspects of technological knowledge. When it comes to the creation of a proper warning system to this unknown society, these have to account for any possible developmental scenario in order for them to be understandable; this development can as well not only influence the reasoning behind someone being near the dangerous site in question, but also their original awareness of the danger itself and their susceptibility to be persuaded by the message and turn tail when they should. Benford et al. list four possible outcomes of the level of technological knowledge:
- Knowledge generally increases
- There is a decline, and perhaps collapse, of relevant knowledge,
- Knowledge generally stagnates at or near current levels,
- There is a cyclical decline and rebuilding of knowledge, with this cycle perhaps occurring more than once over the period of interest
As such, each of these patterns of technological development are associated with potentially probable mechanisms of intrusion - for example, if knowledge were to increase and technology were to improve it's not hard to imagine a future where nuclear power becomes obsolete in favor of other less perilous elements, and in the same manner knowledge about the danger of radioactive materials and nuclear waste could be simply lost in time, or perhaps a future where overautomatization of industry could lead to rampant automonous mining. Conversely, a collapse of knowledge and technology (but not its complete annihilation) means not only loss of knowledge about long-term dangers, but also the misuse of surviving technology by remaining humans could uncover these perils.
With the middle point, a stagnation of knowledge and technology, one could reasonably assume that the dangers such as those from nuclear elements will remain present in the population: nuclear weaponry will be as prevalent as it is now and the use of nuclear energy will remain commonplace for the foreseeable future (assumptions of our current society being able to survive ten thousand years in technological stagnation and at its current resources consumption notwithstanding); here, most of the responsibility for the danger's safekeeping depends mostly on institutional control.The institution running the site could be managed with relative ease for a hundred years; but once you beat the record of the Western Catholic Church (an institution not without its innumerable strifes, perhaps its current form unrecognizable from that of its early times), you'll still have thousands and thousands of years to go. The unsurmountable, almost unfathomable timescale becomes again relevant, everpresent; without an institutional precedent, imagining and planning the continuity of such an organism for that amount of times is a task nothing short of titanic, if not sisyphean - some ideas for continuity, however, have been brought up, most notable Sebeok's “Priesthood” as explained further below.
The most curious possibility, however, is that of a technological “rebound”: a collapse of knowledge (brought upon perhaps a bit more dramatically, through a collapse of society by any imaginable cataclysm you could think of, perhaps even ironically by nuclear warfare) followed by a rebound that aims at but never quite reaches pre-collapse levels of technology. Benford et al. posits the idea that a group of future wildcatters, perhaps pressured by the short supply of fossil fuel brought upon by the extensive exploitation previous to the collapse of known civilization, will begin to drill down the subterranean nuclear waste storage in the hopes of finding gas or oil with little knowledge about the site itself due to a lack of necessary technology that could help indicate presence or absence of these fuels. These wildcatters, armed with the equivalent of 19th century technology, could very easily drill down with ancient technology straight towards disaster.
Geographically speaking, some potential issues can be predicted in the long run but adequate, foolproof preparation against them is virtually impossible. Going back on the example of nuclear waste storage, the first safe bet is picking a place that's ideally both inhospitable and sufficiently away from political control; yet who knows if the impassable desert you chose for the site won't become fertile grassland ten thousand years from now? What if our increasing population rate turns this desert into prime grounds for urban development, once terrestrial space is lacking? Keeping dangerous elements away from civilization helps in avoiding accidental intrusions - but that very distance might as well be one of the catalysts in quickly forgetting about the site in the first place. And while climate stability can be somewhat predicted in the long run, one can't reasonably account for the myriad of ways the Butterfly Effect may unfold in this temporal scope. Things like seismic stability, levels of moisture, biosphere density and many other elements must be carefully accounted for, and the consequences of predictions weighed upon with as much sobriety as everything else acconuted for. These things can only be mitigated as much as they can be, and acknowledged as potential facilitators for intrusion (e.g. an earthquake uncovering part of the site); even then, one cannot expect to cover the totality of possible scenarios. From things like potential water availability to the minutiae of facility management, many potential socioeconomical factors have been listed as reasons for “plausible inadvertent intrusion”. The Sandia Reports noted that, based on past world history, the impermanence of political boundaries are indication of the need of an international effort to keep the knowledge of all known dangerous locations, in this case nuclear waste disposal sites.
Semiological Elements of a Long-Term Warning System
One of the most important sociological elements accounted for centers around the idea that language itself has proven to be highly malleable and, alongside the question of physical endurance against ten thousand years of exposure, the proper interpretation of a warning as such has to either trascend language or apply to apply to any possible future language. The most well-received proposal for a warning system was the application of physical markers on and around the dangerous area in question. The Sandia report compiles the effort of two separate teams of experts which, even with substantial differences, achieved common ground in many of the basics behind the possible paraphernalia of a long-term warning system for the WIPP.
We cannot guarantee that any simple or complex message, even when recognized and correctly interpreted, will deter a human being from inappropriate action… Nevertheless, carefully designed warnings could be expected to reduce the chances of inadvertent intrusion into the WIPP. Moreover, an intrusion would not be casual, but would be a planned event. As such, there would be a greater likelihood to consider cautionary data.
While the WIPP had mostly selected the results of Team A, both teams reached very similar answers to the question posed by the selection process: How could markers be made and placed in such a way that they could not only survive the proposed time period of 10000 years, but also being able to convey information about the danger of the nuclear waste buried at the site to future societies.
A marker has to convey a gestalt message, one that is greater as a whole than the simple sum of its parts: not only the message, but the vehicle of the message (i.e. the marker's material, construction, and placement) are important in making a future generation understand that “this place is not one where people would want to spend a lot of time”. Communication is performed through not the message, nor one marker, but through the entire marker system.
The elements of the marker must be redundant, and markers must be abundant so as to avoid losing the possibility of communicating the message in case of both natural or artificial degradation. For this possible scenario, an excess of communication is preferred so as to survive any possible defacement. Messages are themselves offered, for the purpose of efficiency and future ease of comprehension, into increasing levels of complexity, and are also offered in different formats and conveying different aspects of the message as a whole: Rudimentary Information (indicates the presence of a manmade construction), Cautionary Information (indicates the presence of a manmade, dangerous construction), Basic Information (explains what, where, when, why and how) and Complex Information (a highly detailed set of written records, plus assorted graphs and tables, available on-site in the form of time capsules12)). Team A adds a fifth level of complexity, a sort of meta-level in which a comprehensive “rulemaking record” is saved in specific archives.
Team A details a concentric marker system, in a progressive sequence from the periphery to the center - the same way a future individual may stumble across the site. A perimeter of the site (plus a buffer zone in case of radioactive migration) is outlined through earthern berms, jagged (so as to instill artificial apprehension, instead of indicating a welcoming place) and radiating out of a square area in sufficient quantities as to still be able to delimit the site even if some of them are destroyed. Because earthworks have proven to be the one of the most permanent types of man-made alterations to the environment (the sites of major ancient European harbors, such as that of Carthage and Rome, still survive as lakes; some geometric configurations made in Asia have even been dated to roughly 8000 years ago13)), they are the primordial element for signaling previous human presence - a “Level I” message. Within this demarcation, several “message kiosks”, with Cautionary Information, are placed alongside Level III messages in several languages. The final, Level IV information will not be held in markers but in the stone walls of manufactured concrete rooms in corner berms, which will be exposed by erosion or by hand, and with a door built in such a way that is large enough to allow human in and out but too small to remove the stone slabs (a second layer of written stone slabs hides behind the original one in order to deter the effects of vandalism). The berms themselves could guide a curious soul through the center, but not before meeting at least one message kiosk, composed of two walls: an inner, “message” granite wall and an outlying “protecting” concrete wall that shields the message wall from erosion. Both walls are carefully shaped in a curved fashion to avoid vandalism, as it would remain difficult to reuse the piece for another purpose, while avoiding the “honorific form” of an obelisk.
Team B adds the necessity of buried markers as well as surface markers, as the latter -while providing availability for interpretation today and tomorrow- are ultimately vulnerable to destruction whereas buried markers could ultimately become visible by erosion and reinforce the message of surface markers. Benford et al. did also propose an idea of subterranean markers before the Sandia Report, both magnetic and of clearly artificial manufacture, in order to deter both human and automated miners, but didn't elaborate too further. Other premises that Team B has pointed out is the necessity of a truthful message, not only as a right of the receiver to be fully aware of dangers involved, but also as to guarantee credibility (if a part of the message is proved false, people may then proceed to distrust the rest of the message), and provide enough redundancy by repetition so as to maximize the probability that the entirety of the message is understood - if one part is not identified in a certain language, another one could. They have also proposed various other indications regarding the geographical position of the marker system such as that they should be visible from the center (as to aid “cognitive assembly” and identify the markers are delineators of a perimeter) and that they should only cover the area of immediate danger (in this case, directly above the waste panels), not only to help aid the viewer into capturing the markers as a coherent whole (as markers separated kilometers away would not be as easy to relate) but also to prevent future misunderstandings (Team B presents an example of a future society digging down within a “buffer zone”, finding nothing out of the ordinary, and then dismissing the rest of the message. Team B recognizes the permanence of earthern berms and chooses them as a level I marker, delimiting but not covering the waste panels, suggesting that could perhaps be shaped with an international symbol for danger if one were developed by the time the system is implemented, in the hopes that the symbol survives ten thousand years of social evolution and the shape of the berms could very quickly convey the message; another original idea proposed by Team B is spiking the berms with materials of anomalous properties so as to be differentiated by both present and potential future detectors (e.g. different magnetic or radar-reflective properties than the rest of the environment). The markers themselves are large granite monoliths of two types (tall, narrow ones to resist burial by accumulating sand brought by the wind, and shorter, wide ones to resist toppling) and inscribed on erosion-resistant places with warning messages in several different languages (the major languages of the United Nations, lithurgical languages such as Latin and Hebrew, and languages of Native American populations in the area around the WIPP like Hopi and Navajo). Within the earthworks, “time capsules” are buried at a sufficient depth, and at the center of the market system a large granite structure hosts the more complex Level IV information, including not only information about the site itself but also a world map of other nuclear disposal sites. Note how Level IV information is distinctly stored in the center, and how the markers themselves are oriented as such, Team A on the other hand opted for discarding a “sense of center”, specifically making disheveled berms and only vaguely increasing the level of information towards a center, but never quite indicating a proper geographical center. Both agree, however, that the overall materials used should be of little value, both actual and projected, in order to avoid vandalism; moreso, Team A elaborates that the workmanship itself “should not bestow any value through elegance of craft or artristry” either, in order to minimize vandalism even more and perhaps even suggest an “un-treasure”.
Team A's Level II message, portraying Cautionary Information, is a simple message (DANGER. POISONOUS RADIOACTIVE WASTE BURIED HERE. DO NOT DIG OR DRILL HERE BEFORE A.D. 12,000) repeated in seven different languages (The six languages of the UN, plus Navajo), and a blank section where a new message can be added in another future language once the older languages become too ancient to be easily read; to this is added a diagram of the WIPP at the time of construction. As for a universal pictorial warning, depictions of human faces were chosen instead of current danger symbols, as they might be understood for a longer period of time, or successfully inferred by a future society: in this case, the Level II message is flanked by a face showing horror on one side and a face showing “sickness or nausea” on the other.
One of the main hurdles in marking a hazardous site is that the marking itself may become a suggestion of safety or protection. It's not difficult to imagine a bleak future where a ravaged world may find comfort in near-intact structures of ages past. The site should not only not suggest “shelter, protection, or nurture”, but should also prove itself unfit for such purposes or any other long-term man-made labor such as agriculture or husbandry. The site, Team A proposes, should be marked in such a way that it not only becomes a place “difficult to be in, and to work in”, but also one that symbolically and physically rejects such activities. In a way, Team A manages to work around some of these potential issues by both avoiding a clear geographical center (which has, since the dawn of mankind, been an indicator of a purposeful reduction of entropy, an attempt of finding order out of chaotic indifferentiation) and purposeful avoidance of forms such as far-reaching obelisks or perfected geometry as to avoid appealing and actively shunning forms that could be universally identified as “ideal”; however, the idea is refined a bit more (and ultimately chosen by the Sandia report) with the idea of hostile architecture: the usage of shapes and imagery that communicate danger, that can actively injure and dissuade (psychologically and physically) future incursions, avoiding taste and aesthetics in favor of telling the visitor a simple message: You should not be here. Craftmanship is deliberately denied as part of the construction paradigm, in order to avoid idealization or even to cast doubt on the manmade aspect of the constructions - if man values and idealizes good craftsmanship, crude craftsmanship can at face value convey that nothing valuable lies there; at the same time, someone keen enough to notice that the construction is manmade may even make the connection that huge amounts of effort have taken place to make deliberate crude structures: this could imply many things for our future observer, from the fact that whatever's inside does not represent the values of mankind to even be able to successfully understand the underlying meaning that, if an enormous effort has taken place to make something deliberately haphazard and imply inhospitability, then it was perhaps for a good reason.
The ideas for hostile architectural constructions in the Sandia Report (mostly put forth by Team A) are nothing short of inventive. A synthesis between communication of danger and actually harming (nonlethally, hopefully) the visitor's body were sought as a dissuasion method that could prove effective by itself, long after the death of its builders.
The most passive one, dubbed menacing earthworks, consists of zig-zagging berms irradiating out of the central “keep”, with the intention of becoming crowding, confusing valleys that block off the horizon from your line of sight and alienate you completely from any sense of place or relative location. The central keep would show the ruined remains of the WIPP's concrete hot cell, alongside a room with Level 4 information and a protected world map written on the ground listing all known repositories of radioactive wase.
Leaning more towards the concept of “shunned land” - a place not only uninhabited, but unusable and exhuding danger through its own composition and distribtution. The black hole proposal tells us of a giant slab of either black basalt or black-dyed concrete, not only representing nothingness by itself, but also worthless for habitation or farming; the black material itself would also absorb and radiate the heat from the unbearable desert sun: a place where massive effort has been put in order to turn the area ugly, undesirable, uncomfortable, mysterious and scary. A rubble landscape is another proposal, which implies that the dynamiting of the superficial and subsequent bulldozing of the superficial rock layer in order to make a chaotic, rough elevation around the area which will, even with time, be surrounded itself by sand after millennia causing stranger alterations to the site - making it not only hard to walk into (and nearly impossible to bring conventional machinery into it), but also giving off the vibe of a worthless place that has been deliberately destroyed in a time which our future descendants may not even possibly be able to fathom. Finally, the forbidding blocks option details a maze made over an unstable terrain, using massive stone blocks from the dynamited exterior of the site: irregular, distorted, menacing cubes several times taller than a human being, set on a grid and separated by a minimal distance, only wide enough for one person to walk and nullify any possibility of craft or socialization to take place inside there. The grid is not marked, other than perhaps with messages of various levels written in the inner face of the cubes (protected from the elements by its proximity with other structures), so the makeshift roads lead particularly nowhere while the stifling proximity of the blocks generate an uncomfortable heat.
Other additions to these large scenarios have been proposed: a landscape of thorns or a spike field, made of giant protruding stone structures resembling thorns or spikes, jutting from the ground at different angles, that added to a hard-to-navigate landscape include a foreboding sense of danger to anybody nearby.
Immaterial Warning Methodologies
Up until now, all ideas about conveying the message in question rely on physical, tangible entities. While it presents itself as the first obvious solution, “leaving something behind for those ahead” does not necessarily have to involve an actual object - several immaterial methods of transmitting information about long-term danger have been effectively proposed; the main advantage of a communication method that doesn't involve the usage of static objects, is that the need of finding a way around the decay brought upon by time becomes minimized or, ideally, nullified.
The Atomic Priesthood is one of the first preliminary ideas developed by Thomas Sebeok during his time at the HITF. With one of his main concerns still being the need to properly convey the magnitude of the danger in question, as he believed it would be one of the first things to be forgotten by a society sufficiently in the future (perhaps both due to the natural diminishment of importance over time and the imminent incomprehensibility of past languages as they evolve), he found it viable to reinforce the message through the creation of an institution that can engrain itself in the elements of society - i.e. a religious group.
With the Catholic Church having survived for so long with comparatively minimal change in its messageand the indubitably important role of religious elements in perpetuating a message through tradition, Sebeok considers the plausibility of manufacturing a caste that can transmit, through rituals and traditions, the much more objective message of the dangers of certain areas. Sebeok even suggests (in a way which almost implies encouragement) that this group, “self-selective in membership”, should use whatever method available to enforce both transmission and compliance of the message through whatever power the institution acquires, “including those of folkloristic character”; examples include sowing the seeds of moral justifications to avoid the waste disposal sites, through the religious teaching that intrusion is an affront to the Holy and may imply divine retribution. Sebeok considers religious transmission of the message as a way to circumvent future unintelligibility, and religious enforcement of the message as a way to circumvent conscious dissent - for example, archeologists or tomb raiders becoming incentivized by the unearthed messages and essentially recreating the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This approach, however, is ultimately shortsighted in a fundamental yet insidious way: Sebeok proposes the Priesthood as a way to combat future human misbehaviour, yet already assumes the infallibility of the humans involved in the Priesthood itself. The example of the Catholic Church as a long-standing institution with an unchanged message is virulently naive14), and the insistence on manufactured deceit will only lead to more confusion within the institution itself in a much shorter timeframe than the expected ten thousand years (after all, how many people must there be right now in the Church of Scientology that fell hook, line and sinker for its most outrageous of beliefs within its system?). The likely result, even with (or precisely because of) its expected micromanaged elitism and conscious preservation of the message, will be a perpetual struggle for power within the system itself - it sounds much more plausible that within ten thousand years the Priesthood will be running a few nation-states, having entirely forgotten about the warning they were trying to convey after mutating to a tangentially-related dogma.
The Raycat Solution is a peculiar genetic engineering proposal made by French author Françoise Bastide and Italian semiotician Paolo Fabbri around 1981-1983 through request of Sebeok and the HITF, consisting of the artificial creation of “Radiation Cats” or “Raycats” that can change color in the presence of certain levels of radiation. The history of feline domestication goes back to around 9000 years ago, and has an esteemed place in present culture nearly all over the world; the assumption that this could continue for another ten thousand years is, according to Fabbri, sufficiently plausible. When presented with radiation, these cats will change color in a significant, abnormal way that can indicate danger.
While the Raycat swiftly solves the issue of atemporal language barriers, the need of propagating the meaning of its color shift as dangerous has to transcend not only our current society but also our understanding on how this would take place - that is, abstracting the concepts of radioactivity and genetic engineering in order for future societies to understand this in full. Fabbri proposes this through the concomitant establishment of a set of traditions and folklore surrounding the Raycat, teaching the world and our descendants (through perhaps songs, artwork, nursery rhymes, rituals and so on) about how a cat that changes colors is a sign of peril. If a tradition (by itself an element of society that has perdured for quite a while now) is successfully set into place and transmitted thorugh generations, then the message in question will survive even though our understanding of radiation or genetics doesn't.
The project was published (through Sebeok) in a German journal, catching no attention from Anglophone speakers. This, combined with its comparatively unorthodox methodology, fell from HITF's and Sebeok's favor. Currently the idea is being paraded around on the Internet which, in its own way, fulfills the need of the Raycat to intrinsically become a future semiological sign.