The Dogon, who live in cliff dwellings nestled into the sides of a mountain range in central Mali have star charts that show Serius B, the white dwarf star that accompanies Serius A. If you climb the cliff-side (I have) between the square mud huts and the tiny mud grain-storage facilities, going beyond the small child defecating in the alleyway and around the rooftop thatch where the 13 year-olds wait out their convalescence after being circumcised with a hoe by the village elder (horrific!!) you will find a large slab of graffiti-covered rock, with the charts (Dr. Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist, was the first to discover the hidden knowledge) painted beside images of animals and spirits. The wild thing, of course, is that Serius B is not visible to the naked eye. How did the Dogon, who live frozen in an era thousands of years ago, attain such knowledge?
There was a fascinating article this morning in the Guardian written by a tech consultant who was invited to the Nevada desert by a group of billionaires keen on picking his brain related to what they called “The Event” – the upcoming collapse of civilization. Climate apocalypse, civil unrest, EMPs destroying our computers, failure of our mono-cropped foodstuffs resulting in food-wars, a drying up of the river water, fires burning out of control, nuclear holocaust by the Russians (boy that one feels more real these days, doesn’t it…?). They are unclear about exactly what is coming, but these tech moguls know it is here and that they must transcend to survive it.
Maybe that is why Zuckerberg is building a Metaverse? To upload your consciousness and survive forever as an avatar in a computer program that runs long after humanity has returned to the cliff-caves – powered by a Dyson sphere (no, that would require actual engineering), more likely uploaded onto a satellite’s computer (we already have that tech, no need to stress) and left to enjoy life until the gigabytes run out (wait, didn’t that happen to hologram Sherlock Holmes in 138th episode of Star Trek Voyager?). To exist in a computer program of your own making, perhaps never even aware of the moment you transcend; or crammed into elite apartments within a refurbished Soviet bunker with a bunch of other thick-and-rich drinking each other’s purified urine until the wine runs out. Those are the options of the geniuses who gave us Twitter and Minecraft.
Civilizations fail and then they fall and we are left with only the last remaining vestiges of monumental acts of engineering and traces of lost knowledge to remind us that ours is not the first go at utopia. The pyramids in Egypt and Tiwanaku. The vanishing traces of knowledge – Serius B star-charts drawn on cave walls and hints at a lost Atlantian island nestled in ancient books. Age-old tech floating in orbit, where neither rust nor decay can destroy them.
The signs appear to be accelerating. Victor Hugo wrote that, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time as come”. When they do, they develop their own momentum and are impossible to escape. Scientifically, it’s called the ‘percolation threshold’, when there is a large enough percentage of people who believe in the plausibility of a concept – enough fissile material to maintain a reaction – and it becomes a reality. Extermination is everywhere, a deep hopelessness married to skepticism of humanity’s ability to find solutions for the problems of today. “Hunger games” meets “The 100” and “The Expanse”. 44% of childless adults planning to not procreate. Surging populism and surging tides; firestorms and wars without ends and the sixth great extinction. Five billionaires in the Nevada desert.
This brings us back to the Dogon and ancient knowledge. It makes sense, to a degree; when the EMP destroys the smart-phones, who will survive – the Washington bureaucrat or the rural Wisconsin farmer? Will the artisanal fisherman in his canoe continue to find ways to eat, or will you in your high-rise? And if you weather the initial violence, where will you go? Likely, you will crawl to the cliffs of Africa and make a life among the Dogon, sharing with them whatever abstract knowledge you had in the hopes of preserving your legacy, convincing yourself that your time on this planet was not all in vain, that you achieved something, some knowledge, something true before it fell away. The recipe for the perfect ceviche – or maybe star charts of a white dwarf star in Canis Major, to be discovered in the future as proof that you lived and learned. And we start all over again.
Maybe next time we’ll get it right.