How long can a message last?

The human race generates vast amounts of data. In just one minute: Twitter users sent 473,400 tweets, Snapchat users shared 2 million photos, Instagram users posted 49,380 pictures, LinkedIn gained 120 new users. Data, data, data. All this information is useful to someone to some degree (we have to assume), but some information is really important. Not just really important, hugely important. I mean we’re talking life or death. And mainly death.

In 1981 the the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp founded the Human Interference Task Force. Their goal? To find a way to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation sites. THAT is really, hugely important.

Radioactive waste can have a half-life of 24,000 years. Tamil, the longest surviving living human language is around 5,000 years old. How do you ensure warnings are understood in the distant future when you don’t know what language they should be in? How do you write a message to last thousands of years?

Built to survive

The present is a constantly moving feast, its hard to get people to pay attention to everything happening now – how do you maintain attention on something so vital? We don’t understand how to maintain knowledge for such long periods of time.

“No culture has ever tried, self-consciously and scientifically, to design a symbol that would last 10,000 years and still be intelligible,”

Said David B. Givens, an anthropologist who helped plan the nuclear-site warnings.

“And even if we succeed, would the message be believed?”

There are 4 four requirements that must be met to successfully send a message to the future:

  • the message must survive
  • the message must be found
  • the message must be understood
  • the message must be believed

The Human Interference Task Force suggested a number of mechanisms to achieve this – written or pictorial messages, hostile architecture, even designing the sites to naturally make whistling noises to draw attention to warnings. One proposal was that domestic cats be genetically engineered to change color in the presence of dangerous levels of radiation – and then people would be taught to keep away from the odd-coloured cats. However, in Europe the warning models rely mostly on integrating the waste disposal facilities within society so information about their presence can be passed on from generation to generation.

The Task Force even proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood who would pass on stories and try to make them beliefs – so people wouldn’t interfere with the sites. It sounds far-fetched at first, but has there been a better mechanism for passing important lessons through generations than organised religion?

The value of information is in the interpretation

Researchers calculate that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. (Yes, that’s a number with 20 zeroes in it.) But big data is nothing without “thick data,” the rich and contextualised information you gather only by venturing out into the real world and seeing how people interact with signs and warnings.

Data isn’t valuable unless people can absorb, process it and take actions from what it says. How do we retain, not just the data, but the knowledge of what to do with that data?

Cultural imprinting

Kevin Simler wrote an essay about cultural imprinting back in 2014. He defined it as:

“…the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product…

In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it – and know that they know that they know it… and so on.”

You can see examples of successful cultural imprinting all round us. That there is a particular product we turn to for a particular task, and that may be the same product the generation before us would reach for – a Biro, for example. But there aren’t a lot of examples. There aren’t a lot of examples of products, and certainly not messages, surviving across generations.

Now, of course we’re not all trying to stop people digging up some dangerous atomic waste, but it seems like the ultimate challenge for a marketer. Can we come up with a message that will out last us? What if we needed to? What if it was life or death?

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