I gave a lecture in front of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, which is a lot like the Justice League, but Jewish. I was telling them about all the ways in which the world is becoming a better place, and all the reasons for these trends to go on into the future. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: more people are literate than ever before; the number of people suffering from extreme poverty is rapidly declining and is about to fall below 10% for the first time ever in human history; and the exponential progress in solar energy could ensure that decontamination and desalination devices could operate everywhere, overcoming the water crisis that many believe looms ahead.
After the lecture was done I opened the stage for questions. The first one was short and to the point: “What about terrorists?”
It does look like nowadays, following the attacks on Paris, terrorists are on everybody’s mind. However, it must be said that while attacks against civilians are deplorable, terrorists have generally had very little success with those. The September 11 Attacks carried the worst death toll of all terrorist attacks in recent history, in which just 19 plane hijackers killed 2,977 people. While terrorism may yet progress to using chemical and biological warfare, so far it is relatively harmless when you only calculate the cost in lives, and mostly affects the morale of the people.
I would say the question that’s really bothering people is whether terrorists can eventually deal a debilitating deathblow to Western culture, or at the very least create a disturbance severe enough to make that culture go into rapid decline. And that raises an interesting question: can we find a way to conserve our culture, our values and our monuments for good?
I believe we have already found a way to do that, and Wikipedia is a shining example.
Creative Destruction and Wikipedia
Spot the Dog is a series of children’s books about the adventures of Spot (the dog). In July 3, 2012, the Wikipedia entry for Spot the Dog was changed to acknowledge that the author of the series was, in fact, no other than Ernest Hemingway under the pseudonym Eric Hill. In the revised Wikipedia entry the readers learned about “Spot, a young golden retriever who struggles with alcoholism and a shattered sense of masculinity.”
Needless to say, this was a hoax. Spot is obviously a St. Bernard puppy, and not a “young golden retriever”.
What’s interesting is that within ten minutes of the hoax’ perpetration, it was removed and the original article was published as if nothing wrong had ever happened. That is not surprising to us, since we’ve gotten used to the fact that Wikipedia keeps backups of every article and of every revision ever made to it. If something goes wrong – the editors just pull up the latest version before the incident.
A system of this kind can only exist in the virtual world, because of a unique phenomenon: due to the exponential growth in computing capabilities and data storage, bits now cost less than atoms. The cost for keeping a virtual copy of every book ever written is vastly lower than keeping such copies on paper in the ‘real’ world – i.e. our physical reality.
The result is that Wikipedia is invulnerable to destruction and virtual terrorism as long as there are people who care enough to restore it to its previous state, and that the data can be distributed easily between people and computers instead of remaining in one centralized data-bank. The virtualization and distribution of the data has essentially immortalized it.
Can we immortalize objects in the physical world as well?
Immortalization via Virtualization
In February 27, 2015, Islamic State militants brought sledgehammers into the Mosul museum, and have carefully and thoroughly shattered an unknown number of ancient statues and artefacts from the Assyrian era. In effect, the terrorists have committed a crime of cultural murder. It is probable that several of the artefacts destroyed in this manner have no virtual representation yet, and are thus gone forever. They are, in a very real sense of the word, dead.
Preventing such a tragedy from ever occurring again is entirely within our capabilities. We simply need to obtain high-resolution scans of every artefact in every museum. Such a venture would certainly come at a steep cost – quite possibly more than a billion dollars – but is that such a high price to pay for immortalizing the past?
These kinds of ventures have already begun sprouting up around the world. The Smithsonian is scanning artefacts and even entire prehistoric caves, and are distributing those scans among history enthusiasts around the world. What better way to ensure that these creations will last forever? Similarly, Google is adding hundreds of 3D models of art pieces to its Google Art Project Initiative. That’s a very good start to a longer-term process, and if things keep making progress this way, we will probably immortalize most of the world’s artefacts within a decade, and major architectural monuments will follow soon after. Indeed, one could well say that Google’s Street View project is preserving our cities for eternity.
(If you want to see the immortal model of an ancient art piece, just click on the next link – )
Architecture and history, then, are rapidly gaining invulnerability. The terrorists of the present have a ‘grace period’ to destroy some more pieces of art, but as go forward into the future, most of that art will be preserved in the virtual world, to be viewed by all – and also to be recreated as needed.
So we’ll save (pun fully intended) our history and culture, but what about ourselves? Can we create virtual manifestations of our human selves in the digital world?
That might actually be possible in the foreseeable future.
Eternime – The Eternal Me
Eternime is just one of several highly ambitious companies and projects who try to create a virtual manifestation of an individual: you, me, or anybody else. The entrepreneurs behind this start-up have leaped into fame in 2014 when they announced their plans to create intelligent avatars for every person. By going over the abundance of information we’re leaving in our social networks, and by receiving as input answers to many different questions about a certain individual’s life, those avatars would be able to answer questions just as if they were that same individual.
Efforts for the virtualization of the self are also taking place in the academy, as was demonstrated in a new initiative: New Dimensions in Testimony, opened in the University of South California and led by Bill Swartout, David Traum, and Paul Debevec. In the project, interviews with holocaust survivors are recorded and separated into hundreds of different answers, which the avatar then provides when asked.
I think the creators of both projects will agree that they are still in very early phases, and that nobody will mistake the avatars for accurate recreations of the original individuals they were based on. However, as they say, “It’s a good start”. As data storage, computing capabilities and recording devices continue to grow exponentially, we can expect more and more virtualization of individuals to take place, so that their memories and even personalities are kept online for a very long time. If we take care to distribute these virtual personalities around the world, they will be virtually immune to almost all terrorism acts, except for the largest ones possible.
In recent decades we’ve started creating virtual manifestations of information, objects and even human beings, and distributed them throughout the world. Highly distributed virtual elements are exceedingly difficult to destroy or corrupt, as long as there’s a community that acknowledges their worth, and thus can be conserved for an extremely long time. While the original physical objects are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, their virtual manifestations are generally immune to any wrongdoing.
So what should we do to protect our culture from terrorism? Virtualize it all. 3D Scan every monument and every statue, every delicate porcelain cup and every ancient book in high resolution, and upload it all to the internet, where it can be shared freely between the people of the world. The physical monuments can and will be destroyed at some point in the future. The virtual ones will carry on.