This week’s 99 Percent Invisible podcast tackles the complex problem of warning humans 10,000 years in the future to stay away from radioactive waste.
Languages change, so words won’t work. Take this example from Beowulf, which was written only one thousand years ago in English(!):
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
What about symbols?
Unfortunately, even symbols can change meaning over a few centuries. Take the skull and crossbones. Here’s how it’s evolved in meaning over the recent past:
- A sailor died; let’s hope he’s resurrected someday; we’ll put a skull and crossbones next to his name to indicate such
- Before we capture this ship, we ought to hoist a flag indicating the seriousness of our threat
- Speaking of threats, don’t drink dangerous chemicals!
What if you drew a cartoon-like sequence of stick-figures to illustrate the danger of touching radioactive waste?
To do so, you’d need to assume the humans of the future will read from write to left–which dramatically changes the meaning of your stick-figure sequence.
So if words don’t work and symbols don’t work, what does?