What do humans *need* to know? (Edited OP)

Without a core set of really basic skills, civilisation is impossible.

What do we really, as human beings, need to know in order to maintain a healthy, happy, stable society?

I don't mean "how to solder" or "how to change a tyre", but really basic, grass-roots skills.

You may be wondering where this question came from, but I was inspired by the Long Now Foundation's concept of future deep-time storage and its Digital Dark-Age Blog.

So, let's have your ideas - list skills we need to preserve, in any area of expertise.

If you can, provide a reference as well - a link or the name of a book.

...and maybe we'll inspire a few Instructables as well.

  • Another thing to think about as well - how could we store this information in an enduring, millenia-stable way?

I recently voiced my fears to the team involved in The Clock of the Long Now, and they agreed:

...I cannot help but think, though, that something is missing.

What is missing is hard copy.

The Long Viewer and Long Server will only work as long as we are able to maintain power to the computer network that supports them.

If humanity loses the ability to generate electricity, these projects will be lost.

Even if the loss is short-term, a few years following some global disaster, then there will be a huge loss of information - knowledge and skills will die with those that know them.

Those skills - even things as basic as farming and obtaining metals from the raw materials - need to be preserved in a way that will outlast any traditional or foreseeable computer network.

It needs to be recorded in a form as unmistakeably monumental as the Pyramids or Stonehenge, but even more durable, and in ways less obscure.

Indeed, I picture "the ultimate hard copy" to be henge-like in nature - strong, metres-high slabs of a material such as titanium or a durable glass. Arranged in a spiral or labyrinth pathway, the first slabs will have the most basic skills explained in pictographic forms, images of farming and metalwork, carpentry and building, hunting and weaving, with times of year shown with icons of Sun and Moon.

More and more detailed information would be encountered in a variety of languages as people find the need to venture deeper and deeper into the monument.

Glassmaking, pottery, medicines, animal husbandry, generating electricity, navigation, brewing and distilling, no skill should be considered too basic to be included, and it would be impossible for a single individual such as myself to even begin to list all the subject areas that would need to be covered, or even to decide what order they should be recorded.

What is clear to me, though, is the need for this permanent archive, something that would enable humanity to bring itself back from some unknowable future disaster, at least to the level of being able to preserve and extend life through surgical and chemical techniques, to feed significant populations and to travel and communicate long distances with relative ease and efficiency.

It is also clear that there should be more than one of these archives - humans, being only human, could easily go to war to control a single archive, and fate, being fickle, could also ensure that a single archive could be destroyed by whatever catastrophe also reduced humanity to the point of needing its help.


In reply, they pointed me towards their Digital Dark Age blog, but that is not what I meant - they are talking about saving files. Skills are different, especially the kind of ground-up skills I'm talking about.

If I google for "How to Make Iron", what I get are lots of references to "How to make Iron Oxide" and "How to make Iron-on transfers".

What I do not get is a clear link to the knowledge I need to be able to turn a pile of brown rocks into metallic iron using only what I can find or make from what I find. Come the comet, though, that's the skill-set I'll need.

Amazon is no better at coming up with paper books on the subject.

Heretical though it sounds, even this website is not what is needed, simply because it is digital in nature. Come the comet, off goes the power and this entire, wonderful edifice vanishes with the dot on the CRT.

Somewhere, somehow, we need to gather these skills into a huge and durable text book. With copies.

The questions are, of course, what is stored, where, how, and who pays for it?

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rachel9 years ago
I believe the question needs further definition. Kiteman says "to maintain a healthy, happy, stable society". Many of the responses so far are survivalist. Are these skills that everyone should have, or are we allowed to consider specialization? Lost-in-the-woods is very different from society (at least a society with minimal levels of healthiness & stability). In fact I think there are probably 3 skill set definitions of interest here:

  • individual survival without societal support
  • individual skills to produce happy healthy society
  • societal skills for survival and health of members
There is a lot of overlap between the first and third but the third can be much larger.

In fact there is possibly a fourth category: an ordered set of skills to return a society to current technological levels, if they happen to be dumped naked on a desert island (or after an extraordinary catastrophe, etc).
Kiteman (author)  rachel9 years ago
Thanks for that, Rachel. I am probably thinking about, 4th, then 3rd, 2nd, 1st. I had assumed that anybody interested enough in gaining the skills to smelt iron or weave woolen blankets has probably survived whatever disaster created the need for the basic skills in the first place.
I had assumed that anybody interested enough in gaining the skills to smelt iron or weave woolen blankets has probably survived whatever disaster created the need for the basic skills in the first place.

Indeed, but surviving an incident is still not surviving in the long term. And let's face it, many city folk, wouldn't last 2 weeks out in the woods, whether in the winter or summer.
Kiteman (author)  Goodhart9 years ago
By "survived the incident", I didn't mean "just staggered out of the dust-cloud, smouldering but alive", I meant "still alive and reasonably healthy a significant time later".

Bear in mind, the kind of "incident" I'm talking about would be rather major, be it comet-fall or global pandemic.
Ok, understood :-) Forgive me my ramblings based on my misunderstanding
Kiteman (author)  Goodhart9 years ago
No, it's becoming clear that this whole idea needs a lot of thought and planning. Several of my original vague ideas (particularly the monolithic-scale texts I originally envisioned) have been changed or corrected or redirected. Questions are good - they clarify the thoughts.
What, you mean that intellectual debate and intercourse can have a positive outcome?!? Shhh....don't tell the conservative pundits! They'll all be out of jobs if too many people figure this out.
Hardly so! That's what keeps them in business. What would they do with nobody to make fun of?
gmjhowe Kiteman9 years ago
Another good yet related question is. What if we all retained our technological expertise, but, all technology and every tool, was taken away and we only had raw materials. Would we then have to start off with breaking rocks etc.. and work our way back up to current tech?
Kiteman (author)  gmjhowe9 years ago
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