Sunday, August 16, 2015

Internet favorite: nuclear waste, the distant future, and invisible danger

I was reading Hiroshima when a friend emailed me about this project--how can we communicate the dangers of nuclear waste disposal sites to the mind-bogglingly distant future? These things stay dangerous 10,000 years, at which point "today's written languages are unlikely to survive."

This site, related to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, gave me nightmares and colored all my recent walks through the city.

The goal is to make a repulsive, unnatural place, that even without languages clearly telegraphs the following points:

This place is a message...and part of a system of attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of highly esteemed deed is commemorated here...nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular increases toward a center...the center of danger is here...of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

I'm fascinated by the way the researchers reach into the distant past to think about what is universally beautiful or horrible to humans. For example, obelisks, spheres, cubes and other perfect geometric forms would show that the waste site is sacred in a good/important/valuable way. So many of the concepts include purposefully distorted forms--like a series of rectangular prisms that are all hacked off. It's clear that we knew how to make perfect things, and deliberately chose not to. 

For another, the researchers promote the idea of spending a huge amount of work crafting cheap and common materials. "Doing substantial work on materials of little value suggests that the place is not commemorative of phenomena highly valued by the culture that made it, but as marking something important yet quite unvalued ...not a treasure, but its opposite...a location of highly devalued material ("dangerous garbage" or an "un-treasure")."

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