What will archeologists make of the here and now?


trowel (Photo credit: turtlemoon)

It has been a while since I visited the dump – sorry, municipal waste processing plant. The last time I was there, all the metal containers were for household waste. You parked up, selected the container closest to the car, and lugged everything you wanted to dispose of up the metal stairs and over the side. Today, things have changed. The first clue is the name. It has changed to the household waste recycling centre. The second clue is the sign outside which explains what goes where.

No longer is every container for household waste. There is but one such container and it has a guardian. Many climbed the steps to the household waste container, but few were deemed worthy by the guardian. They were dismissed with such mystical words as “no mate – electrical” or “sorry mate – that’s timber”.

Sometimes I thought he was being cruel by waiting until the poor soul had struggled up the steps with something particularly heavy or awkward before making his assessment. But no – he took his job very seriously and sometimes he needed a closer look before deciding whether to consider the item worthy of entry into his household waste container.

It was a bit bewildering at first, but the operatives were incredibly patient and when asked (for what must have been the hundredth time that day) where something went, they politely pointed in the right direction. I’m all in favour of anything that makes our meagre resources go further and the less stuff that ends up as landfill, the better.

If we get really good at this though, the future archeologists of the world are going to struggle. I once took a part-time archeology course and they live or die based on what they manage to dig out of the ground. If we become so efficient that we recycle absolutely everything, there will be nothing to dig up. I guess graffiti, the modern equivalent to cave painting might give them a few clues, but otherwise, they will be stumped.

It doesn’t help that so much of what we live and breathe is now digital either. Formats change so often that given enough time, any form of media will prove impossible to read. Books and paper degrade too, so it’s highly unlikely that an archeologist will be digging up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in a thousand years, although what they would make of a society who read such literature is hard to say.

The volume of data we produce and the rate at which it grows is unbelievable. We currently measure that data in exabytes, but how long until that becomes zettabytes or yottabytes is anyone’s guess. The ironic thing is that if we recycle everything and all media is left unreadable, a future archeologist might conclude that we were no more advanced that our stone age ancestors.