On a granite-strewn plain, surrounded by gnarled mountains, sits a giant steel box.
Incongruous in the landscape, much like Kubrick’s black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, its alien presence suggests it was put there with intent.
And if those that discover it can decipher the messages it contains, they could get a glimpse of what caused the fall of the civilisation that was there before.
This is Earth’s Black Box.
‘First and foremost, it’s a tool’
When an aeroplane crashes, it’s left to investigators to sift through the wreckage to recover the black box.
It’s hoped the recorded contents can be used to help others avoid the same fate.
And so it is with Earth’s Black Box: a 10-metre-by-4-metre-by-3-metre steel monolith that’s about to be built on a remote outcrop on Tasmania’s west coast.
Chosen for its geopolitical and geological stability, ahead of other candidates like Malta, Norway and Qatar, the idea is that the Tasmanian site can cradle the black box for the benefit of a future civilisation, should catastrophic climate change cause the downfall of ours.
If that sounds unhinged, it’s worth remembering that we’re currently on track for as much as 2.7C of warming this century.
Ask any climate scientist what happens when warming breaches 2C, and they’ll almost invariably tell you it’s not worth thinking about.
Plenty of past civilisations and empires have collapsed in the face of less.
So what is this black box? Artistic installation? Academic experiment? Or something else?
The project is completely non-commercial, and the guiding design principle is functionality, according to Jim Curtis from Clemenger BBDO.
“Obviously it’s really a powerful concept when you say to someone, ‘Earth’s got a black box’. Because they’re like, ‘Why does it need a black box?'” said Mr Curtis, who’s collaborating on the project with University of Tasmania researchers, among others.
“But first and foremost, it’s a tool.”
It’s designed to record our actions
The box will be made from 7.5-centimetre-thick steel, cantilevered off granite, according to Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of artistic collective the Glue Society, which is also involved.
“It’s built to outlive us all,” he said.
“If the worst does happen, just because the power grids go down, this thing will still be there.”
The box will be filled with a mass of storage drives and have internet connectivity, all powered by solar panels on the structure’s roof.
Batteries will provide backup power storage.
When the sun is shining, the black box will be downloading scientific data and an algorithm will be gleaning climate-change-related material from the internet.
Broadly, it will be collecting two types of data:
“The idea is if the Earth does crash as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever’s left to learn from that,” Mr Curtis says.
“It’s also there to hold leaders to account — to make sure their action or inaction is recorded.”
Recordings have already started
The black box will record backwards, as well as forwards in time, to document how we got to where we are — pulling any available historical climate change data off the internet.
And although construction of the housing structure itself will only begin mid next year, the hard drives have already begun recording, beginning with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November this year.
Using compression and archiving, the developers estimate there will be enough capacity to store data for the next 30 to 50 years.
In the meantime, they’re investigating ways to expand that capacity, and more long-term storage methods including inscribing to “steel plates”.
“This will enable us to be far more efficient with how each tier of storage is used and make it possible to store data for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” they said.
The worst has happened. Now what?
So let’s say we go the full Mad Max; climate change causes crops to fail year on year; ocean food-webs collapse; it becomes impossible to feed eight, nine, 10(?) billion people; hundreds of millions are displaced by rising seas; economies shrink and society as we know it goes over the falls.
Those who have discovered the black box — now the colour of rust, its solar panels long since dead — have got no frame of reference for what they find inside or how to decipher it.
So now what?
“That is a that we are still working on ourselves,” the developers say.
“It is impossible to anticipate who or what will find [it].
“But it can be assumed that it will not be of any use unless it is discovered by someone or something … with the capability of understanding and interpreting basic symbolism.”
Gaining access to the box’s interior through its three-inch-thick steel casing will already require some ingenuity.
The developers presume whoever is capable of that will also be able to interpret basic symbols.
“Like the Rosetta Stone, we would look to use multiple formats of encoding,” they said.
“We are exploring the possibility of including an electronic reader that stays within the box and will be activated upon exposure to sunlight, also reactivating the box if it has entered a long-term dormant state as a result of catastrophe.”
I’m impatient for the apocalypse, what good is it to me now?
Once the black box is up and running, the growing data bank will be accessible via a digital platform, and the plan is that people will also be able to connect wirelessly with it, if they’re to visit the site.
“There are other features we are playing with such as transmitting summary stats in longer intervals into space, and having [a] “heartbeat” that communicates that the box is on and actively recording to on-site visitors,” the developers said.
The location, between Strahan and Queenstown, is remote enough to offer some insulation from sabotage, but accessible enough for those who want to see it.
“It takes a good four hours from Hobart, [but] it is something you’d be able to stop your car and go look at,” Mr Kneebone said.
And while it’s intended as a blueprint for a post-apocalyptic society of what not to do, it’s also hoped that a complete recording of political and business leaders’ actions on climate change might have an impact right now.
“When people know they’re being recorded, it does have an influence on what they do and say,” Mr Kneebone said.
“That’s our role if anything, to be something in the back of everyone’s mind.”
It’s tempting to write this project off as an indulgence in climate alarmism.
But while most people don’t get onto an aeroplane thinking it’s going to crash, that’s not a reason to forgo a black box.
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