The Rosetta Project is The Long Now Foundation's first exploration into very long-term archiving. It serves as a means to focus attention on the problem of digital obsolescence, and ways we might address that problem through creative archival storage methods.
Our first prototype of a very long-term archive is The Rosetta Disk - a three inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface. Since each page is an image, rather than a digital encoding of 1's and 0's, it can be read by the human eye using 500 power optical magnification. The disk rests in a sphere made of stainless steel and glass which allows the disk exposure to the atmosphere, but protects it from casual impact and abrasion. With minimal care, it could easily last and be legible for thousands of years.
What kind of information should go into a very long term archive? One can imagine many possibilities: A collection of the world's greatest literature, known cures for the diseases that plague humanity, blueprints for recreating major technology... all of these would be appropriate in a collection we might like to leave for future generations to come centuries, even millennia hence.
The Long Now Foundation chose to begin by creating a key, a kind of "decoder ring" for any information we might leave behind in written form - in any language. The Rosetta Disk collection has as its core a set of "parallel" information - the same texts, the same set of vocabulary, the same kinds of description - for over 1,000 human languages.
The idea to collect parallel texts was inspired by the original Rosetta Stone, which had the same basic text (a decree) inscribed in three different scripts. By working back through known languages and scripts, scholars were able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, thereby unlocking the encoded history of an ancient civilization.
Since that beginning, The Rosetta Project collection has grown to over 100,000 pages of documents, as well as language recordings, for over 2,500 languages. The collection is now housed as a special collection in the Internet Archive, and we continue to expand the collection through new materials and contributions.
One of the tenets of the project is that for information to last, people have to care about and engage it. This defines The Rosetta Project's principle of open access - all of the contents in the digital archive are publicly available, and all of the structured information we collect and maintain about languages and their speakers is freely available for download and reuse.
As a linguistic collection, The Rosetta Project also serves to draw attention to the drastic and accelerated loss of the world’s languages. Just as globalization threatens human cultural diversity, the languages of small, unique, localized human societies are at serious risk. In fact, linguists predict that we may lose as much as 90% of the world’s linguistic diversity within the next century.
Language is both an embodiment of human culture, as well as the primary means of its maintenance and transmission. When languages are lost, the transmission of traditional culture is often abruptly severed meaning the loss of cultural diversity is tightly connected to loss of linguistic diversity. To stem the tide and help reverse this trend, we are working to promote human cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to make sure that no language vanishes without a trace.
The Rosetta Disk