creative writing experiment #1

Way back in my first post on this new blog, I mentioned that my usual focus is technology and learning, though anyone following along will know that these are construed pretty damn broadly here.

One of my goals for 2024 is to shift how I use my leisure time. Now, I enjoy a good strategic game like Slay the Spire or a power fantasy romp like Baldur's Gate 3 as much as the next uber-geek. I find these games fulfilling to explore and master. That said, I've also had other creative pursuits that bring me equal or even greater fulfilment, such as creative writing or electronic music composition or gardening or even building weird picnic tables:

A hexagonal picnic table Valkyrie and I built back in 2019, here in mid-stages of construction.

There's a unique satisfaction to creating and building, the builder's itch as one of my coworkers put it. Growing, writing, hammering, recording: these scratch the itch. Getting to the next level in a video game: not so much. Both are rewarding, but only creative acts scratch the itch.

Lately, I've felt that my spare time goes less and less to scratching the builder's itch. Back when that photo of me struggling to get the last inner support ring cross-beam in place was taken, the balance was maybe 70% creative, 30% passive. Now it feels more like 30% creative, 70% passive. I'd like to flip that back the other way.

In a time before time, I wrote In Silico as part of NaNoWriMo. That story explored a story concept I'd been mulling over: as the games and distractions around us become ever better at co-opting our attention, and as we bring these entertainments ever closer to our own bodies and minds, what if we retreat so far into distraction that society comes to the brink of collapse? From there, I envisioned a near-future in which the despotic New Path Party seizes power and builds a society-spanning video game that rewards its players for being good, obedient, productive citizens. Sprinkle in my youthful techie fascination with San Francisco and add a good dash of cyberpunk-inspired freneticism, and you have In Silico.

Recently, I've been mulling over another story concept. What if an unknown alien species had seeded Earth with planet-scale recording devices, such that all of recorded human history was, in fact, actually recorded in full detail? And then what if we discovered those devices and figured out how to read those records? How would our power structures react, faced with the threat of full disclosure? Would scientists discover the purpose behind those devices - or would that purpose ultimately be inscrutable (à la Roadside Picnic)? What would it mean for us, collectively, to suddenly live in a world where history was not written by the victors? Or would the sheer volume of information ensure that only powerful, well-resourced interests could interpret it (with parallels to our present Big Tech-dominated age)?

In a practical sense: how would such a device even work? I'd imagine it to have a few main components:

  • above ground, a network of nano-scale sensors (similar to the sophons of the Remembrance of Earth's Past series)
  • below ground, a series of nodes implanted in the Earth's crust that receive sensor data and inscribe it into surrounding matter
  • deep geothermal wells to power the below-ground components, perhaps drilled autonomously by the nodes on installation

This is where some geeky sci-fi math comes into play.

Suppose, to be conservative, that a bit of information is going to require a little cube of atoms 5 times 5 times 5–that is 125 atoms.

- Richard Feynman, Plenty of Room at the Bottom

The Earth has \( 10^{50} \) atoms, so with a bit of Fermi estimation that's \( 10^{48} \) bits if you convert all of that matter to data. But let's say for whatever reason that you want this massive data-recording apparatus to be a little less noticeable, so we'll go with 1 ppb Earth matter as data, or \( 10^{39} \) bits recording capacity.

There are roughly 8 billion people on Earth today - so let's say 10 billion in this near-future, or \( 10^{10} \). That means there's capacity to record roughly \( 10^{29} \) bits per person.

Let's say you want this recording apparatus to last \( 10^{4} \) years. That's \( 3 \times 10^{11} \) seconds, so we've got about \( 3 \times 10^{17} \) bits per second per person. For comparison, high-frame-rate 4K video is about \( 8 \times 10^{7} \) bits per second, so this should be plenty to record whatever you want: sound, light, heat / infrared, some part of the EM spectrum only our hypothetical alien race cares about, full 3D point fields, EEG / EKG / other biomedical markers, whatever. You can even throw in some redundancy or error correction for good measure.

So: given you have nano-scale sensors that can record all that, and you can transmit that much data without superheating the surrounding atmosphere, and you can inscribe all that data on rock and metal reliably for 10000 years, and your equipment is robust to tectonic shift and volcanic eruptions and such (remember that error correction?), and you can continuously power the whole operation, and you can later exfiltrate all this data from the planet, it sounds plausible for a hyper-advanced alien species. (And hey, we've imagined things like Dyson spheres before, so why not?)

As a story arc, this does lean heavily on themes of technology and learning, so perhaps I'm not far off my usual beat after all 😎

So the experiment of this post's title: my next post will be 2000-ish words of that story. It feels like a longer story arc, so that will likely be sort of a teaser intro. I don't know if / when I'll get to write the whole thing up (maybe next NaNoWriMo?), but that's no reason not to play around with the idea and see what comes of it!