A group of language teachers, linguists, and other interested parties continues progress on the Rosetta Project, an attempt to archive all the world's languages on the Web while simultaneously preparing for a post-digital world.
An undertaking of the Long Now Foundation, a group devoted to preserving information into the long-term future, the Rosetta Project is aimed at exploring new kinds of information archiving that could survive even if today’s data storage technology does not.
The Rosetta Project has a network of funders, partners, and collaborators, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) , the US Library of Congress, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Part of the Rosetta Project includes creation of three-inch-diameter nickel disks containing information. The prototype disk includes 14,000 pages of documents translated into 1,000 of the world's approximately 7,000 languages. The disk is etched in analog characters -- not 1s and 0s -- in a manner similar to microfiche, according to the project's Website. Each page measures half a millimeter across and must be magnified 500 times to be read.
The nickel disk is held in a sphere of stainless steel and glass and is designed to remain legible for thousands of years.
Prototype disk from Rosetta Project. The reverse side holds the microscopic pages.
Source: Rosetta Project
Many of the documents archived on the disk are treatises on specific languages, given the project's goal to preserve all human languages forever -- even for an age beyond digital times.
Indeed, the Rosetta Project believes that more pressing than the death of digital memory is the loss of languages. The group’s Website states that "linguists predict that we may lose as much as 90% of the world’s linguistic diversity within the next century."
In addition to the prototype disk, the Rosetta Project’s Website contains more than 100,000 pages in 2,500 languages. This Internet archive is designed to prevent a "Digital Dark Age" in which data has been erased either by the degradation of the media on which it existed or by the loss of our ability to decode it.
In addition to the protoype disk and the Internet archive, an interactive version of the Rosetta Project disk is available for online browsing. The Internet archive contains millions of documents, books, and Web pages, all publicly available. The database is so large that it takes programming skills to really get through it, but anyone may tap in.
Copies of the disk -- its early editions and newer revisions -- exist in several places and on DVD. Part of the idea is to disperse copies to ensure its survival. One copy is aboard a spacecraft that set off in 2003 on an eight-year trip to a comet called Wirtanen, or "Comet 46P." The spacecraft is to orbit the comet, and then the Sun, disk intact -- forever.
This May, the Rosetta Project took its shiny little disk of languages to the 2010 Maker Faire meetup in the Bay Area and asked for help. Maker Faires are idea swap meets for the imaginative, who build kooky or inspired inventions, show them off, and trade ideas.
The slogan for the meetups, which happen in cities large and small, is "Maker Faire is a mind-blowing, family-friendly event celebrating technology, science, and craft projects with a DIY mindset."
In California, the Rosetta Project people showed off their linguistic prototypes, with magnification, and set up a digitization station. There, they asked people to get involved -- a key ethic of the linguistic preservation project -- by supplying translations.
That process continues on a video they posted with an appeal for more translations:
The audio behind the narrative is gongs, rattles, and the conversation you might hear at a Maker Faire.
The original Rosetta Stone is a 1,700-pound pink-gray piece of granodiorite on which, more than 2,200 years ago, were chiseled the same passage in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic, and Classical Greek.
The Rosetta Project is the same idea, different scale and substance.
— Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University's School of Journalism, and founded journalism careers Website The JobsPage.