Some time ago I’d mentioned the Lantern and the Outernet. The Lantern was designed to be a wireless, convenient, regularly updated library that would give people access to useful documents. The Outernet would support it, and involve a satellite-based internet system. Idealistic, yes, but I plunked down my cash on the Lantern Kickstarter because, like the Ouya, the idea is almost more important than the implementation.
Around the same time I encountered the Survival Library. This was a site that was rather “Doomstay Prepperish,” a viewpoint I don’t subscribe to (because preparing for Doomsday too often results in one looking forward to it or not preventing it). However the idea of the site was brilliant – collect a large variety of books online that would basically let you rebuild society and technology from scratch, from basic survival up to vehicles.
Philosophical differences aside, I love the idea. As of late, as may seem obvious, I’ve become more aware of our responsibility to curate and preserve documents as citizens. This definitely fits my (developing) philosophy on the idea, and may be one I can explore more.
These ideas began to combine in my head, building on my thoughts about how Dicks Encyclopedia provides a good template we could follow as geeks recording knowledge.
Then in struck me, these ideas (easily accessible information, practical guides, and curated, integrated information) brought together could produce something amazing and useful and needed.
An STC. A Standard Template Construct.
However to explain this, I’m going to have to talk Warhammer 40K, which is a setting (originally for a wargame but now for others) of a dark far future.
. . . hang in there. This may take a little work.
Unexpected Wisdom. Praise The Emperor.
It’s rare I seek ideas from the universe of Warhammer 40K. In general, the philosophy behind this techno-gothic universe is “what if reality was basically a Gwar Album Cover,” with rage-created gods, psychic warfare, oppressive empires, and starships that travel through hellish psychic realms. One really doesn’t look to it for good ideas in most cases, though previously it’s given me pause to think.
But there’s an interesting idea buried in the setting, beyond the mixture of crazy worldbuilding and surprising characterization and humor. That’s the STC or Standard Template Construct.
A quick summary of the STC is this. In the Warhammer 40K universe, humanity had an age of rapid space colonization, made easier by portable information systems called STCs. STCs were essentially universal libraries, with a heavy emphasis on making things, where a colonist could start from scratch on a distant world and work their way up to civilization. Think of your usual Minecraft/adventure technology tree turned into a how-to guide for real life.
“You’ve got a bunch of trees and want to work your way up to a factory. Step One: The Axe.”
Sound familiar, in a way?
A Real STC
So my take is roughly this:
Right now we have the technology to make an accessible, distributable, hands-on-guide to important human knowledge and techniques. Sort of a super DIY guide where you could pick an end point and get to it process-wise.
Think of the Thomas Thwaites, who tried to make a Toaster from scratch only with all the knowledge there.
My idea is that it’d work roughly like this:
- A highly searchable database that lets one zoom in on what they want to do. Say, you want to build a tent.
- The guide would then have internal links to all the different components of what you’re trying to make/build/do. In the case of the tent there would be guides to hide tanning or clothmaking, woodcutting, and weaving rope.
- Those guides in turn would be linked to other guides. If you decided you just have to make that hide tent, that leads to a hunting guide – and in turn how to make assorted weapons.
- Think of it as a recipe book, where when you decide you need hummus, it also would let you find how to grow beans, crush garlic, and dry herbs if needed.
Now, yes, we have this in a way, it’s called the Internet, and contains much more pornography and cat videos than we need for survival. But to take my idea further:
- It’d be completely open-source.
- It would use common file formats that are universal and easily decodable.
- Any underlying technology should be accessible, buildble, replicable, and open source. This is where something like the Outernet and Lantern become handy. you should be able to build your own from common components on (or out of) any computer system.
- It should be internet-updatable and accessible. The Outernet is quite promising here.
- It would be curated and made mineable. In other words, information would be selectively included and validated, and would be made easy to access. A search for galric should focus on the herb, not the Dragonball Z character or Gilroy California (sorry, Gilroy).
Why Is This Valuable?
So why this is valuable? Much like the fictional STC, the idea is to put a guide into people’s hands that’s about getting real stuff done. I see the benefits as follows:
- It has a tight, universal, practical library people can use for most anything. Almost anyone could get use out of such a thing, be it a cook or a camper or a startup looking for places to optimize.
- It archives vital information in a searchable way that has a reliable technical infrastructure. That would mean it could be easy to distribute and keep going. The kind of thing you want around in case of a disaster – let alone a larger crisis.
- It would be useful for a variety of individuals or servces. Imagine, for instance, how applicable it would be for everyone from a FEMA employee to companies that are part of the DIY scene making “branded” versions.
- It would be liberating for people in oppressive situations. An entire guide to everything from medicines to food and more would be available.
- It’s great for “reskilling” or people seeking to learn “lost” skills (a big thing in the Transition movement).
- It would provide a lot of useful skills that are good for health – food preparation, sanitation – that would help people out in their everyday lives.
- And let’s face it, if there’s a larger-scale social collapse I’d want these things everywhere.
Are There Downsides, Not Really, except . . .
What About Dangerous Stuff?
When I first heard about Dicks Encyclopedia, that reprint of an 1870’s do-it-yourself guide, many people mentioned some of the knowledge in there would be dangerous. A practical guide to making things that are vital to survival would doubtlessly include stuff that could be unpleasant, dangerous, or subject to regulation.
Drugs. Weapons. Assorted chemicals. Explosives.
As I contemplated this idea for a “Real STC”, this was something I wrestled with. Frankly, my attitude towards weapons is “too many people who shouldn’t be trusted with them have them.” When it comes to dangerous chemicals I’m up for strong regulation and serious smackdown on offenders. You get the idea -there’s stuff that’s freaking dangerous and we can’t be casual about it.
Except, in the case of trying to build a practical database, you’re going to have to include stuff that is dangerous and regulated and even questionable. That’s a pretty challenging deal ethically because to be complete and broad, unpleasant things will be there.
After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that any properly curated document or guide is going to have to include such things. Sure you won’t have a recipe for, say, crystal meth or refined cocaine (since the only purpose of those is getting high), but it would have information on weapons and explosives. Such destructive things have practical applications, and a relatively complete document couldn’t really avoid them.
Perhaps one could request versions of the document leaving out certain items, or they’re tagged so people can limit searches to prevent people using their STC from accessing things wihtout a password. But if you’re going to be complete . . . you’re going to have dangerous stuff.
Am I comfortable with this? Not exactly. “Give people everything and let the chips fall where they may” isn’t really a recipe for safety in my experience. But I think a project like this has to skew to the larger picture.
How Would It Be Done?
So, how would an STC be made? I had a few thoughts on this as well.
- There’d need to be a central group to kick this off – or even groups. Maybe they’d have to compete to get this going.
- There would have to be a series of early technical decisions made on how the thing should work. Again, it could be among several groups competing. But you need a technical base – and a core group.
- 3Ally with other groups like the people behind the Outernet to work with them. At some point competing groups could voluntarily come together.
- A prototype should be built to prove the damn thing works. Hey, I could be full of it so let’s test my idea.
- Enough knowledge should be gathered to prototype the system and be practical. Imagine basic survival, basic recipes, and so on. Also it’d be something that would be worth getting anyway. I’d buy (even in print) a classic recipe guide that also included everything down to farming the produce, and I’m sure i’m not alone.
- Open the project up to people to contribute. You now have something to get out and get feedback on – and a central group to integrate changes. Basically an open source project.
- Arrange the necessary alliances to build and distribute hardware versions because . . .
- Finally, do a Kickstarter or something similar for publicity, to pay core staff, and get these things out into people’s hands.
Eventually when it’s done, I see the project as having a central group monitoring and integrating information, like other Open Source Projects. Over time it’d grow, evolve, even split. But perhaps a lot could come out of this.
There might even be a central company or companies that manufactures the devices and updates information for profit. A little incentive, of course, to keep building it.
You Have Your Idea
So there you go. A proposal to spread and safeguard vital knowledge.
Make it so.
Oh and if you want to do this and need someone who can give you organizational advice, well, I can help . . .
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.