Wear a nanoscale archive of all the world’s languages on a necklace

The reference necklace.
The reference necklace.
Image: Long Now Foundation
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About 20,000 years ago, deep in the caves of Lascaux, France, paleolithic people painted animals on the walls with spit, fat, and twigs. The paintings were discovered in 1940 and they’ve since contributed to our understanding of humanity.

In a similar but more deliberate spirit, The Long Now Foundation—a project that promotes long-term thinking in a fast-paced world—is preserving 1,500 world languages for posterity. The Rosetta Digital Language Archive is available both online and on a disk that’s etched with 13,000 pages of writing in 1,500 tongues, in letters so small that the languages are readable only with a microscope.

But if the disk, which fits in the palm of a hand, is too clunky, there’s also the wearable version. It costs $1,000 and comes in the form of a necklace. It is merely decorative, unless you’ve got a microscope handy.

The tiny disk is embedded in nickel and hangs on a chain. The jewel is meant to be useful and attractive, the foundation says. It’s “a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history,” according to its makers. Long Now hopes the necklace will evoke “the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.”

That’s a lot to ask of a necklace. But the pearls of this gem are humanity’s wisdom and knowledge in many languages, theoretically guarded against the ravages of time and the inevitable obsolescence of any technology.

The disk and necklace are in some senses symbolic, physical artifacts representative of a more comprehensive digital project that is continuously updated. But the cave paintings of Lascaux show just how important symbols can be, and that history is discovered accidentally, sometimes in the most unlikely places.