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When The Last of Us are Left, How Long Would it Take to Transcribe Wikipedia?


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Within the final “masterpiece” game to grace the PS3 out this month—The Last of UsOverthinking It discovered a letter from one of the survivors. It was written in pencil. It explained how information in a world destroyed by a parasitic fungus could function. How long would it take to preserve the Internet in pencil?

Screenshot from The Last of Us

“THE LUDDITES WERE RIGHT. By the time we realized what was happening, it was all gone. All of our books burned, our Internet disconnected. We put too much stock in online information. When we finally regrouped, just one suitable hard drive remained. It contained the entirety of Wikipedia, and it was the most important piece of tech left on the planet.

We had to settle for Wikipedia. Estimates put the size of the entire Internet before its collapse at 7,500 terabytes. There simply wasn’t enough working tech left to collect all of it. After what we had was compressed, all of the articles on the English Wikipedia filled 14 gigabytes. It was enough information to fill 1,772 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

We cherished each one of the 2,363,144,808 words.

The current size of the English in terms of Britannica volumes without images.

This burning of our digital Alexandria meant that this solitary hard drive was the human record. We needed to get the information off of it and back into remaining society. Scoured from the rubble, we used one of the few remaining computers to open the drive. Then the transcription started. Unlike our ancient ancestors, we couldn’t repatriate the information verbally. It would take over 75 years to simply utter all the two billion words. Without printers or tape recorders, we settled on writing it all down. But we needed pencils.

You’d be surprised how far one pencil goes. Many used to say that a single pencil could write 45,000 words before the graphite ran out. No one could verify it. But someone went beyond it. In 2007, a group of volunteers came together to see if they could write the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird with just one pencil. Over the course of 60+ hours, the group wrote all the book’s 100,000 words without exchanging a number two. The feat gave us hope. So we started writing.

We searched every city that wasn’t overrun for pencils. We needed around 24,000 of them, if we were to keep pace with the standard established by those determined volunteers. Thankfully, the yearly production of pencils was around 10 billion before the fungal apocalypse, so to keep morale high, we told searchers they only had to find 0.0002% of what was likely still lying around. However, this vital transcription couldn’t be confined to just us. We estimated that if the survivors in each country needed 1,000 copies, we now needed 50% of the world’s annual pencil production—five billion. (We avoided pens because they run out of ink much faster.)

Of course, once we had the pencils, time was against us. For To Kill a Mockingbird, it took five volunteers 60+ hours to write 100,000 words. To transcribe the English Wikipedia with the same number of volunteers, it would take 162 years, or about the amount of time you would have to lay on the ground with your mouth open before a bird randomly pooped in it. So we enlisted a legion of scribes, tirelessly copying articles on everything from angular momentum to Iron Man 3. Other than food, water, and shelter, we all knew that preserving our remaining knowledge was the highest priority. So we wrote and we scribbled and we massaged hands and temples.

To copy all of Wikipedia down in 60 hours, we would need 120,000 scribes. We didn’t even know if that many people were left alive. 200 survivors are now writing continuously to get the job done in four years. Let’s hope we last four weeks.

When the apocalypse came, it hit us hard. We lost everything, in almost the grandest sense of the word. We know nothing about where this attack came from, how everyone got infected, or why. Some blamed god. Others blamed ourselves. Most blamed biology. As we put more and more of our knowledge online, something like this was bound to happen, or so they said. Whatever happened, in the knowledge apocalypse, pencils are the new currency. When the graphite runs out, I don’t know what will happen.

More Videogame Science: How Does the Parasitic Fungus in The Last of Us Work?

Apocalypse protection: A handheld screen holding all of the English Wikipedia

Image Credits:

The Last of Us Screenshot: The Last of Us™/©2013 Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog, Inc

The physical English Wikipedia via Wikipedia

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff 11:47 am 06/27/2013

    Information on the cloud is a bunch of passive ones and zeros sitting on various servers in various server farms. Granted there’s redundancy and backup. The real concern isn’t ‘getting that info back into society’ after a collapse. Humans will mine data. Always. The real problem is how to prevent the whole sum of human knowledge from simply evaporating when we can no longer be custodians to the technology.

    What I suspect will happen is that automation will take on a life of it’s own, repair itself, replace itself, upgrade itself. Automation will be the new custodian the the sum of human knowledge… Automation will carry that knowledge to the next level. Then we will be unnecessary. Perhaps at the same time the radioactive isotopes and CO2 poisons and suffocates delicate carbon based life such as ourselves. But human knowledge (as limited as it is) and human perspective (as myopic as it is) will live on.

    Cheery, eh?

    Link to this
  2. 2. rshoff 12:51 pm 06/27/2013

    btw, that ‘automation’ to which I refer includes AI….

    Link to this
  3. 3. ben_ci 2:09 pm 06/27/2013

    Are you transcribing to college or wide ruled paper? Another thing that’s not mentioned… How are all 200 scribes reading from the same hard drive with one computer?

    Quite a thought provoking article. Nicely done.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Susan Gerbic 8:04 pm 06/27/2013

    LOVE IT

    Wikipedia is the source of all knowledge. Brilliant article! I have a box of pencils (and several sharpeners)waiting for this day. We can always start printing now, I’ll start when everyone stops editing the pages.

    Link to this

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