From Pandas to Palmyra: The West Has Become Addicted to Preservation

With barbarians seeking to lay waste the civilized world and the future of many animal and plant species hanging in the balance – thank goodness for digitization.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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One of the giant-panda cubs born at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, September 2015.Credit: Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The editors of soft-news outlets were ecstatic: Twin pandas were born on August 22 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. One of the twins died a few days later from pneumonia, but the other one is still holding on.

This is the third time twin pandas have been born in the United States. It’s no simple matter to induce the animals to mate in captivity, so in recent decades the females have been inseminated artificially. A panda ovulates only once a year, and the window of opportunity for fertilizing her lasts just 24 hours.

Each success of this kind is of great importance for preserving the species. Hunting and deforestation have placed pandas in serious danger of extinction. Of the approximately 100,000 pandas that lived in the bamboo forests of Asia in the past, which is believed to be the maximum number ever reached, only about 1,000 remained in the 1980s. Since then, tremendous efforts have been made to get the panda population to multiply. A panda sperm bank was created at Bifengxia, in Sichuan, China, from which sperm is sent to zoos worldwide, for the purposed of creating a reproductive core to ensure the species’ survival.

The panda sperm bank is only one of the technologies currently in use to preserve the planet’s biological diversity. Scientists are developing DNA stocks of other endangered species too. The world of flora and fauna is moving from the world outside into refrigerated units in laboratories. The next stage is likely to be the digitization of the genetic stock and its conversion into files on hard discs.

The preservation of nature is a rear-guard battle. Victory is impossible; at most the destruction can be delayed, until the moment at which something substantive changes. But it’s not only living species that are vanishing. The physical antiquities of the Middle East are in danger, too.

In August, Islamic State blew up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel at Palmyra (Tadmor), an iconic ancient monument in Syria. Before that, they devastated antiquities at Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra, in Iraq, and other World Heritage sites. One after the other, priceless sculptures and structures are being destroyed as the world looks on, helpless to act. And even without Islamic State, other ancient sites in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza have been destroyed by bombing and shelling.

But in the meantime someone, has devised a solution, and a race against time is underway to save the physical heritage of the Middle East. Archaeologists from Harvard and Oxford universities, museum personnel and volunteers are documenting the ancient structures with cameras that produce three-dimensional computer files. Cheap, user-friendly cameras, which even nonprofessional volunteers can use, have been invented for this purpose and distributed in the relevant countries.

Not only individual archaeological sites are being perpetuated in this way, so are entire cities. Buildings in the ancient city of Shibam, in Yemen, for example, have been digitized and are now safely preserved in computer files. This will ensure that the remnants of the past are preserved for all time, beyond the reach of vandals and terrorists, says Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint Harvard-Oxford venture. Michel claims that the thousands of files will make it possible to reconstruct the sites, either in their original size or as miniaturized models.

German experts promise that it will be possible to rebuild Syria’s ravaged antiquities in the same way that highlights of their country’s historic cities were reconstructed after being destroyed in Allied bombing raids in World War II.

This approach is the expression of a dominant Western cultural frame of mind. It underlying assumption is that everything that was beautiful in the world is perishing. The barbarians are at the gates, seeking to lay waste the civilized world, as Rome was sacked in the past. This time nature is not being spared, either. The environment is being destroyed, terrorism and wars are devastating the heritage of the past and capitalism is fomenting cultural annihilation.

Civilization looks fragile and insecure – or worse: It is experiencing decay and ruination. The guardians of cultural tradition will soon be compelled to entrench themselves in safe havens, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, where the manuscripts of antiquity were preserved from the barbarian invaders.

Preservation and archiving are our contemporary muse. The literary world is preoccupied today with the question of where the manuscripts of Franz Kafka will finally be deposited. Much less important is the question of whether anyone will read them. The sale of the literary estate of the poet Yehuda Amichai to Yale University, more than a decade ago, generated a considerable furor in Israel. But upon closer examination, the trend of selling Israeli treasures to institutions abroad can be a source of comfort.

Many in Israel feel that the cultural world in which they grew up and lived is being rapidly destroyed. The music on the radio has changed, poetry has changed, newspapers have changed. But have no worry: The treasures of Hebrew literature are preserved in the archives of Yale University, far beyond the reach of the minister of culture. New Haven is, well the new haven of Israeli culture. It’s the place where its genetic code is stored, like the sperm bank for pandas.

In the meantime, departments of “Israel studies” are flourishing in American universities, while Israeli literary scholars publish learned articles in English about Etgar Keret and the poet Nathan Zach in a universe parallel to real Israeli culture. Indeed, Israel studies may well survive Israel itself.

Preservation, then, would seem to be the watchword for our time. And digitization makes preservation possible on a mass scale. In the past, people thought humanity would settle itself on other planets, but these days it’s a lot more realistic to think that we’ll migrate to the digital world, to the Google Cloud. Part of the world may be undergoing devastation, but the other part is gradually being covered by server farms. Never fear. At some point in the future, it will be possible to print Iraq and Syria on 3-D printers. Pandas will be cloned and brought back to life after they’ve become extinct. What matters is preserving the genetic code of the world.

True, no one knows exactly when all the information being collected will be reconstructed. If the bamboo forests are all cut down, and the pandas’ habitat coincidentally obliterated – what reason is there to think that the situation will be better 100 years from now? Who said there will be someone to safeguard the city of Nimrud in a few years or decades? And who is going to read all those studies about Amichai?

The perspicacious among us know that there will be no reconstruction, that we will not reprint everything. But that isn’t really important. Do we print every file we save? Every text, every photograph? Only grandmas and grandpas who lived most of their lives before the advent of the computer era still print stuff. Younger people know that the file’s the thing. Once it’s saved, there’s no need even to glance at it. We don’t have to live. It’s enough for us to exist as a code.

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