If you posted a project to GitHub before February 2, the fruits of your labor are now likely entombed for a millennium in a frozen ark. Yesterday, the world’s largest source code repository announced that, on July 8, it enshrined its archive below hundreds of meters of permafrost in an Arctic vault, inside a chamber inside an abandoned mine inside a mountain, on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, inhabited by a few thousand people and polar bears. In other words, safe from the forces of real estate developers and influencers for the foreseeable future.
GitHub says that a snapshot of every active public repository and “significant” dormant ones, taken February 2, 2020, has been printed on 186 3,500-foot digital archival film reels, which are expected to last 1,000 years. (They even look somewhat sacred.) GitHub eventually plans to laser-engrave all active repositories onto quartz glass platters, to last over 10,000 years.
If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because GitHub partnered with the Long Now Foundation, which is famed for eternal preservation projects such as its 10,000 year clock, still under construction, which is designed to tick for 10,000 years inside a mountain (on Jeff Bezos’s property, after a $42 million investment).
GitHub, an archive and living hive for open-source projects, contains blueprints for reconstructing a digital landscape and expanding it. A technologically equipped alien could theoretically finesse its human programming skills through GitHub-hosted boot camp software and use GitHub data to create a machine-learning model to train a robot to write in the style of Shakespeare and maybe even turn the result into an animation. They may study our programming languages, our arcane operating systems, our app development frameworks, and our cryptographic libraries. Given the time and will, they might describe their findings on a WordPress blog. If the aliens never arrive, it still might come in handy for digital currency speculators, who will rest easy knowing that the code for Bitcoin is safe from almost any imaginable catastrophe.
The aliens will need to read the instructions. The 21TB of repository data have been packaged into TAR files and will be QR-coded, so they may need to reference GitHub’s human-readable manual for “QR decoding, file formats, character encodings, and other critical metadata.”
The presumption and hope, though, is that whoever finds this will have a computer; GitHub also inscribed each reel with a guide, like a readme file, defining the principles of software. Before going on to explain the context of the projects, GitHub adds a disclaimer about the technological universe required for the preserved GitHub projects to work:
Reading, decoding, and uncompressing this data will require considerable computation itself. In theory it could be done without computers, but it would be very tedious and difficult.
Our expectation is that you didn’t need our definitions of software, computer, and other terms. We imagine you have computers of your own, probably vastly more advanced than ours, and possibly fundamentally differently architected. Once you understand the overview and guide below you will easily be able to access all of the data.
However, it’s possible that you have inferior computers to ours, or even no computers at all. In case of that eventuality, we have prepared an uncompressed, unencoded, human-readable reel of data which we call the Tech Tree. The Tech Tree contains information about our fundamental technologies, our computers, and our software, in the hopes that, over time, you will be able to use this knowledge to recreate computers that can make use of the open source software in this archive.
The “Tech Tree,” which GitHub describes as a “Rosetta Stone” for computing and software development, has been printed on a separate human-readable reel.
At this point, a post-apocalyptic letter to a future race doesn’t sound spooky at all. In the event of an immediate but not-apocalyptic catastrophe, GitHub is also archived by the Internet Archive, the Software Heritage Foundation, and the Bodleian Library.