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When Civilization Collapses, At Least Our Software Will Be Backed Up
Ashlee Vance

1. THE LAST STOP FOR CIVILIZATION BEFORE THE NORTH POLE IS SVALBARD, AN ARCHIPELAGO NORTH OF MAINLAND NORWAY ALONG THE 80TH PARALLEL.

Most of Svalbard’s old Norwegian and Russian coal mines have shut down, so locals have rebranded their vast acres of permafrost as an attraction to scientists, doomsday preppers, and scientist doomsday preppers. Around Svalbard, things can be hidden from the stresses of the outside world. There’s a treaty in place to keep it neutral in times of war. In other words, it’s an ideal spot for a big global reset button or two.

Pride of place belongs to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where seeds for a wide range of plants, including the crops most valuable to humans, are preserved in case of some famine- inducing pandemic or nuclear apocalypse. The seed vault looks like something out of a movie, its entrance a triangular obelisk jutting high out of a blinding white expanse. It sparkles with glowing green lights.

Nat Friedman, however, hasn’t come for the beat-the apocalypse aesthetics. On Oct. 24, the tall, thin, 42-yearold chief executive officer of GitHub Inc., Microsoft’s world-leading code bank, hops in a van and drives about 15 minutes from his hotel to an abandoned coal mine, where he puts on a miner’s helmet and headlamp. Deep inside one of the mine’s frigid, eerily quiet arteries, Friedman comes to what looks like a metal tool shed. “It’s more mine-y and rustic and raw-hole-in-the-rock than I thought it would be,” he says.

This is the Arctic World Archive, the seed vault’s much less sexy cousin. Friedman unlocks the container door with a simple door key and, inside, deposits much of the world’s open source software code. Servers and flash drives aren’t durable enough for this purpose, so the data is encoded on what look like old-school movie reels, each weighing a few pounds and stored in a white plastic container about the size of a pizza box. It’s basically microfilm. With the help of a magnifying glass, you—or, say, a band of End Times survivors—can see the data, be it pictures, text, or lines of code. A Norwegian company called Piql AS makes the specialized rolls of super-durable film, coated with iron oxide powder for added Armageddon-resistance. Piql says the material should hold up for 750 years in normal conditions, and perhaps 2,000 years in a cold, dry, low-oxygen cave.

Friedman places his reel on one of the archive’s shelves, alongside a couple dozen that include Vatican archives, Brazilian land registry records, loads of Italian movies, and the recipe for a certain burger chain’s special sauce. GitHub, which Microsoft bought last year for $7.5 billion, plans to become by far the biggest tenant. Eventually, Friedman says, GitHub will leave 200 platters, each carrying 120 gigabytes of open source software code, in the vault. The first reel included the Linux and Android operating systems, plus 6,000 other important open source applications.

Yes, this may seem like a stunt, headlamps and all. If the world is ravaged to the point where Svalbard is the last repository of usable wheat and corn seeds, the source code for YouTube will probably rank pretty low on humankind’s hierarchy of needs. Yet to Friedman, it’s a natural next step. Open source software, in his view, is one of the great achievements of our species, up there with the masterpieces of literature and fine art. It has become the foundation of the modern world—not just the internet and smartphones, but satellites, medical devices, scientific tools, robots.

The basic idea of open source is that you write code and share it, giving anyone else a chance to see what you’ve done, and, if they like, to take the code and change it and make their own thing. Over time this vast and expanding body of work is repurposed and improved upon and used to make innumerable software applications. GitHub is where much of the world’s open source software gets developed. About 40 million people, many of them volunteers, refine the projects, log bugs that need fixing, scan for security holes, and track changes. Think of it as a gigantic, meticulously cataloged library of tools that anyone can use.

Open source is the dominant procedure for software development, though it took a revolution to get there. In the 1990s, at the height of the Microsoft Windows empire, Bill Gates’s subordinates described the codesharing model as “a cancer,” a threat to everything that patent- loving capitalists should hold dear. “If you told someone 20 years ago that in 2020, all of human civilization will depend on and run on open source code written for free by volunteers in countries all around the world who don’t know each other, and it’ll just be downloaded and put into almost every product, I think people would say, ‘That’s crazy, that’s never going to happen. Software is written by big, professional companies,’ ” Friedman says in the vault. “It’s sort of a magical moment. Having a historical record of this will, I think, be valuable to future generations.”

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November 18, 2019

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