Martin Kunze wants to gather a snapshot of all of human knowledge onto plates and bury it away in the world’s oldest salt mine. In Hallstatt, Austria, a picturesque village nestled into a lake-peppered region called Salzkammergut, Kunze has spent the past four years engraving images and text onto hand-sized clay squares. A ceramicist by trade, he believes the durability of the materials he plies gives them an as-yet unmatched ability to store information. Ceramic is impervious to water, chemicals, and radiation; it’s emboldened by fire. Tablets of Sumerian cuneiform are still around today that date from earlier than 3000 B.C.E. “The only thing that can threaten this kind of data carrier is a hammer,” Kunze says. So far, he has created around 500 squares, which he allows anyone to design for a small donation. Many preserve memories of the lives or work of people involved in the project. Around 150 of the tablets showcase items from collections in Vienna’s museums of National History and Art History. Some local companies have been immortalized. One researcher’s CV now lies in the vault. But Kunze aims to expand the project, to copy research, books, and newspaper editorials from around the world—along with instructions for the languages needed to read them. For this, the clay squares he’s currently using would take up far too much space than could be set aside for such an audacious undertaking. So Kunze also has conceived of a much thinner medium: He will laser-print a microscopic font onto 1-mm-thick ceramic sheets, encased in wafer-thin layers of glass. One 20 cm piece of this microfilm can store 5 million characters; whole libraries of information—readable with a 10x-magnifying lens—could be slotted next to each other and hardly take up any space. The goal of the project, which he calls the Memory of Mankind, is to build up a complete, unbiased picture of modern societies. The sheets will be stored along with the larger tablets in a vault 2 km inside Hallstatt’s still-active salt mine. If all goes according to plan, the vault will naturally seal over the next few decades, ready for a curious future generation to open whenever it’s deemed necessary. To Kunze, this peculiar ambition is more than a courtesy to future generations. He believes the age of digital information has lulled people into a false sense that memories are forever preserved. If today’s digital archives disappear—or, in Kunze’s view, when they do—he wants to make sure there’s a real, physical record to mark our era’s place in history.... Much of this information goes into digital storage—ranging from servers on personal computers to colossal data centers, like the NSA’s facility in Utah.... But this method of storage has inherent problems. Digital space is finite and expensive. Digitally stored data can become corrupted and decay as electrical charges used to encode information into binary bits leak out over time, altering the contents. And any enduring information could be lost if the software to access it becomes obsolete. Or a potent, well-timed coronal mass ejection could cause irreparable damage to electronic systems. “There’s no getting around the risk of catastrophic loss in our culture,” says Robert Darnton, the librarian emeritus at the Harvard University Library. “Digital texts are much more fragile than printed books.”... As the project slowly starts to take shape, some are worried that its own place in collective memory may ebb over time. “The thing I don’t like about the time capsule is the sense that it’s frozen,” says Richard Ovenden, the director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. “Information is much more likely to be kept if it’s used. The danger is that [Kunze’s project] will end up being forgotten.” To avoid this, Kunze plans to distribute ceramic tokens around the world to everyone who either funds, contributes to, or advises on the project. ... The location of the mine will be carved onto each token, and it will require geological knowledge similar to our own to find it, especially as land shifts with time. This would be a safeguard against unwanted discoveries if for some unpredicted reason—nuclear war, say—human civilization disappears or regresses to the Stone Age.... Kunze has teamed up with the Human Document Project, another preservation scheme, and University College London’s Heritage Futures project, to co-organize the event.