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Digital Fossil

Producer: Uchan Sun

This artifect provides a speculative form of digital fossil that can compress human information in the future, including parts of genotypes and our personal traces on the internet

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The definition of life 

The definition of ‘life’ is always controversial. From the traditional view, material like cytoplasm is an inseparable part of biological life. The improvement of data science, a new interpretation of life emerges through time. Many artificial-life researchers believe that they can create a new life in the computer by simulating the processes observed in traditional, biological life-forms. Through computing, rules, and logic become the material and form of life. Ecologist Thomas S.Ray developed Tierra as the computer simulation for natural space, showed that evolution by natural selection works very effectively in the medium of computer machine code. Farmer Belin tried to prove that computer viruses are alive, because  they will reproduce, and will evolve into something other than their initial form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word2

However, there are convincing opposite views, like Danish theoretical biologist Claus Emmeche, claiming that artificial lives, the formalistic and mathematical objects, are not ‘alive’, since they never actually grow or consume matters like organic lives, while Elliott Sober,  the  Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, criticized that the research of AL is based on functionalism, and it’s too abstract that may mix up the discourses between math and biology. Actually relevant views are worthy of discussion. Carbon and organics are not the only valid material for lives. The research for AL aims at revealing the pattern and possible forms of life per se, and human should not regard the term ‘life’ stay at the range of their cognition under Anthropocene.

Complex regime

Another view of life is that it exists at a balanced range. According to Langton [1990], life exists at the edge of chaos, in other words in the “complex regime” to be found in the vicinity of the phase transition between order and chaos. This theory reveals the reason that ancient life starts from the ocean, since liquid water provides an ideal environment for the movement of particles, and it’s also why we can only be sober under a limited range of body temperature. 

In other words, life cannot exist in a static form.

All former discussion leads to an important question: can we actually save our information about life? Besides biological information like DNA, we still have much unknown information that stays at the complex regime, like our memories. In Ted Chang’s fiction Exhalation, humans lived on their mechanical respiratory system. The prevailing theory of memory was that all of the person’s experiences were engraved on sheets of gold foils in their brain, but it turned out to be wrong: started by exhalation, memory is actually the continuous movement of gold leaves inside the human brain. This story is an elegant interpretation of a “complex regime” theory. In the story, anatomists spend years to reconstruct the original sheet, with the hope of eventually deciphering the inscribed symbols. Do we really have the method to inscribe our information in something like a sheet of foil?

To sum up, the decrease of life can be interpreted as the transaction from movement to the condition of rest. This process corresponds to the concept of entropy in physics: to live is to consume order, and produce disorder. Now we are trying to memorize the order, to find a way to preserve and reconstruct the ‘alive’ condition, but the new problem came up with the limited lifespan of the storage medium.  

After alive - reversable?

Under the digital mechanic's framework by Edward Fredkin, everything is computational, and although we cannot reconstruct another universe with the rules, we can simulate them on computers. But what is the input of this process? A similar operation took place in archaeology research when researchers found the trace of ancestors through fossils, that is, a static form of demised life. If fossilization can also happen to computational ‘life’ like computer virus, if software remain bones out of the hard drives, maybe we could find a speculative way to decipher it through the future paleontology, when those mathematical objects, including the digital format of ourselves, became the new prehistoric lives.


Speculative research
The limit of digital preservation

Vint Cerf, a "father of the internet", says he is worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost,he believes this could occur as hardware and software become obsolete. 

His concern is true, and we can find huge contract between our contemporary digital preservation methods and the brutal traces of those prehistoric creatures.  Digital media such as floppy disks, USBs, and hard disks, are more vulnerable to deterioration and obsolescence than analog media. Research into the average life of digital and analog media indicates that digital media has an average lifespan of 3-50 years, while analog, including books and prints, has a range of 10-2200 years (Atos, 2014). In contrast, prehistoric sculpture like the Dolni Vestonice preserved for over 25000 years, and the most durable proof of life we can find is the footprint of dinosaurs, which left over 100 millions of years. 

In science fiction The three body problem by Cixin Liu, human want to build a culture museum to preserve the history of their civilization, and their target used to be finding a way to preserve information for a billion of years, but they failed and decided to engrave limited information on the huge monument stone --- that’s the most durable method they can find. Actually we face the similar situation in reality. Rocks and fossils act as the most sincere witness of our culture and planet. 

Take personal information and biological structures into consideration, deciding what should be preserved becomes more complex with a larger volume of data and a wider range of storage media. We produce much more data than our ancestors: social platform timelines, saved games,  virtual currency… By 2025, it’s estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally – that’s the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs per day. To think out of the box, we can try to find a way to compress our data both digitally and physically, to save the possibilities for encoding in the future.


Briefly, In the fossilization process, minerals replace the constituents of bones, turning them to stone. There are many processes that lead to fossilization, including permineralization, casts and molds, authigenic mineralization, replacement and recrystallization, adpression, carbonization, and biosimulation. The core process is replacement. In real fossil, minerals replace actual parts of life, this process can become the reference for new digital preservation: using computational mineral to replace original data, and turn the target to a decreased but decodable substitute.

There’s already available examples in materials science. A 3D-printed polyester rabbit has been embedded with DNA that contains a blueprint for printing additional bunnies. 3 It provides an inorganic computational material to produce artificial ‘fossil’, containing biological data, although for now, it’s only about appearance rather than identifying information like memories.

Archaeologist encodes and analyze the previous  characteristic, including organism’s life and environment of the creature,  by examining the shapes of tracks, so the computational fossils should be decipherable, consisting of digital mineral, waiting for future analyzation. In another word, our life can not be immortal, but through this new fossilization, we can become a mathematical time slice, even till when we’re fade away and gone.


Artifect - Digital Fossil

Based on previous research, digital fossil should include the following features:

  • Saved both virtual(like social network avatar) and biological information(like DNA).
  • Encodable.
  • Have a physical form.


Based on these rules, I create a group of speculative digital fossils, aiming at using artifacts to preserve human data.


Report from tens of thousands years later:

-The area has a very high concentration of information. It seems that the prehistoric humans on the original planet are different from the expected ones. They have found a way to record their own lifetime ... After a period of excavation, we have dug lots of separate fossils. The surface patterns seem to imply some kind of regular matrix information. Detailed reverse engineering of the object leads us to conclude this was a, this matrix includes certain genetic information, but due to the extremely limited amount of information of single fossils, it is impossible to reconstruct complete gene code ... Is it artificial or natural? After all, compared to prehistoric’s prehistoric, the definition of "natural" has changed. Mankind has acquired the ability to transform "nature", but it has brought catastrophe to itself. How would they feel if they knew that in the future, they would not be able to save their own information and only left a tombstone-like fossil in the future?

Model 1

This step is just a preliminary attempt to "compress social network information." I compressed the human social network avatar into a 20x20 low-resolution image, and mapped it into space according to the pixel RGB value, and then wrap it into a basic model through the convex hall. This is the basis for the subsequent "growth" of fossils.

In order to simulate the process of information loss during the process of fossilization, the basic model will be further broken into debris over time. The degree of dispersion and thickness are determined by the year-basically, the greater the dispersion of fossils over time, the greater the loss. In the final fossil, this part will become the core of the full stone, symbolizing the simplified "image" of social networking profiles, and this image does not come from the appearance, but a virtual representation of the corresponding individual’s personality.


Model 2

Except for the core compressed through Internet information, human DNA information will grow into the outer part of the fossil. 

Some biotechnology company including 23andMe, WeGene, provide a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service in which customers provide a saliva sample that will be laboratory analysed to generate reports relating to the customer's ancestry and genetic predispositions to health-related topics. 

The final report shows different interpretation of health, character, ancestor analyse, etc. The raw data includes information of rsid (RS numbers), chromosome, gene position and genotype. This will be the basic dataset. 

I mapped part of the DNA into pixels of different depths according to genotype, and compressed it into a texture for surface displacement. The previous basic model will be further affected by the year for further growth, but at the same time maintain the DNA information on the surface.

Ideally, by reading the surface ravine, it is possible to encode a part of human genetic information. This method provides a speculative life coding method. Corresponding to the crystal shell, the interior represents the "virtual self", and the two synthesize a digital fossil, a trace of life.

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