The fate of humanity lies in an abandoned mine on a windswept Arctic archipelago in Norway. That’s the home of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The apocalypse-proof site contains seeds from many plants, but perhaps most importantly those that humans need to survive. The seed stash is insurance in case an apocalyptic pandemic or nuclear winter wipes out the world’s crops. Now, something else important to humanity is stashed away in Svalbard—computer code.
Software developer and code bank GitHub, now owned by Microsoft, recently cached a good chunk of the world’s open-source code in the Arctic World Archive, as detailed in Bloomberg Businessweek. Another mine system near the Global Seed Vault houses the archive. The idea is that, if a worldwide catastrophe goes down, the subterranean stash will preserve the modern world for whoever might survive.
If a mega-disaster did bring down civilization, the survivors might want to stop by the seed vault first. So, squirreling away the world’s computer codes is largely symbolic. GitHub CEO Nat Friedman hand-delivered the first codes himself. They’re stored on microfilm-like material on rolls placed inside plastic pizza box-sized containers.
The first of such “platters” contains the Linux and Android operating systems as well as 6,000 other key open-source applications. Each roll can hold 120 gigabytes of open-source software code and can be read with a simple magnifying glass. Friedman said that eventually, 200 such platters will sit on the vault’s shelves. They will share the space with the Vatican’s archives, Italian cinema, and even the recipe to a world-famous burger joint’s special sauce.
These things may not matter much on a post-apocalyptic planet. However, it’s difficult to deny the importance of open-source code to the modern world. It makes up the foundation of the internet. Therefore, it also figures into key components of the technological sphere like satellites, scientific tools, robots, medical devices and much, much more.
So, what exactly is open-source code? It’s basically code that anyone with the right skills can write and share. Others can then take the code and expand upon it, and so on and so forth. This makes open-source code very appealing to idealists with socialist leanings. Of course, that means that more capitalist-minded patent holders—like mid-90s Microsoft, ironically—pushed back against code sharing.
Then, an upstart called Google championed it. This allowed the company to eventually offer the services that we take for granted like search, email, and navigation, without charging for them. Facebook, Netflix, Uber and more would also jump on the train. Now, open-source code underpins the entire world.
Ironically, the idealists who backed the code to help the everyday person step into the 21st century ended up creating corporate tech conglomerates like Amazon. For better or worse, open-source code is a big part of history. While it might not do anyone any good after the apocalypse, it might very well prevent it from happening.