How accurately could "The Knowledge" be restored solely from human memory?

The internet and everything contained within is wiped out. Every word ever printed or written down, anywhere, spontaneously lights on fire and turns to ashes in seconds. Math, science, history, philosophy, fiction, and everything else, henceforth known as “The Knowledge,” now resides solely within the brains of the currently living.

How much, and how accurately, could “The Knowledge” be restored solely from human memory?

Not well. First off, by wiping out the Internet, you’ve eliminated the single best tool for aggregating and sharing all that information that’s inside people’s head.

Yeah, is the internet just gone, or is it wiped blank, but infrastructure still in place? (I mean, I assume the first bit of knowledge required would be getting it running again)

All recorded knowledge is wiped out. All books burn up, all web pages go blank. The web itself endures.

The core knowledge in STEM would be easily recoverable. There’s a lot of people with great memories. Even tricky stuff about the right way to mix things in sequence in a chemical reaction is in somebody’s head somewhere. (But see below.)

Other fields might not be so lucky. E.g., literature. How many people have memorized a few well known books as in Fahrenheit 451? And the “next tier” of books is going to be almost completely gone.

Wiping all the computer software off the planet is going to be a problem. A basic form of Linux could be rebuilt in a year. Windows would have to be redone from scratch and would take a good long while. (OTOH, it’d probably be less buggy.)

As noted though, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem here. To get all the Linux developers out there to communicate, allocate work, check others’ work, etc. requires basically the Internet. So you have to figure out a way to get all that up and running to a small extent using old tech (e.g., “sneakernet”).

One big issue is where software meets process. I.e., a computer program was used to work out how to control a chemical reaction. The data for all this was on the computer. All that’s wiped. Right now it wouldn’t be a long term issue to start over and redevelop that. But as this gets more common and becomes more complicated there could be data on some complex processes that would never be recovered as it used to be. A similar process might be found but there’d be no way of ensuring it was the same as before.

While all this is happening of course there’s no problem with food, energy, clothing, etc. distribution, right?:wink:

Not a long-term problem. We can use mass communication to put everything back up again. Granted, we’d lose pretty much the entire Western Canon of Literature, but we can always write more literature.

Things would be a mess for awhile, though. But we’d survive.

Without things like news stories or history books to refer to, I doubt we could put back together even half of what’s currently on Wikipedia correctly, even if the Internet were still up and running. And that’s a minuscule fraction of “the knowledge”. Imagine starting today with a blank Wikipedia site, and telling people “ok, go for it, but just with what you remember, no references / sources”. We’d make a hash of it in no time.

Well, I bet I could get 80% of the script of the Blues Brothers movie up and running within the hour.

I saw a play once where some people in a post-apocalyptic society devoted themselves to an oral tradition of preserving Simpsons episodes. Within a matter of years, the scripts had been hopelessly mixed up, but a core of the material survived, transformed into mythological drama.

Does the logic embedded in microprocessors go away too? Boolean logic isn’t exactly written - it’s just switches. Would we have to rewrite all the operating systems from memory?

I’m not so sure. No financial records, no computerized transactions, no high-tech factories. No money - all the banknotes burned up. No planes flying, no banks able to operate, no books for schools, no computers, no automated systems.

We are screwed.


Basic principles are well understood and individuals might know particular processes that they are responsible for but modern technology is so complex and interconnected no one person or even a small group of people cannot know enough to reproduce something like a smartphone or an automobile from raw materials ot finished product. Just the information about what those materials are and how they flow through the wide array of different channels and processes from extraction and refining through component manufacture to integration of a final product is beyond any single small group of people to understand. And any detailed specification or design documentation is going to be too complex for anyone to memorize. I’ve been able to amaze people by quoting some paragraph from a 200 page specification from memory, but it just happened to be a paragraph I wrote and studied because it was of particular significance; there is no way I could or would care to remember all of the interface specifications and appendices full of tables and graphs even though they are important.


I imagine it’d be a little bit like this.

“To be, or not to be, uh … line, please?”

Under this premise, with computer software wiped, I would suspect that every power plant would immediately fail. The workers know their jobs, but rely on the computers to do the work. I suspect there is instantly nothing but the cans on the shelves and the firewood stacked outside the grocery store.

I remember back in the '80s working with the RSTS computer in the university’s lab. It is a closet-sized computer with a bank of 32 switches on the front. In the very rare circumstances where the computer was completely wiped, it was the technician’s job to read a printout of the basic tape loader program. The tech would set all the switches up or down for 1 or 0, click the load switch, and continue until the basic system was loaded. I’d heard that there were a handful of people who knew the loader so well that they didn’t have to read the printout but could load the loader from memory. I doubt any of those people are still alive. But then, the tapes are erased too, right?

FYI, I also found 1978’s James Burke series Connections great at showing how interconnected things are.

Is the loss of information storage permanent or can we begin rebuilding a base of written knowledge?

It’s a one-time loss, but total.

I assume premise is plain text documents right, and recorded media, not computer code per se? Because you wouldn’t get the internet working for a LONG time with every piece of software deleted.

I mean, the premise is basically impossible, but that’s it right? Total infrastructure intact, nothing to read or watch?

Essentially. There’s a very large muddy area that encompasses things like computer code, or recorded music, which is technically “recorded knowledge” but kind of beyond the point I was wondering about.

This all came about from a discussion I had with a coworker about whether a very popular book, like say, the Bible, were to suddenly physically disappear from existence, could the collective memories of everyone who read that book more or less restore it with reasonable accuracy? Then expand that idea to everything that’s ever been written down. An easier concept to communicate before the internet, but since the internet does exist, and it is a primary, if not, arguably, the main repository of human knowledge at this point, I had to include that as well.

So, all uncompiled code is gone? But compiled code remains?

It’s a little know fact that the Epic of Gilgamesh was actually a spinoff of the popular Sumarian entertainment, the Uruk Comedy Variety Hour. The short segments featuring a well-intentioned but oafish Gilgamesh and his bumbling sidekick Enkidu were popular with the crowds and spun off onto their own series of poetic pictographs, essentially the earliest known “comic books” which were disdained by learned scholars of the day as philosophically trivial.


No doubt we’d lose a lot of literature, but we are at least lucky in that the greatest author in the English language was a playwright. Lots of people have memorized, if not entire plays, at least their own parts, and know the people who’ve memorized the other parts. We’d have the entire Folio back in the time that it took to write it out.