Advertisement
Tech by VICE

'Game of Thrones' Shows Why We Need to Back Up Human Civilization

The newest episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ plays on real world anxieties about data corruption and erasure.

by Becky Ferreira
Apr 22 2019, 8:18pm

Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) in season 8, episode 2, of 'Game of Thrones.' Image: Helen Sloan/HBO

This post contains spoilers for 'Game of Thrones' season 8, episode 2.

“The North remembers.”

House Stark and its allies have trotted out this ominous phrase to remind people of their many grievances over the course of HBO’s Game of Thrones. But in the second episode of the final season, which aired on Sunday, we find the North’s memory on the verge of obliteration.

The Night King wants “an endless night,” Brandon Stark, or what’s left of him, explains as Winterfell awaits an attack from the White Walkers. “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.”

“That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting; being forgotten,” Sam Tarly responds. “If I wanted to erase the world of men, I’d start with you.”

The conversation was the thesis statement of an episode that revolved around reminiscence and finality. But the tight focus on the erasure of communal memory, like so many themes in Game of Thrones, spills beyond Westeros and reflects relatable anxieties in the real world.

For years, some technology experts, such as Vint Cerf, have warned of an impending “digital dark age,” in which internet archives, personal data, and historical records become irretrievable due to obsolete platforms or expansive cybersecurity failures.

The legitimacy of this threat is a matter of debate, but nonetheless it has spurred efforts to create comprehensive backup drives encompassing all of human civilization. Proponents suggest preserving troves of information in exotic locations like salt mines or the Moon, where they might have a chance at long-term survival.

These preservation projects expose simmering apprehensions over a coming breakdown in our access to knowledge. Most of us know what it’s like for an important file to be corrupted or lost in the wilds of an old hard drive, so it’s not much of a leap to at least imagine it happening on a civilization-wide level. While we are bombarded by a proliferation of information, some can’t help but nervously anticipate its loss.

We’ve come by this fear the hard way, because history shows it is tragically common to lose priceless information. During Spain’s colonization of the Americas, settlers profligately destroyed the written records of the Maya civilization, leaving future generations only a tantalizing glimpse of their culture. The legend of the Library of Alexandria is that it burned to the ground in a catastrophic fire, but the truth is sadder: It had been fading away for centuries before the fire, due to an increasingly anti-intellectual environment. The past is filled with examples of human knowledge being erased through various methods and timescales.

The new episode reminded me of these fears about the fragility of accumulated knowledge, and the efforts to preserve it. I found myself wondering: Has Bran Stark been backed up to whatever the weirwood version of iCloud is? If the Night King pulls some kind of a White Walker DDoS attack on him, will the entire history of Westeros get blacked out?

After all, Bran’s powers have sometimes been compared to an arboreal version of the internet, though they are even better than that analogy suggests.

As Sam points out, Bran has an objective and unlimited archive of Westeros’ history and future—and who knows what else might be clunking around in his brain. Unlike the documents that Sam has pored over at the Citadel in Oldtown, Bran has no political filters, no uncertainties, and no restrictions on the information he can witness and remember.

By confirming that Bran is the Night King’s main target, the show implies that there is no backup file for Bran’s brain. The episode clearly played up the eerie feeling that the White Walkers won’t just kill off our favorite characters, but totally erase their histories, too.

The one consolation is that Tyrion makes a point to hear the “long story” of Bran’s transformation into the Three-Eyed Raven. It may not be an exact backup, but some file transfers to Tyrion’s head could be enough to form the basis of the song of ice and fire.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.