High school classes and world’s fairs do it. Universities and builders and companies and municipalities do it. They bury little hoards of things they think people in the future will treasure— the future being ten years or ten thousand or never (most time capsules are immediately forgotten). Something strange, deep, and rather endearing is going on.
Time capsules are about talking to the present, not the future.
That’s the main thing I learned from William Jarvis’s hilarious expose of time capsule reality last night.
Jarvis told a story not in his book Time Capsules: A Cultural History. The Epic of Gilgamesh, humanity’s earliest literary work, begins with instruction how to find a box of copper inside a foundation stone in the great walls of Uruk, and in the box is Gilgamesh’s tale, written on a lapis tablet. “The first time capsule was a plot device,” said Jarvis.
In 1937 plans for the New York World’s Fair included a scheme to bury a “time bomb” of artifacts and information to be opened 5,000 years in the future. Someone suggested that a more discreet name for it might be “time capsule,” and the term has become generic since. When that time capsule was formally lowered into the earth in 1938, an announcer intoned, “Now it begins its long journey through time,” and people spontaneously took off their hats and bowed their heads while “Taps” was played.
That’s what time capsules are for, Jarvis suggested. They are to impress and inspire contemporaries. They are an enjoyable technical and philosophical challenge, a way to think about the “notional futurescape” in which they will be opened. Jarvis outlined the history of time capsules since their origin 5,000 years ago as vaults of artifacts hidden inside the walls of Mesopotamian cities, noting that they come in four categories— intentional and unintentional (such as Pompeii), and those scheduled for retrieval on a certain date (often 10, 100, or 1,000 years later), and those not.
One question from the audience was, “What is the effect of time capsules while they are still unopened?” “They seem to engender forgetfulness,” replied Jarvis. Most are lost track of almost immediately. Signs pointing to them are always stolen. “Some time capsules are never even sealed.”
Danny Hillis asked, “What is the experience of opening a time capsule like?” Jarvis said the norm was well expressed by the headline of a satirical news story in “The Onion”: NEWLY UNEARTHED TIME CAPSULE JUST FULL OF USELESS OLD CRAP. The universal experience is disappointment. People always turn out to have saved the wrong things. For example, they save pristine things, when it’s used items that show the most real information. Unintentional time capsules like Pompeii demonstrate what people are really interested in but which never make it into intentional time capsules— items such as the graffiti on a Pompeii wall, “All the sleepyheads are voting for Petronius.”
Question from the audience: “Have any great mysteries been solved by a time capsule?” Answer: “No. We’ve never learned anything from opening a time capsule.”
Kevin Kelly asked the last question, “Would you recommend that people stop making time capsules?” The world’s expert on time capsules answered with a smile, “It would be like recommending that people stop playing golf.”-- by Stewart Brand
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