My Reverse Time Capsule

While rummaging in the WIRED magazine archives, I found this entry from 1995. In it, Douglas Copeland imagines a “reverse time capsule,” sent back to 1975 and wonders what in it would be most surprising to those on the receiving end, twenty years prior. Well, now we’re just shy of thirty years later and the list is full of things that seem just as odd now as they might have fifty years ago — Chrysler an automotive innovator; beepers; an oblique reference to MTV; “the world is more crowded but cleaner” — and some not — “the median family income in America is still the same”; “Nazis are making a comeback in the US”; “Devices engineered to save time end up making time even rarer than before”; omigod there are so many of them.

The antique shop that Marty walks past in Back to the Future II is both a time capsule and a reverse time capsule. It’s a time capsule because, for the people of Marty’s 2015, it contains the stuff they kept and value as artifacts of the past. For the Marty of 1985, it’s a reverse time capsule, spoiling the end for a variety of things very much alive in his time and even some that had yet to come about. Although, for a 1985-er, Marty’s 2015 wardrobe would probably have prompted even more questions than the hoverboard under his feet.

Intrigued by Copeland’s idea, and by imagining an antique store of my own future, I thought I’d consider my own reverse time capsule in ten-year leaps between now and when I stepped off of the college campus as a new naive. For so many of us, that time is such a major fork in the road, it might as well be Day One.

2003 — Year 1

2003 was still a time of single-purpose technology. I walked the streets of Providence, RI with a minidisc player and a cellphone in my pocket. I rarely carried a camera, but when I did, it was a Sony Handycam. Magical future devices were definitely in my imagination, but, if I’m honest, I didn’t really expect the iPhone. Peer-to-Peer media pirating was the thing at the time. Almost the entirety of my Minidisc collection was created by trawling Kazaa for the highest quality Mp3 files I could find and high-speed transferring them to my recorder. It sounds quaint, but it felt pretty magical to me. Same thing goes for when I’d download pixelated episodes of Seinfeld to watch while my RISD FAV degree project rendered — again, streaming networks just weren’t really something I saw coming. As a college student, I was pretty disconnected from TV, such as it was at the time; as for the things I did watch, I just thought we’d get better files. The iPod was still a new thing in 2003, and Apple had just opened the iTunes Store.

Media retrospection is weird. Seven of the top ten grossing films of 2003 were sequels. Media critics probably had a lot to say about that at the time; still they had no idea what was coming. Sure, LotR was popular, but would anyone have believed that Amazon, the bookstore website, would pay $1 Billion to make an eight-episode series based upon just Tolkien’s endnotes and marginalia? Would they believe that a fourth Matrix film would be made twenty years later? Now here’s something music lovers would believe — that Beyoncé, who had just released her first solo album and promptly won five Grammy’s, would release her seventh album to Number 1 and be the first female artist to have all her albums do that. Also, the 300th episode of The Simpsons aired in 2003. I would not have believed that it was still on twenty years — and 444 more episodes — later. Mister Rogers died in 2003, at a time when many young people believed he was a pedophile because of a libelous reference to him in a terrible song recorded by Korn in the late 1990s. Twenty years later, though, it’s clear to me that no one will ever have as positive an influence through television as he did. The more time passes, the more I feel we are all in a debt he would undoubtedly cancel.

It’s worth pointing out that the pessimism of the early 2000s was a pretty radical pivot from the overall vibe of the late 1990s. The turn of the century was a 50/50 litmus test for priors — a glorious dawn for some, Y2K for others. But after 9/11, there suddenly wasn’t much to be optimistic about. Early in 2003, we began a nationally-sanctioned vendetta in Iraq fueled on lies and the sort of toxic bravado that makes naming your opening salvo the “Shock and Awe” campaign seem like a good idea. I and my peers were sickened. I brought my minidisc recorder and handycam to my first anti-war protest just up the street on the Brown University campus green. Former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley was there, which I thought was a precursor to a re-do in 2004. Both he and Al Gore ended up endorsing Howard Dean. Oh well.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the domestic political tensions of the time were never going to be overcome by a single election. They would set in, calcify, become the bedrock upon which the outright schisms of 2023 were built.

As for tech, I miss the single-purpose devices. I miss the pleasure that comes from their limitations and the intention they required (and assumed) of me. I miss the baseline of disconnection and the fleeting, mysterious, thrilling moments of connection.

2013 — Year 10

Ten years later, I had this thing called an iPhone 5 in my pocket. It was “an iPod, a phone, an internet communicator…” I listened to music with it — not locally-stored Mp3 files using iTunes, but streamed music from a service called Rdio. I emailed on it. I took all my photos with it. A camera, by the way, was not one of the three devices that Steve Jobs famously pitched would become one, probably because the first iPhone camera was pretty lousy. I wonder whether he would have been surprised to find out that the camera was THE feature by which future smartphones succeeded. I never called people with my iPhone; the death of the phone’s core feature was also not something I would have predicted. Nor was the amount of texting I did with it. What else did I do with this thing? I Tweeted and Instagrammed from it, which is a sentence that 2003-me would not have understood at all.

It’s astonishing to think of the number of technological experiences that were suddenly central to everyone’s lives in 2013 that were either mostly unknown or simply non-existent a decade prior: the smartphone, the tablet, obviously, but also YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, the Amazon of 2013 compared with the Amazon of 2003 (a 100x stock value jump), “smarthome” tech, drones, the smartwatch (the Apple Watch was just a year away), etc. etc. etc. I could send any one of these things back ten years and it would be a shiny riddle to its beholder.

Despite initial skepticism, the iPad had caught on and the world was on a tablet bender. Now, I had my tablet expectations set twenty years prior by Star Trek: The Next Generation and I still didn’t think that ones as sleek and powerful as what became available by this time would have come so soon. Apparently 195 million new tablets were sold in 2013 — a 50% jump from the previous year. As a result, all anyone in media wanted to talk about was the state of the book in a screen world. Ironically, I had just published my first printed book and was happily spitting out a column about design and tech for a now-defunct magazine called PRINT.

In 2013, it seemed like suddenly everyone had a Roomba and a Nest thermostat and that the “smart home” was within reach. We would certainly spend the next decade “smarting up” our houses only to realize that the smart home is the best way to make you hate your house and curse at your phone. But automation was still a happy promise at the time. What I’d send back to 2013’ers would be any headline about ChatGPT. I think they’d be surprised by how fast automation went from luxury to lay-off. I’m hoping that 2033 me will tell us all to just chill out about the bots. Of course, that might require that there’s something worse to fear. Only time will tell.

Just like 2003, 7 of the top 10 grossing films of 2013 were sequels. One of them was even a Lord of the Rings sequel (if you count The Hobbit as such, which I do). House of Cards debuted on Netflix, and it stands out to me now, ten years later, as one of the more representative artifacts of its time.

What else… Oh, right. Everyone but one person would be surprised that the guy who had just started the “Birther” movement to try to derail Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign would go from being totally pwned at the White House Correspondent’s dinner to being the next president. We had no idea how awful things were about to become.

2023 — Year 20

There’s not much point in attempting to analyze 2023 yet. But that’s the nature of a time capsule, isn’t it? That the things you put inside are an index of the view you are incapable of from within. That it’s not about the things themselves, but the choice you made to put them there. In a reverse time capsule, your choices are a puzzle to the receiving end. In a forward time capsule, your choices are a lesson.

So what would I send back to 2013 or 2003 from this year to really blow my past-self’s mind? Perhaps a picture of me on an average Monday morning, sitting right here at my desk in front of a massive screen, talking into a radio-quality microphone to a colleague thousands of miles away, the studio-lit image of me captured in 4k by a broadcast-quality camera, fiber-streamed, and recorded through conferencing software called Zoom. I’d be surprised by the fact that my office is at home now, that it’s basically the Jetsons, and that a global, three-year (almost to the day) pandemic responsible for the deaths of 6,819,383 people — nearly 1% of the world’s population — had been the thing to put me there. I’d have many questions.

Or, if I wanted to lean into the puzzle of it all, maybe I’d just send an NFT or a share of bitcoin? They feel like the QR Code of this tech cycle’s “why would ______ when I can just…”

A Personal Note

In a way, all of this is personal. It’s what I’m thinking when imagining a reverse time capsule. But it’s not exactly personal personal.

What would I, in 2003, think of what I might see in my own life twenty years later? Once I’d gotten past that glance through the window of my own Hill Valley Antiques, there would be other non-thing things that would impress me most. I’d see where I live and be surprised that it’s not where I called home then. I’d see that I was twenty years into a career that has been a winding path followed mostly within the same organization. I’d see that I’d maintained interests, let go of a few, and acquired some new ones. I’d see the minidisc player still on my desk! The books about the paranormal still on my shelf! I’d see that I’m still making art. I’d see that I had stayed fit, that it was much harder to do at 42 than 22, and that, somehow, I still had hair on my head. Hey, it’s a little thing, but I definitely didn’t expect that, and I am more vain than I’d like to be. I suppose I’d see that, too. It would all be very interesting.

I’d see that I’m happily married, that I’m a father of two beautiful children, and that I maintain and enjoy good relationships with my parents, my siblings, my extended family, and my friends. I’d take notice of that, as good relationships seemed a bit out of reach twenty years ago. I’d note the absence of my stepmother, who I loved dearly. I’d be shocked that she is gone.

But if I were really looking into the windows of my future home from outside, my own Ghost of Christmas Future standing beside twenty-two-year-old me, there is one thing I’d see that would feel like THE THING. I’d see myself older, of course, as if looking in a time-bending funhouse mirror. I’d see all the signs of age. My gaze would linger, though, on the crow’s feet that have gathered beside my eyes. Not because they are the most pronounced evidence of passed time on my body, but because they so visibly memorialize the joy I have known. They are the folds of a smiling tapestry. At twenty three, I would never have imagined how lovely life can be — that it can be so full of love. I had only begun to experience love then. It was a younger, simpler, faster love. But practiced over two more decades, it was the beginning of the love I know now, which spreads over all of my life. I’d see it in me, in the warmth of my home, in the looks and the words and the touches that so effortlessly pass between me and my wife and my children.

Most of the time, the love that I have learned to feel, give, and receive shows on my face. I’d see it through that window. And among all the other visible surprises that future scene could provide, it would be those indelible marks of love that would take my breath away.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 19, 2023,   In Essays

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