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If We Want Anyone to Remember Humanity, We Need to Talk About Time Capsules

It takes a special, lonely kind of madness to consider, and plan for, a future thousands of years beyond the boundaries of our own graves.

by Claire L. Evans
Jun 2 2014, 4:40pm

Image: Tom/Flickr

Here at Motherboard, we traffic in all the cool and scary ways that the future comes hurtling at light-speed towards us. But the slow future—50,000, a million years from now, trundling at us like a glacier—doesn't get as much column space. This is because gargantuan time-scales are more scary than cool: Everyone we know, and everyone that anyone we know will ever know, will be dead.

It takes a special, lonely kind of madness to consider, and plan for, a future thousands of years beyond the boundaries of our own graves. But it's sometimes necessary: for folks who build seed banks, for example, or those tasked with the disposal of radioactive waste. And for the makers, of course, of time capsules.

A time capsule is an object with one foot in the present and the other in the reaches of the distant future. Its makers must judiciously cull from the artistic, literary, industrial, technological, and scientific output of the world, selecting only the most salient and representative elements.

This is, of course, a folly. It's impossible to know what future iterations of the human race—living, if we have survived, in a radically different world—might find interesting. Archaeologists, after all, learn a great deal from garbage, from things ancient civilizations didn't think important enough to preserve.

It takes a special, lonely kind of madness to consider, and plan for, a future thousands of years beyond the boundaries of our own graves.

In any case, preserving the present in this way is a relatively modern invention. Although the word wasn't coined until 1939, the first proper time capsule was the 1900 Detroit "Century Box," a kind of hope chest filled with photographs and letters from 56 distinguished citizens of the Motor City, describing their daily lives and making predictions for the future. The Century Box was opened in the year 2000, in a ceremony presided over by Detroit's then-mayor, Dennis Archer.

Despite their altruistic goals, time capsules are usually publicity stunts, as much celebrations of the present as they are gifts to future generations. Throughout modern history, they've popped up at celebrations like the World's Fair, in the laying of cornerstones for large building projects, or as grand gestures from city officials and corporations like Westinghouse, who buried two high-tech capsules 50 feet below Flushing Meadows Park in 1939 and 1965:

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A time capsule is a way to fold the distant future into something comprehensible, by forcibly injecting it with the familiar. The Westinghouse Capsules contain everyday objects, microfilm rolls, seeds, and personal notes by Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, who detailed his century's technological innovations along with their socioeconomic repercussions, concluding, "I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority."

When (or rather if) they are opened in the year 6939, our distant ancestors—androids, perhaps, or scavengers surviving in a postlapsarian dystopia—will suddenly have to contend with the most trivial banalities of life in the 20th Century. In their unknowable hands: a pack of Camel cigarettes, a copy of LIFE magazine.

The Westinghouse capstone. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Westinghouse capsules look like rockets launched backwards, plunging headfirst into the Earth instead of out into the cosmos. Other capsule-makers have taken the opposite tack, burying their temporal arks in space: the NASA Pioneer Plaques, for example, or the Voyager Golden Record, a mixtape of images, messages, and sounds representing the human race, pinned to the NASA Voyager probes and launched in 1977. Like their Earthbound cousins, they are unlikely to be discovered; they are more symbolic than practical, offering optimistic compendiums of the present moment, free from images of war, global inequality, or melancholy.

The Last Pictures, a recent space capsule project engineered by the the San Francisco-based artist Trevor Paglen, seeks to reverse the false representations of the Voyager Golden Record and, by extension, many of the 20th century's idealistic, publicity-stunt capsules. Among 100 images culled from human history, etched onto an ultra-archival silicon disc and launched with a communications satellite from Kazakhstan in late 2012, Paglen selected shots of Eastern European orphans and predator drones seen from the ground.

Image: The Last Pictures

Buried time capsules are forgotten within a generation, accidentally destroyed when buildings are razed, or promptly flooded by groundwater. In geosynchronous orbit, however—a ribbon of space some 36,000 kilometers above sea level—a satellite can hang undisturbed for millennia. This is a sweet spot for time capsules, in the darkness of deep time.

"At some point there will be no evidence of human civilization on Earth's surface," Paglen explains, "but there will be a collection of dead spacecraft from an ancient civilization in Earth's orbit."

For alien archaeologists that might come along before our sun turns into a red giant, these dead spacecraft will be like the Pyramids of Giza, the slabs of Stonehenge: monolithic records of the distant human past.

KEO, an international venture conceptualized by the late French artist Jean-Marc Philippe, hoped to place a floating Library of Alexandria among such mute ruins—an orbiting space-time capsule, built with enough storage capacity to contain an uncensored "Fresco of Messages" from every living man, woman, and child on Earth. This maximalist approach circumvents the primary difficulty with time-capsules: how to choose who speaks for Earth, and what they should say. In this case, everyone, anything.

Image: KEO.org

KEO—named after the three most common phonemes in human language—was designed for "purely symbolic reasons," with a massive set of solar wings. The idea was twofold: appeal to the human imagination, and make the satellite conspicuous as it tumbles back to Earth some 50,000 years after its launch.

KEO's architects chose the staggering, impossible date of 50,000 years as a "mirror date to a milestone in the evolution of our species," which is to say "the first traces of Art…reveal[ing] the human capacity for abstract thought and symbolic expression."

Assuming we haven't destroyed the planet and ourselves along with it, the KEO satellite would be a welcome—if potentially incomprehensible—gift from ancestors as distant from us as we are from Neolithic cave-painters. If we've been obliterated, on the other hand, by an asteroid impact or global technological calamity, KEO would serve as our cosmic tombstone, a fitting legacy for a civilization both unfailingly aspirational and perpetually self-sabotaging.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that KEO will ever make it to the stars; its launch has been delayed consistently since 2001, and following the recent death of its primary ideologue, Jean-Marc Philippe, the project appears to be languishing in obscurity.

Not that it particularly matters. Half the joy of a time capsule is the idea, the sheer hubris of conquering time. Like packing a suitcase before a long journey, building a time capsule is a way to parse the horrific randomness of the world and repackage it, sensible and self-contained, to oneself. There, this bobbin, this seed, this magazine, this list of world leaders—this is who we are. Bury it, quickly, before we forget.

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