Many go missing. Some are prematurely opened. No two are quite identical on the inside. But if there’s one thing common to all time capsules, it’s a longing to communicate with the future.
It’s an existential itch in an age of planned technological obsolescence, link rot, fading dreams of archiving the entire internet, online trolls, disinformation, loose tweets about nuclear war from the president of the United States, and climate change. That’s especially true for younger generations faced with inheriting such uncertainty but who are nonetheless working toward a better future, from marginalized communities building their own internet, to using Big Data to protect the oceans, to developing an app to help Black organizers bail people out of jail.
To understand who we are and where we’re going, it’s time we talk about time capsules. I’d argue it’s time to consider building your own too, be it as a way of signaling an optimistic vision, or apologizing on behalf of today’s society for destroying the planet and ourselves. Building a DIY time capsule doesn’t mean making another Voyager Golden Record, or going broke necessarily. But a worthy capsule will require shrewd future proofing. With a little data-driven forethought—potentially also some light biohacking—your ark might just transcend time.
Below is a brief guide for leaving your message for the future.
FIND A PLACE
Somewhere unlikely to go disturbed is ideal for burying your capsule. (You’ll probably want approval from the property owner, to be safe.) Going underground increases the likelihood of it filling with water, or being lost, however. Whatever site you settle on, outdoors or indoors, when time comes to send off the capsule you’ll want to drop a pin, as it were. More on that later.
SET A TIME
Five years? Twenty? Fifty? In which case, you may live to see the day. Or, maybe you’d rather it surpass your lifetime. The further into the future you wish to send a message, the more care you’ll need to put into not only designing and treating your capsule, but also deciding what to seal inside to ensure it endures. A hundred years? Think realistically.
There is no one-size-fits-all capsule. Stainless steel or aluminum are optimal for building one that can hold up for at least a generation. Pre-mades go for anywhere between $30 and $2,000 online. A coffee tin, for what it’s worth, may hold up underground a decade or more.
ASSEMBLE A CACHE
What do you want your message to the future to say? Do you see a better world ahead? Do you feel we owe tomorrow’s humans a kind of warning or atonement for all we’ve done until now? In other words, utopia or doomsday? That’s for you to decide.
Either way, think low- or no-tech, assuming a hypothetical “digital dark age” could render electronic embeds unrecoverable. Think physically small, think simple, think sturdy—nothing that will leak, corrode, or break down given enough time, including staples, rubber bands, and paper clips. Slip any sheets of paper in 100 percent polyethylene sleeves. Catalog everything for posterity.
None of this is ironclad, of course. Capsule-building is nonlinear insofar as duration, container type, site selection, and contents inform one another. You might begin with burial location and go from there, or start by selecting items and working from the inside out, depending on what you’re going for.
Don’t solder or weld the capsule shut, as heat can degrade the housing and objects therein. Any quality two-part epoxy should suffice, and the more airtight, the better. You might consider pumping the capsule interior with argon calibration gas for maximum preservation. For additional protection against water damage wrap the capsule in a polyethylene bag.
Place the capsule a good three feet underground, deep enough to safeguard against physical disturbances. Message on the capsule when it should be opened. Leave some sort of physical marker.
Pro tip: Back up location data. You could encode GPS coordinates on the blockchain, a decentralized public ledger powering digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, and have them timed for release on a desired capsule retrieval date. You might try adding a hash of a location to a Bitcoin transaction and only reveal the hash’s meaning, say, 20 years hence. Otherwise, the layperson can expect to tap a developer versed in the Solidity programming language to do timed-released coding in the form of an Ethereum function called a smart contract.
Alternatively, file geo coordinates under your own skin via custom RFID hand implants, which go for around $100 (plus piercing charges). Such chips currently offer enough storage bytes to upload a plaintext of capsule geo data, even a brief manifesto, but don’t guarantee infinite data integrity. Going beyond ten years? Think before you go full cyborg.
If all else fails, email the location to yourself and a trusted confidante.
Lastly, have at least one witness on hand at the burial. Bonus points for making it a real occasion. Robes? Incense? Ritualistic chanting? Why not?
It might be difficult to imagine what Earth will look like when your capsule is opened, or what the state of human civilization will be then. We’ll probably have much to account for. So bookmark this tab—just in case.
Motherboard’s documentary series “Dear Future” was nominated for a Webby. We’d love your vote, and it only takes a minute.