predicting the future

In constructing a time capsule or attempting to communicate with potential extraterrestrial intelligence, there is a fundamental tension between providing the recipients with particular information that they will find interesting, and doing so in a sufficiently general format so that the information can be deciphered and understood in context.

When I teach Meaning Across the Millennia, we listen to audio excerpts from the 1967 Meadow Elementary School (Baldwin, NY) time capsule to discover what children and adults of that time thought might be interesting to the year 2000. One fourth-grader reads news highlights. Because detailed historical records from 1967 remain available to us, what my students actually find interesting is not what the senders thought we in their future would find interesting: the boy’s choices of news items (e.g., the death of Cardinal Spellman, the Six-Day War, a teacher strike), his thick accent, and his vocabulary (e.g., “…Negro boys are soldiers in Vietnam…”).

When we compare the two Westinghouse Time Capsules of the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs, we also see there how the selection of items reflects entirely different cultures and expectations of the future. What is interesting is not the explicit messages, but rather the contextual detritus that permeates these time capsules, separated as they are by only a quarter century, and both intended to be opened in the year 6939.

We just can’t tell what the future will find interesting, or what the future will bring. In the first chapter of Old Man’s War, John Scalzi describes issues of Newsweek magazine in a military recruiter’s office of the far future. He published this novel in 2005. Here we are only eight years later, and Newsweek has ceased publishing in print.

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