Something Good #6: How to Travel Through Time
Time travel is possible.
Allow me to show you how.
There are actually a few different methods, some of which you’re already using.
First, you are (most likely) moving steadily forward through time as you read this, and have been since the moment you were born. That’s the easy one. It’s also the only way we know how to travel in the “forward” direction, by which I mean towards the eventual entropic exhaustion of the universe.
There are many more ways to go backwards. Memory—recall—is also easy, but it’s not very reliable.
Luckily, there are some technological solutions.
The first is the written word, which allows for a combined telepathy/time travel as you occupy the author’s thoughts and experiences, unshackled from the limits of linear, forward-facing time.
But there have been some excellent recent advances as well.
One shortcut, that I enjoy very much, is a class of user-generated Spotify playlist which consist only of radio singles from a given year.
Instead of a curated list of songs that appeal to our contemporary musical sensibilities, these playlists are an unfiltered journey back to what was actually playing in that specific period.
In 1964, for instance, acknowledged classics like Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” co-exist with lesser-known efforts like girl group The Monza’s “Where Is Love.”
It’s almost like listening to a radio station from that year—albeit one with very catholic programming sensibilities and no commercials or DJ patter. (Hey, no time-travel technology is perfect yet.)
Then there’s YouTube.
YouTube is full of endless hours of home movies, shot in every imaginable format: 8mm, 16mm, VHS, mini-DV. These moving images have been seen by so few eyes that they are fresh and untrammelled, which makes their time-travel properties more effective.
Let’s start in Montreal in 1940.
Many of the buildings, especially the banks, look almost the same as they do now 80 years later. (Generally, if you’ve been to the physical location where you’re time-travelling, the effect is much stronger.) But the clothes, the cars, especially the signs, tell us we are in a different era.
The silence of the footage underscores the strangeness. Try not to make any noise. None of these people know we are here, looking at them from the unimaginable future.
40 or so years pass. We’re in St-Henri, looking at a closed theatre that remains boarded up even to this day. At 0:54, a wall covered in handbills and posters, and then a smash cut to, weirdly enough, Boomtown Rats graffiti (who ever loved the Boomtown Rats that much?) A cinema playing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A porn theatre.
As we get closer to our own time, the footage switches to video and degrades in quality. But this seems appropriate for a walk through the then-grubby Centre-Sud neighbourhood in downtown Montreal. If you are of a certain age, this kind of video footage might feel more like memories than super-8 or HD, and that might make it easier for you to visit this particular era.
Those are just a few of your options. In Montreal alone you could hang out with some boys playing on the train tracks in the 1960s, or take one of many tours of the exotic, now nearly vanished, architectural oddities of Expo 67. But pick any populated area, really.
Inspired by Carl Sagan, a scientist named Kip S. Thorne proposed a method of physical time travel using wormholes. One of the interesting limitations of this technique would be that you couldn’t travel any further into the past than the moment of the wormhole’s creation.
Google Street View, now that it has been around long enough, will let you visit any particular city block at multiple points since the service came into existence, making it a Thornean time machine of its own. You can walk around almost any city, in almost any year dating back to the service’s inception in 2007, giving you a a fine-grained control over the time travel process.
But if you’re not careful, you could encounter the ultimate time traveller’s paradox: you might run into yourself.
I got scooped by the New York Times! Actually, this is a very good deep dive into the digital fireplace/ambience phenomenon, featuring interviews with the people who create them.
But I did write this week’s episode of Trailblazers With Walter Isaacson, on the subject of cryptography. I got to speak with some really fascinating people: Andrew Hodges, who wrote the biography of Alan Turing that became the movie The Imitation Game, public-key crypto pioneer Whitfield Diffie, author and WIRED editor Steven Levy, former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos (who left the company over its handling of 2016 election interference) and others. It’s a really interesting episode full of great stories. You can find it at the link above or in any podcast player.
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