The Paradox of Time Capsules

A form of futurism, and a way of bottling up context in its purest form: temporal treasures, an Object Lesson

Construction workers prepare to lower a time capsule in 2004, to be opened in 2104. (Danny Johnston / AP)

Few consumer experiences deliver a pleasure as pure as breaking a freshness seal. From instant coffee to children’s vitamins, there’s something quasi-mystical about being the first encounter a vacuum. A similar fascination fuels romantic notions of archaeology in the popular imagination. The embalmed Ramses II was always more alive to me than the pasty explorer standing in his way. As a kid, poring over photos of the excavation, I remember feeling that time had not merely stood still, but reversed.

An entirely different sort of imaginary communion takes place when we speculate about the future. If our entertainment reveals a startling lack of imagination in this regard, it isn’t hard to see why: The genre demands that authors craft a believable future from the narrow perspective of the present. As a result, people tend to rehash what’s come before or—worse—allegorize what’s happening now by simply adding some gadgets and changing the date.

Time capsules provide one of the best means to address the collective need for belonging, past and future. Whether in the form of a shoebox buried in the yard or a satellite programmed to return to Earth thousands of years from now, the paradoxical goal is the representative objectification of daily living. They seek the purity of context itself. As a result, the message they send is equal parts altruism and egocentrism, hope and despair, all underwritten by persistent anxieties over individual mortality and the end of the world.

Time capsules are vehicles for self-commemoration, a means to ensure that future anthropologists, scientists, and historians include us in the stories they tell. Other forms of art share this same lofty goal, as when Walt Whitman declares in the opening of “Song of Myself” (1855):

           I CELEBRATE myself,

           And what I assume you shall assume,

           For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

But time capsules go a step further by insisting upon the actual atoms rather than just the words used to describe them. They celebrate the talismanic quality of their objects, packaged to deliver the vicarious experience of having occupied a particular cultural moment: the belief that these time-bound materials of timelessness speak for themselves.

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The Crypt of Civilization, sealed in the bedrock underneath Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, effectively launched the modern time capsule movement in 1936. Thornwell Jacobs, inspired by the Egyptian tomb openings in the 1920s, argued that because 6,177 years had passed since the establishment of the Egyptian calendar, his own Crypt should be opened 6,177 years in the future. Jacobs’s rationale suggests the importance of narrative in our handling of deep time, specifically our need to impose a quantifiable beginning, middle, and end. It becomes a story with ourselves perpetually at its center.

The Crypt, along with the 1939 World’s Fair Westinghouse capsule originally termed a “time bomb,” are the two best known capsules of the pre-war era. Both contain articles selected by the then National Bureau of Standards. Among those found in the Crypt are seed samples, dental floss, a fake bird, six Artie Shaw recordings, a Lionel model train, and a doll. The Westinghouse capsule further divides its items into five categories: small articles of common use, textiles and materials, miscellaneous, essays on microfilm, and RKO newsreels—all chosen to represent 20th century American life. To single out these items is also to assume they will expire. Otherwise, what’s the point?

If all encapsulated objects are memento mori, then what about the technologies used to experience them? Won’t they, too, disappear? With this in mind, the Westinghouse capsule includes instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer and a motion picture projector. Even better is the Crypt’s “language integrator,” a hand-powered device designed to teach 1,500 words of Basic English using the “Nickelodeon principle.” (How it actually works is something of a mystery now that the papers detailing its operation have been lost to time.) When objects become disassociated from their attending technologies we lose entire worlds.

One of the defining characteristics of a time capsule is that its date of reopening is set in advance. Otherwise, how would one know what to put inside? Let’s say you’re choosing a single item to be placed in a capsule opened 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now: The object should be different in each case, and that difference will have everything to do with what you imagine life to be like in each of those futures. Time capsules are about futurity, about our sincere belief that we author our own present by providing the future with the means to author its past.

Time capsules are a form of self-invention, then, but one that can quickly morph into self-caricature. Particularly in times of distress, humans are susceptible to a certain utopian impulse that distills who they wish to be from who they really are. This is where the shoebox-in-the-backyard variety of time capsule tends to reveal its underlying motive: Vindicate my unpopularity according to some imagined future standard! Prove that my quirks are ahead of their time! Let history bear out the value of my life! The central paradox of all time capsule projects: Their deepest truths come from our failure to accurately represent our own current reality. And the overabundance we commemorate is a symptom of the missing things that go unacknowledged.

“Try to have a mix of items from the sublime to the trivial,” recommends the International Time Capsule Society in their guidelines for constructing the ideal cache. I can already imagine the culture wars. The triviality of leaves of grass versus the sublimity of Leaves of Grass. Or is it the other way around? It’s hard to tell, since no object in and of itself is ordinary or extraordinary—it’s the context that matters. This is precisely what slips away the moment the capsule is sealed.

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If manufactured time capsules tell one type of story about us, accidental capsules tell another. (Think of the Titanic sealed at the bottom of the sea.) Sudden, unpredictable and catastrophic conditions capture moments in time and the difference in the stories they tell demonstrates that historical objectivity is more easily achieved through destruction than creation. Different from either traditional time capsules or stockpiles like the Pharaohs’ tombs (the unsealing of which is a desecration), accidental time capsules afford the possibility of retrieving context alongside content—objects in their proper place, but no longer in the appropriate time. Because disasters come about with little or no warning, people have no opportunity to muck up the reality of their daily living through selectivity, distortion, and suppression. Catastrophe best reveals who we are.

Pompeii, with its plaster-cast victims, is a classic example of how people and objects can together reveal context. One cannot underestimate the uncanny feeling at seeing a villa frozen in the midst of its use, or a man and woman spooning in their final moments, thinking not of us but of themselves. But if accidental capsules eliminate one kind of tampering with reality, Pompeii’s rediscovery by Domenico Fontana in 1599 suggests another. Fontana reburied a number of murals and other objects in keeping with obscenity standards (the fertility god Priapus’s enormous phallus was especially unsettling). That this portion of Pompeii wasn’t made available for public viewing until 2000 reminds us how the present always shapes the past by determining our access to it.

More recently, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl has produced perhaps the largest and most complete of these accidental capsules. The Exclusion Zone or Zone of Alienation, a 30-kilometer radius around the reactor’s core, has effectively preserved some 2,600 square kilometers as they were when the evacuations were first ordered. Moreover, this region, once home to some 350,000 people, may not be suitable for human habitation for another 20,000 years. Can you imagine what this region will say to the rest of the world? Of course not. But perhaps you want to. And that’s the point.

Fascination for this post-disaster landscape has generated at least two types of consumers. The first are the tourists who embark on day trips from Kiev to witness firsthand the power plant and surrounding environs, already overgrown with wildlife unchecked by man. (Along the way they may run into one or more of the samosely, the local name for illegal residents who have refused evacuation and continue to live in the otherwise-abandoned townships.) The second are those who risk no exposure whatsoever by vicariously experiencing the area through such video games as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the former of which imagines the Zone to imbue its samosely with special powers like ESP and a hive mentality. What the latter group enjoys is context in the absence of objects themselves—pure simulation.

Catastrophe’s direct access to the past is counterbalanced by the impulse it engenders to ensure for our collective future. This humanist urge is reflected in some of the more compelling contemporary time-capsule projects. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, for example, houses some 2 billion seeds in an effort to provide insurance against some future global crisis. Similarly, the Frozen Ark project serves as a DNA database for endangered animals. And the Rosetta Project aims to preserve some 1,500 languages in the face of their imminent disappearance by cross-referencing them on a nickel disc, the magnification of which provides the clarity and readability of a print book. Along with beauty these projects together demonstrate that death is the mother of archive.

One of the more outlandish and Ozymandian contemporary capsule projects is the one proposed by The Long Now Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering responsible long-term thinking framed within a context of deep time. To promote this shift they’ve developed the Clock of the Long Now, a self-sustaining 10,000 year clock and a capsule for time itself. The clock is intended to serve as “a mechanism and a myth” to counterbalance civilization’s “pathologically short attention span.” The goal of long-term thinking, we can assume, is no less than the elimination of the very need for time capsules at all. Instead, we have past, present, and future reimagined as one all-inclusive now, in which a single context stretches across time.

This long-term thinking will, one hopes, lead to more responsible global consumerism. Without it, the time capsule will lose more than its charm. Nuclear waste, greenhouse gases, an island of trash in the middle of the Pacific: Hard as we might try to leave behind a legacy of materials worthy of our collective struggle to exceed our nature, these efforts will likely be overshadowed by the accumulation of debris that is only meant to be its byproduct.