Jason Feifer: This is a podcast about how change happens. I’m Jason Feifer.
If you don’t live in Central Nebraska, then you may not have heard of the Kingsley Dam, but oh, dam, it is a big dam. 162 feet high, 3.1 miles long, construction began in 1936. President Roosevelt praised it as a feat of engineering and after its completion in 1941, it became a significant source of power and money for the region. That is why as the dam’s 50th birthday approached in 1991, Nebraska planned to go all out, hot air balloons, helicopter rides, parades, talks from local officials, a giant picnic.
Then, the event planners caught wind of a total showstopper. It would be the perfect way to bridge the past with the present, the way to revel in 50 dam years of glory. It was a time capsule rumored to be buried near the dam when it was completed in 1941. Now, this thing was not actually intended to be opened yet. The instructions left by the people of 1941 was not to open it until the year 2041, a full century later. But the people of 1991 were like, “Eh, it’s been 50 years and we’re not waiting another 50. Let’s open this,” so long as they could actually find the damn thing.
Jeff Buettner: We made phone calls to the state capitol in Lincoln where supposedly a plaque or some sort of document was being stored. That plaque or document contained the exact location of the time capsule. Unfortunately, no one in Lincoln had ever heard of such a record.
Jason Feifer: That’s Jeff Buettner. At the time, he was in the public relations department at a state organization called Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. He was partially in charge of planning the 50th birthday celebration. Even though the exact location of the time capsule had been lost, he felt determined to find it.
Jeff Buettner: It was like a mystery or hunting for a lost treasure-type thing.
Jason Feifer: He started at the beginning. News reports from 1941 said that when the dam was complete, people put the time capsule into a steel casing and lowered it 100 feet into the heart of the dam. What was in the steel casing? According to the old reports, it contained a pair of baby shoes, a can of apple juice, a commemorative gold coin, dehydrated alfalfa meal, newspapers, photographs, and a fashionable hat. Not exactly buried treasure, but you know, it’s Nebraska history. Who doesn’t want a fashionable hat that’s been stuck in a dam for 50 years?
After a few weeks of research, Jeff had a breakthrough. He found an old photo of two young girls snipping bolt cutters that were attached to the time capsule. The photo was clearly taken at the south end of the dam, which meant that Jeff now had a good idea of where the thing was buried Bonus …
Jeff Buettner: At that time they were resurfacing the highway that crosses Kingsley Dam. The timing was perfect.
Jason Feifer: Which meant that he could dig around under the pavement to find the capsule. Jeff and a colleague called the superintendent of the dam who turned out to be a hobbyist beachcomber and owned a metal detector and off they went searching. Soon enough …
Jeff Buettner: He was out there for probably less than an hour until he started getting pings that indicated that there was something metal. We did a little bit of digging and sure enough, there was the top of that casing.
Jason Feifer: They had found it. Now, this thing was buried deep, but they figured no problem. We can just pump water in and flush the time capsule out. But when they did that, copies of newspapers started floating to the surface. The capsule was apparently damaged and now full of water. Then things got worse.
It seems like the time capsule had gotten bent in the intervening years, which meant that even if you could get a hold of it, it wouldn’t fit through the opening in the ground. You’d have to actually dig into the dam itself, which was way too dangerous. The Roads Department was not sitting around waiting for any of this. They needed to keep on resurfacing the roads.
Jeff Buettner: In the end, what we did was we just GPS’d the location of the casing and made sure that it was capped tightly. Then the Roads Department came along and resurfaced the road. There the capsule remains and probably forever.
Jason Feifer: Which was a bummer for the people of 1991 whose festivities couldn’t include a time capsule, and a bummer for the people of 2041 who were the actual intended recipients of the time capsule and who now inherited a broken and soggy mess.
Michael Waters: But, I think the real victims here are the people of 1941 who buried the time capsule in the first place.
Jason Feifer: Hello, Reporter Michael Waters.
Michael Waters: Hello, Jason.
Jason Feifer: Michael, I want to get back to what you just said there about the poor people of 1941, but let’s hit pause on our story for a second and explain what is going on here. A few months ago, you had gotten kind of obsessed with time capsules.
Michael Waters: Yeah, I’d been looking into the history of them, which is surprisingly tragic. Time capsules used to be a big thing. 100 years ago, people were burying them regularly and with so much excitement, but as the decades passed, most capsules became impossible to find or were just completely forgotten about.
Jason Feifer: Which is why you say that the story of the dam is a sad one for the people of 1941.
Michael Waters: Right, because they had all these grand visions. They probably imagined that the people of the future wanted to know about them and would be eager to unearth these little tokens of their lives. It’s a kind of immortality, but they failed.
Jason Feifer: You emailed me about this, because a few years ago I’d written about a time capsule that had gone missing in New York and you wondered if it had been found, which it hadn’t. But then, we started going back and forth about the hopelessness of time capsules. It got me thinking about something I just hadn’t considered before, which was it’s actually really hard to communicate with the future.
Here we are living in the year 2020, and we keep talking about it as a historic year. So much change has happened, the pandemic, a crazy election, massive social issues. We think we’re living through important times, that our lives will be something future generations will want to know about. Maybe we’ve even learned a thing or two that they could benefit from, but I mean, if that were true, how do we actually tell them?
After some back and forth, I said, “Michael, this is clearly an episode of the podcast. Why don’t you go talk to a ton of smart people and answer this question for us? How can we communicate with the future?”
Michael Waters: That’s what I did.
Jason Feifer: We’ll come back to Michael himself at the very end of this episode. But first, I want to take you through what we discovered, because to learn how to communicate with the future, we must go on a journey that will take us thousands of years backwards and tens of thousands of years forward. We are going to explore how to preserve things now and how to send them to tomorrow and what happens if tomorrow is very different from what we know today. Ultimately, we will grapple with a very uncomfortable question, which is, does anyone in the future actually care about us and should they?
Hang on tight, an existential crisis is coming your way, coming up after the break.
All right, we’re back. On this episode, we are exploring how we can communicate with the future, which I had no idea is something people have been thinking about for a long time. Like, okay, the Epic of Gilgamesh is about 4,000 years old. It is one of our oldest surviving pieces of literature. The story begins by describing a man who builds a wall and then buries information inside of it. Then, the narrator of the story tells you, the audience, how to unearth that information. It’s like, you got to go to this temple and find a wall and take hold of this specific stone. Then, here’s from the story.
Voice Clip (Gilgamesh): Find the copper tablet box, open its lock of bronze, undo the fastening of its secret opening. Take and read out from the lapis lazuli tablet how Gilgamesh went through every hardship.
Jason Feifer: In other words, the very first narrative device in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the very first stories we have, is that the Epic of Gilgamesh itself was preserved in a time capsule. Now, how many time capsules were buried between the Epic of Gilgamesh and now? That is impossible to know, but Americans started early. Paul Revere and Samuel Adams buried one in 1795. It did survive. It was opened in 2015 in front of a lot of clicking news cameras. You could just feel the electricity in the air.
Voice Clip (Brass Founder): This says Andrea, Andrea?
J. Garrett, Gavett.
Jason Feifer: That was two people from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opening a box and reading the inscription under the lid. They’d also find newspapers, coins, a copper medal with George Washington’s face on it and some other fun stuff. But Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and Anne, Anne, Anne, Andrea, Andreas perhaps, they would not have called it a time capsule.
The term time capsule actually comes from the 1939 World’s Fair where the Westinghouse Electric Company built a deep well and then buried fabrics, metals, plastics, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a newsreel, some seeds, a letter from Albert Einstein and more. They originally called this package a time bomb, which may be not the greatest name. Then they changed it to time capsule. Although, this time capsule did have one bomb-like quality, which is that what followed was an explosion of other time capsules.
In the 1930s and ’40s, everyone started making their own time capsules. Schools did it. Towns did it. A string of rich business people did it. But very few of these things survived, because although the capsule might stay in the ground forever, knowledge of the time capsule can disappear easily. This turns out to be one of the fundamental challenges with trying to communicate with the future. Even if you figure out a way to preserve information, you also have to preserve information about the information. Somebody, somehow deep in the future has to know where to look.
The problem got so bad that in 1990, a group of researchers and time capsule obsessives decided it was time to save all of the time capsules. They founded the International Time Capsule Society, which would create a universal database of all time capsule locations to help keep track of all these things. That, in turn, inspired a lot more people to bury time capsules and then, well, then it ceased operations, lost to time like the time capsules it was trying to find. Which makes you wonder, is there a better way to preserve the past than a time capsule?
Rebecca Klassen: I am literally walking up to people and saying, “Oh, your sign is very interesting. Would you be interested in donating it at whatever point that you’re no longer using it?”
Jason Feifer: This is Rebecca Klassen, an associate curator at the New York Historical Society. While much of the organization is devoted to preserving and organizing old things, Rebecca works in a division called History Responds, which is supposed to capture history as it happens. Because the theory goes like this, we, the people alive today, we are not very good at knowing what will be useful about us to the people of tomorrow. It’s an idea that began on September 14th, 2001, just three days after the attacks of 9/11.
Rebecca Klassen: It was really quite fresh, the whole tragedy. The president of the institution at the time called an all staff meeting. Basically, after checking in on everyone, “Are you okay,” et cetera, their emotional wellbeing, he charged with staff with going out into the field and collecting items related to the tragedy.
Jason Feifer: Because, the most poignant artifacts of the time were probably the things that people were going to throw out thinking they weren’t important. Once the aftermath of 9/11 felt well-documented, this project just continued. Rebecca is now out collecting everything, political campaign posters, buttons, ballots, Instagram videos, business notices and pamphlets. Scheduled events like elections are, of course, always busy for her, but she’s also trying to be alert to moments that are just big and unpredictable. Like those first, early days of COVID when it wasn’t entirely clear what was going to happen.
Rebecca Klassen: In April and May, we created a collaborative Google Doc in which we basically were tracking the news and writing down all of the areas of life that we had observed changing. From there, we kind of listed out, based on news reports, really, “Okay, we want to reach out to someone at NYPD. We want to reach out to someone at MTA and then various hospitals.” Those became our priority, but we also knew that we didn’t want to interrupt the critical work that they were doing. We just said, “Please save things. Don’t throw things away. We’ll get back in touch with you.”
Jason Feifer: That strikes me as the very opposite of a time capsule. Instead of burying something in the ground so that it’s undisturbed by time, you collect things in an institution that is designed to withstand time. Because in theory, nobody’s going to simply forget that the New York Historical Society exists. But if we’re talking about the future, then it’s worth considering just how far into the future does this solution actually work for?
Well, let’s look at some numbers. The New York Historical Society has been operating for more than 200 years. That’s pretty good. There are active museums around the world that go back at least 500 years. That’s even better. But past that, things start to fall apart. Consider a 2,500-year-old structure from the Sumerian city-state of Ur in what is now Southern Iraq, which archeologists excavated in the year 1925. What they found inside were rows of ancient objects, some dating nearly 4,000 years old, each with a clay cylinder that explained what the object was in three different languages that had been dead for thousands of years.
The cylinders were essentially museum labels saying this thing is part of a statue of an old king. That thing is a boundary marker and so on. Today, this place is known as Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum, but it’s considered possibly the oldest known museum in the world, which is so cool. But also, step back to consider what just happened here. Objects were preserved inside a very sturdy structure and labeled so that speakers of three different languages could read it. Then, 2,500 years passed. What do you have after that? Well, you have a museum that had to be stumbled upon and literally dug out from the ground and then labels written in languages that nobody could have understood for thousands of years. It is only because of more modern science that we have any idea what those things said.
This raises an interesting question. If you want to reliably communicate into the distant future, where just about every connection between our culture and a future culture will have broken down, then where do you even begin?
Jon Lomberg: Most time capsules are made for people 100 years or so in the future. Really, the only issue is the physical survival of the materials.
Jason Feifer: That is Jon Lomberg. He’s an artist with a special focus on long-term and extraterrestrial communication, which sounds like a made up job, but is actually surprisingly in demand.
Jon Lomberg: We look at images from the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. The clothes are funny. If it’s newsreels, they’re walking around in a herky jerky way, but there’s no problem understanding what is going on. The communication is transparent. The message projects that I’ve worked on, communication with extraterrestrials or with humans of the far future, perhaps living on Mars, you can’t make those same assumptions.
Jason Feifer: Jon’s claim to fame is crafting the Voyager golden record, which is basically an epic time capsule, or maybe an epic message in a bottle, that attempts to summarize all of humanity in which NASA sent floating off into space in 1977. If alien life happens to find it and can figure out our instructions to play it, then they will hear stuff like this.
Voice Clip (Amoy dialect): [foreign language 00:18:56].
Jason Feifer: That is my favorite of the 55 messages spoken in different languages that are in the shipment. That one is from the Amoy dialect, which is spoken in China. It’s just so chatty. The translation is quote, “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.”
Anyway, communication with aliens is fun and all, but it’s hard to know if it will ever be consequential. However, there are some real life or death reasons to communicate with the future, which Jon has been hired to tackle. Like for example in 1990, when Jon heard from new Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratories. It’s a research center tasked with overseeing nuclear weapons projects. It was planning to open the country’s third nuclear waste plant.
Jon Lomberg: Legally, they were bound to mark a nuclear waste site they were building in New Mexico, a site called WHIP, Waste Isolation Pilot Project, where they were burying this stuff 2,500 feet beneath the earth in an old layer of salt that was hundreds of millions of years old. The idea being that the waste would be entombed by the salt and just stay there basically forever and not hurt anybody.
Jason Feifer: But, how do you actually ensure that sometime between now and forever, future generations won’t come upon this place and think, “Hey, let’s dig out all this salt and see what’s underneath.”
Jon Lomberg: On the surface, you need some kind of sign to warn people, “Don’t get here. You don’t want what’s buried here. This is not gold. This is not archeology. This is nothing you want.” Well, you can make a sign and that works fine for the next 50 or 100 years as long as people can read English, but what about after that?
Jason Feifer: So they formed a task force. They got together engineers, language experts, artists, historians, psychologists, graphic designers, 13 people in total, including Jon and they were split into two teams.
Jon Lomberg: Team A that had an architect on it, felt like the use of facial expressions like the scream perhaps in that famous painting, would convey the emotional associations we wanted a waste site to have. It’s dangerous. It’s bad. You don’t want to be here.
Jason Feifer: But, there was a problem. Facial expressions are not all universal. This has been a subject of scientific debate for decades, since at least when Darwin wrote about it in 1870. Research today is finding all sorts of interesting nuances. For example, a few years ago, researchers went to an isolated tribe in Papua New Guinea and asked them to match photos of faces with lists of emotions.
Smiles, those were super easy. Everyone connected a smile with happiness. But they were not so sure about scowls, pouting and some others. A gasping face, which Westerners tend to associate with fear and submission, looked angry to the people at the tribe. Anyway, as Jon’s thinking about how to warn future people away from nuclear waste, he wants to avoid faces. For that matter, he also wants to avoid emotion.
Jon Lomberg: People have tried to protect graves from being robbed. The tombs of the pharaohs were marked with all these curses, “Anybody who enters here is going to suffer the most horrible diseases and all your children will die and terrible things will happen to you.” That didn’t stop the grave robbers. Trying to scare people off only makes them think you have something you really don’t want them to get. It makes them want it even more.
Using an emotion like fear, I worried would just make people more eager. I thought let’s just have a very flat emotional affect and just try to be honest and convey the information. What they decide to do with it is up to them.
Jason Feifer: By the way, Jon and his colleagues were not starting from scratch in thinking about all of this. This is part of a field of study called nuclear semiotics. The field has contained some awesomely wild ideas about how to warn future people about nuclear waste. Some have proposed creating a kind of nuclear priesthood that would pass core knowledge down from generation to generation like a church passes its Bible. Others have suggested genetically modifying cats so that they glow in the presence of nuclear radiation. Although I don’t know about you, but if I am living in the year 3000 and cats are glowing in a certain part of the desert, you better believe that I am definitely digging down to find out why. Jon’s team went with something simpler.
Jon Lomberg: We found two things actually that were universal in human graphics. One was a stick figure. You can look at graphics from the cave art to Native American scrolls to the friezes on tombs in Angkor Wat, you see the human figure, you recognize it. It can be surrounded by all kinds of ornamentation and costumes and things you don’t know anything about, but you spot the person, no problem. A stick figure is recognizable.
The other thing that seems to be used everywhere is the comic strip, the storyboard. A sequence of drawings that says first this happened, then this happened, then this happened. Telling the story with a sequence of drawings is universal.
Jason Feifer: Here was the pitch, instead of finding a universal symbol for do not enter, you can tell a story about what the risk looks like. Show a stick figure touching a barrel with a certain symbol on it. Then the stick figure is lying on the ground and unhappy.
Jon Lomberg: The implication is whatever was in this barrel made him sick. That’s what that symbol on the barrel indicates.
Jason Feifer: Unless, I guess, people in the future like to read things backwards, in which case they see unhappy dead people touch a barrel and then rise back up on their feet and they think they’ve found the fountain of youth. Though to be fair, Jon’s team’s proposal wasn’t that simple. There was a whole universal global standard for warning signs and some other stuff.
Anyway, they filed their recommendation at the end of 1990, but we won’t know what the government actually decides to do with it until the year 2052, which is when the facility will finally close and entomb all of its waste. But, let’s just assume that they do go with Jon’s recommendation. It is the comic strip to be read 10,000 years from now. Does he think that he will have successfully saved lives? Well, to answer that, Jon tells a story about a similar effort from the past when the people of ancient Japan tried to warn us today about a danger to our own lives.
Jon Lomberg: In Japan, they have a lot of tidal waves. We know how destructive those tidal waves can be from the Fukushima event.
Jason Feifer: That, of course, being the 2011 tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people. As far back as 600 years ago, Japanese survivors started erecting what are called tsunami stones. They’re big stones, often placed at the high watermark of a tsunami, that warns future people about where they’re safe and where they’re not. One of the stones literally says on it, “Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables.” But …
Jon Lomberg: What happened in Japan as these villages turn into towns and cities and industrialized, and these rocks suddenly were in the middle, they were moved. They were just moved and removed. Sometimes they were just moved lower, to a lower elevation. They intentionally, I mean, they could still read Japanese. It wasn’t that they didn’t know what these rocks were. It wasn’t that the danger didn’t exist anymore, but when it locally became a nuisance to have this rock here because I want to put a parking lot here, they just removed it.
Jason Feifer: People 600 years ago saw the ocean rise up against them with a devastating wall of water that demolished their buildings and swallowed their friends and family so they did the best they could to warn the future by writing on stone that they knew could survive for generations. It did until it was smack dab in the middle of where someone wanted to build a parking lot and so the message was lost and more deaths would follow.
That is the reality of all of this. In the end, the messages we send to the future might be out of our hands. Although there is a positive way to look at it, which is that maybe the future doesn’t need our message, because maybe they’ve figured out a solution that we couldn’t. I mean, consider nuclear waste. We bury it in the ground today because we don’t know what else to do with it, but the future may have a better idea.
Jon Lomberg: Some people have said, “Maybe nuclear waste will be a recyclable resource. Maybe they’ll want it for some reason,” or conversely, “Maybe some warlord will want to dig it up and use it as a toxic poison to throw on his enemy.”
Jason Feifer: Hopefully, they go with the first option.
Jon Lomberg: I mean, the future belongs to the future. We can’t control what they do. All we can do is tell them what’s there. Then it’s up to them to decide what to do with it.
Jason Feifer: We’ve started with the question of how to communicate with the future. The answer seems to be it is hard, possibly impossible, and maybe even pointless. Then, here’s another way to look at this question, why do we even try? I mean, there’s a good reason to tell people of the future about tsunamis and nuclear waste, even if they won’t take it seriously. But most of the time when people try to communicate with the future, they’re doing something else.
Time capsules, museums, history projects, all of this is just a collection of our stuff. It is a vision of us in our time as being worthy of study by future generations. Do the people of tomorrow actually want our stuff? If not, then what does it say about us that we keep trying to send it to them? That is what we will explore next by returning to, dare I say, one of the most curious time capsules of all time, coming up after the break.
All right, we’re back. Here’s what we know so far. If you want to communicate with the future, you are up against massive odds. In the short-term, you need a way to preserve information and then pass along the information about the existence of the information you’re preserving. In the long-term, you need to overcome not just potential disappearances of every common assumption about how humans communicate, but also, there’s a chance that our ancestors just won’t take whatever you have to say seriously. Which makes you wonder, why exactly are we doing this?
To answer that question, I want to tell you the story of one more time capsule. This one has a very complicated fate. To start, it was created by this woman.
Nick Yablon: Anna Diehm was a Civil War widow.
Jason Feifer: That’s Nick Yablon, an associate professor of American history at the University of Iowa, and perhaps the nation’s premier time capsule historian, which means that he has spent a lot of time studying Anna Diehm.
Nick Yablon: She was a kind of quite an elite figure, owner of kind of a magazine publishing business. She was hoping to use the opportunity in the Centennial to promote that business.
Jason Feifer: The year 1876 was approaching, which was America’s 100th birthday. This gave Anna an idea. She wanted to capture something from her time and send it off to the future so that it can be used to celebrate America’s 200th birthday. What was special enough to send deep into the future to this mysterious and futuristic year of 1976? Well, she would use the greatest newest technology of her day, photography.
Nick Yablon: She set out to document photographically every bleeding person in Washington. Not just the President and his cabinet, but all the members of Congress and all Supreme Court Justices.
Jason Feifer: Then she started thinking bigger. She collected signatures of famous people at the time. Then she thought, “Why stop there?” She collected signatures from regular people too, middle-class people. The idea was that if you signed Anna Diehm’s paper, then 100 years later at some grand celebration, your name would be read aloud to the people of the future. Which when you think about it, is really more immortality than the average person has ever guaranteed. But, this sparked some controversy.
Nick Yablon: The fact that she allowed anyone to sign the albums caused some concern. People, at least one or two critics in the period, saw her as cheapening fame by making it accessible to anyone.
Jason Feifer: This scandalous cheapening of fame earned her even more attention. Newspapers breathlessly reported on her project. They spoke about it as if she were doing a great service to future generations and imagined, “The expressions of wonder,” on future historians’ face as, “Prominent men from all over the world,” gathered to witness this time capsule’s opening.
Nick Yablon: She had an idea that in 1976, they would reseal her safe for another 100 years. There’s definitely this kind of confidence about the future. She addressed her letter that was in the capsule to the future President of the United States. She called him the Chief Magistrate.
Jason Feifer: Which was an old term from early America. Alexander Hamilton, for example, called the president the chief magistrate. In any case, she took all these photos and documents and put them in a bank safe, which she then sealed up. Her plan was for the safe to be installed in National Statuary Hall, which is one of the most popular rooms in the US Capitol building. For safekeeping, she offered a key to the Smithsonian. This way, the next 100 years would pass with great anticipation where generations would see and know of her safe and wait, wait to see what was inside.
Nick Yablon: That was her plan at least.
Jason Feifer: But, the passing of time does not care about anyone’s plans. Here’s what happened instead. First, the safe was never put in Statuary Hall. Congress wanted no part of it. Eventually, the safe ended up below the steps of the east entrance instead. For a few decades, people forgot all about it. The Smithsonian lost the key. But as the year 1976 approached, things actually started falling into place. Archivists found a retiree in Florida who had the key. The press became interested. The American people wanted to see this thing opened. Just as Anna imagined, the President of the United States of the future, the Chief Magistrate, Gerald Ford, committed to opening the thing up himself.
Nick Yablon: There were a number of kind of theories that there might be large amounts of gold inside or a human skeleton or various other kind of ideas. Clearly people’s imaginations had run wild. One Capitol official suggested hiring someone or finding someone to inspect the safe ahead of time so Gerald Ford wouldn’t be kind of embarrassed by the contents when he finally opened it.
Jason Feifer: But, that didn’t happen. Ford was going in blind. The moment came just a few days before July 4th, 1976, when Ford gathered in front of a group of congressional representatives and their aides. Everyone watched in wonder as this thing that had sat underneath the Capitol grounds for 100 years was finally going to reveal its mysteries. And …
Nick Yablon: I think he expected something more, something interesting, some kind of incredible revelation.
Jason Feifer: There was no gold, no human skeletons.
Nick Yablon: I think a lot of people present felt that there was bound to be something interesting in there, but every item he removed, he seemed almost kind of disappointed with another album, another signed photograph, another piece of parchment with another signature on it.
Jason Feifer: One of Ford’s staffers said at the time, “Mrs. Diehm did not seem to have a very good concept of what would be important and interesting 100 years later.” Ouch. It was such a let down that according to Nick, it triggered a massive decline in people burying time capsules.
Nick Yablon: I think by then the sense of almost a hubris that underpinned those time capsules, this kind of belief that you could convey all of humanity or all of American civilization to the future, I think that begins to kind of break down.
Jason Feifer: To review, Anna Diehm’s time capsule had succeeded in really every possible way. It was never lost. It was opened on time. It had the full attention of the future she hoped to communicate with all the way up to the most powerful man in the country at the time. Then, its fate was worse than she could have possibly imagined. It was ignored. Contents were moved into an archive. When Nick visited it in 2010, he was the first historian to even request the files.
It feels like the takeaway of this story is no matter how important you think something today is, tomorrow just doesn’t care. I mean, unless you have gold or human skeletons to send us, then keep your old crap to yourself, which is a bummer. But, someone we talked to had a much more heartening way to look at it.
Rebecca Klassen: I speak to potential donors. I do talk about, “Oh, we’re preserving things for future generations, because they’re going to want to know what it was like to live during this time.” It’s very motivating.
Jason Feifer: This is Rebecca Klassen again from the New York Historical Society.
Rebecca Klassen: But I think what’s maybe even just as important, or maybe even more important, is how we feel about what we’re doing today. The idea of collecting in this time of trauma, in this time of sadness and chaos, is that there is a sort of organizing effect to it.
Jason Feifer: As a reminder, Rebecca’s job is to capture history as it happens. But here she’s saying by building an archive for future generations, we’re really mostly finding meaning in our own world. Sending a message to the future has always been about us today.
Rebecca Klassen: There’s a new mother who gave birth to her baby at Mount Sinai Hospital in early April. It was important for her to walk through that story of what it was like to experience childbirth in a way that she hadn’t imagined. It was just as important to an ICU nurse that I interviewed to talk about his experience in a COVID ward.
It’s not just for the far-off future, it’s for our people today. There is something fundamentally optimistic about speaking about the future, about future generations to people today, because you’re saying fundamentally that there will be future generations and they will want to know what we’ve been through. They will be in a position where they can understand it and receive it and interpret it. It’s, at its heart, a hopeful exercise.
Jason Feifer: Now with that said, let me take you back to the beginning. As you may recall, this question of how to communicate with the future, it all began when I heard from a reporter named Michael Waters who had become interested in lost time capsules. Then, I sent him off on this quest to learn about the deeper meaning of time capsules, the result of which you just heard. Now at the end of it all, we were talking and I wondered, this whole thing started with an obsession that you had about time capsules, and particularly lost time capsules. I wonder after going through all this and talking to all these people, how you now feel about time capsules.
Michael Waters: That’s a great question. I thought of a time capsule as an interesting relic, but also one driven sort of by our own egos and by this idea that we are important and everything we do is important and the future will care. But I do think what Rebecca really made me think about is the way in which time capsules are about finding patterns and meaning in our own world. To a certain degree, it’s just like cleaning up a cluttered room. It’s trying to find the things from it that actually matter and that you think are symbolic. If nothing else, just an exercise in self-reflection, which is something I think that we all should be doing a lot more.
Jason Feifer: I really like that metaphor of cleaning up a cluttered room, but I’m going to take it a step further than Michael did. You don’t just clean up a cluttered room for yourself. You clean it up because you know that at some point someone else might walk into it. We are all in small ways, all the time reminding ourselves of our place on a continuum. That what we do today will matter for tomorrow. But, well, nobody from tomorrow actually cares who cleaned up the cluttered room today. They’re just happy it’s clean. If you look at it that way, then Anna from 1876 shouldn’t be upset at all. The people who built the dam in 1941 shouldn’t be upset, because even if we didn’t care about their time capsules, we care about the world that they helped build. It’s the world we live in now. That matters a lot more.
What a paradox we found here. We are always in some way focused on the importance of our own time and mindful of the time that comes next. That may mean we try to communicate with the future, but the future we’re communicating with is going to be more focused on its own present and its own future, which doesn’t really have a lot of room for us, the people from the past. That’s not to say the lessons of the past aren’t valuable and the accomplishments of the past aren’t worth celebrating, they are. But we can’t spend our lives and our time trying to live in the past or trying to retrieve something from the past, because it is gone.
Random relics from that old time just don’t provide much. No matter what time we live in, our job must be to go forward, away from the past that has tried to reach out to us. To build a world that’s so much more compelling and fair and robust than the one that came before so that our descendants won’t need to open our sealed cases of garbage and photos of our very important people whose names they’ve never heard of, because they already have what they need of ours. They took what we built and they built upon it. The people that come after them will do exactly the same.
How do we communicate with the future? Well, we communicate with the future by doing what we do now, by championing the ideas and progress and change that become a part of the fabric of tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter if the people of tomorrow know our names. I mean, it would be nice if they did. It’s a fun bonus, but it’s not what they really need from us. The future benefits from what we do now, from the change that we create. From how we help bridge the gap between yesterday and tomorrow and leave something that doesn’t need to be dug out of the ground.
That’s our episode. We just talked quite a lot about how to communicate with the near and distant future. But here is a fun question, how do you communicate with someone who thinks about communicating with the future? I have a fun story about how to find Carl Sagan at an airport. But first, if you love this show, then please subscribe, tell a friend and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Also, reach out. You can contact me directly by going to Jasonfeifer.com. That is J-A-S-O-N, F as in Frank, E-I, F as in Frank, E-R.com, where you can get in touch, sign up for my newsletter about how to find opportunity and change and more.
This episode was reported by Michael Waters and was written by me and Michael. Sound editing by [Alec Bayless 00:43:44]. Our webmaster is James Stewart. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Thanks to Gia Mora for the Gilgamesh reading. You can find her giamora.com. Thanks also to Pen Name Consulting.
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All right. Remember Jon Lomberg, the artist who specializes in future and extraterrestrial communication. One day a long time ago, he was going to pick Carl Sagan up at the airport. Carl, as you may know, was a very famous scientist known for his study of space and extraterrestrial intelligence. But there was a problem, Jon didn’t know what Carl looked like or where in the airport he’d be. He figured out a way to get Carl to come to him.
Jon Lomberg: It was in a way a solution, or a similar problem to you want to send a message to extra terrestrials, but you don’t know where they are. How do you find a way to find some common way to connect? My solution was to take a scientific equation that was connected with extra terrestrial life. It’s called the Drake equation. Hardly anybody knew about it, but I knew about it, because he had written about it. I wrote the Drake equation on a big piece of paper and taped it to my art portfolio, which I had with me. I just stood in the airport and people walked past me. Most of them had no idea what it was and thought I was a Hare Krishna or something. But finally, this tall man came over with a big grin. He said, “That was a brilliant way to find me.”
Jason Feifer: I’d agree. All right, that’s it for this time. Thanks for listening. I am Jason Feifer. Don’t worry, I will communicate with you again in the very near future.