Last month I mentioned that I get certain hypothetical problems or situations stuck in my mind. I’m only just getting over one now. The hypothetical that’s been chasing me around for the last couple of months is one I’ll call the 70’s Suitcase Problem. Here is how it works:
What if you could send a package (let’s say suitcase-sized) to 1977? It will arrive at today’s date, minus 40 years. You can have it sent to whomever you like, but you can’t personally hang around and make sure it gets used properly. There’s nothing about this delivery that will convince the recipient that this package is from the future. There won’t be any flashing lights or vortexes or portals for them to see. All they see is the package on their doorstep, and they have no special knowledge of this experiment or your efforts. It’s up to your packaging to motivate the people of 1977 to open it and pay attention to the contents.
You also can’t enlist any large-scale help to fill this suitcase. You can’t call on NASA, or launch a “Help Save the 70s” Kickstarter. You don’t magically have access to classified data or government funding. Filling this suitcase comes down to you, your wits, and however much you’re willing to put on your credit card. (If you’re well-off then maybe limit yourself to 10k in spending, just so you’re working on the same problem as the rest of us.) For the purpose of the exercise, imagine you have a way to send the package, but there’s no way to prove this to anyone here in 2017.
What do you put in the package? What items or information will benefit them most? How will you get that information, how will you package it, and how will you entice the recipient to take it seriously?
Now, some of you might reject the entire premise of the project. Maybe you don’t want to mess with the timeline on practical grounds. We haven’t had a nuclear war (yet) and maybe you’re afraid mucking about in the Cold War era could change that. Or maybe you dislike messing with history on moral or aesthetic grounds. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the right to change the lives of basically everyone, even with the best of intentions. Or maybe you’re afraid that people, not ignorance, is the biggest problem in the World and so you don’t think that giving the same bunch of idiots a new set of information will improve life on This Here Earth. Or maybe you just don’t want the job.
That’s fine. You’re excused.
Maybe you don’t like thinking about it because messing with the timeline would cause you to not be born. For the sake of argument, let’s say this is some sort of Nu-Trek alternate timeline deal. You’ll still be here in your familiar 2017, but somewhere out there will be a new alternate history / multiverse type thing where a new timeline will fork off from ours in 1977 and go a different way, based on your intervention.
I suppose it should go without saying, but I’m proceeding under the assumption that our goal is to somehow make the world a better place. “Better” in this case is entirely up to you. Yes, you could use this opportunity to make yourself rich or powerful, or to simply perpetrate some prank on a global scale, but those sort of efforts fall outside the parameters of this exercise. That might make for an an interesting project, but it’s not this project.
For the purposes of discussion, we’ll refer to the recipient of the suitcase as Red Forman. Maybe your chosen Red Forman is a working class type, maybe they’re a scientist, or maybe they’re a politician. It’s up to you who gets it, but I’m going to call them Red.
You can use any container you like. If it’s legal dimensions for carry-on luggage, then you’re good. If you decide you want to put all your future treasure in a picnic basket, that’s your business. For the purposes of this article I’m calling it the “suitcase”.
Assuming you can buy into this premise, let’s get to work. It turns out this is a really complicated problem…
Density vs. Accessibility
I anticipate the most obvious and naive course of action will be to just cram a bunch of science knowledge into our suitcase. For example, maybe you want to send them the last 20+ years of scientific papers. (Stuff more than 20 years old might not be available online, or it might just be really hard to find. It depends on the field.) Annoyingly, many of these will be stuck in stupid PDF files. You can keep it in that format and leave it to the poor folks of 1977 to reverse-engineer that mess. Or you can print the files out, leaving them as paper / images. Or you can try to convert them to some other format. I’ll warn you this is probably harder than you imagine. Most papers aren’t raw text. There’s a lot of graphs, charts, photographs, diagrams, and complex math that will need to be converted. The people of 1977 don’t have any good multimedia formats so one way or another you’ve got your work cut out for you.
In fact, even if a scientific paper does happen to be all prose, it will still be hard for them to decipher. If you send them modern text files then they will be encoded in Unicode format, and most modern programmers can barely make sense of that mess. The problem is that our computers, storage formats, and data formats are all going to be alien to the people of 40-years-ago. If they want to read our modern discs then they they will need to decipher modern file systems, modern character sets, modern image conventions, modern video formats, and tons of other little details that will trip them up and confuse them.
And here we come to our first major problem, which is the trade-off between information density and information accessibility.
You can print everything out on paper and make it nice and convenient for the people of ’77 to read, but you’re not going to fit more than a few textbooks worth of information like thatProtip: Get a printer capable of two-sided printing.. That’s probably not the best use of this space. You also won’t be able to share audio or video information. On the other hand, you can burn a big stack of DVDs for our ancestors. There’s lots of room for cool stuff on those. Video files, raw scientific data, jumbo image files from NASA, and lots of other goodies. The problem is… What the heck is Red Forman supposed to do with a DVD?
Maybe you think you’re being clever by giving them a couple of working DVD drives to work from. That’s nice of you, but remember that the typical consumer-grade electronics of the day held a hilariously tiny 4k of memory. Maybe there are some government or university machines available that have 100 times that. Even so, that’s still less than a megabyte. It still leaves your recipient almost five orders of magnitude short of being able to store the contents of even one disc.
Just because they have a DVD drive doesn’t mean they have the ability to interface with one. Can their computers talk fast enough to keep up with the DVD? Can they even store a single buffer-load of data? Do they even know how to decipher the file system, much less the various audio, video, and text formats you’re using? Do they have the ability to store the information once they manage to read it?
A single DVD is 4.7 gigabytes. Back in 1980, you couldn’t buy even one gigabyte of storage. The largest commercial drives were a minuscule 26 megabytes. You’d need 180 of those suckers just to store a single DVD. At $5,000 a pop, that would run you about a million dollars. Just for the storage. Of one disc.
And we haven’t even tried to buy memory yet!
Building a computer that could interface with a modern DVD player, read its files, and display its data in a user-readable way would be an enormous job for the people of 1977. It might not be quite as big as the Apollo program, but you’re definitely talking about something with a billion-dollar price tag. It would be a job for governments or very large corporations. It’s going to be tough for poor Red Forman to get either one to put up that kind of cash without being able to demonstrate some kind of worthwhile return on investment.
The more densely you pack the information, the more expensive it will be for them to obtain it. The more expensive it is, the harder it will be to persuade them to pay for the R&D to get to it.
Maybe you could help them out and drop a laptop in there. That’s nice of you, but we still have all the data “trapped” on a future machine. How will this information be shared? Will the entire scientific community make a pilgrimage to THE LAPTOP ROOM and take turns sitting in THE LAPTOP CHAIR, smacking Page Down over and over as they read through the papers related to their field? That’s going to create an incredible bottleneck. It will be years before they can get the information to the people that need it. At that rate you might as well leave a note for Red Forman to stick the package in the attic for a decade and wait for computers to advance enough that it won’t be so hard to extract data from these magical future disks. I guess that works, but it would be nice if we could give them a bit more help. It’s going to take bloody ages for everyone to digest these studies anyway, so the sooner they can get to the point of mass distribution, the better off they’ll be.
I said before that our technology will be alien to the people of the past. So now maybe you’re thinking that we need to stop mucking about trying to print out the internet for them. Maybe what would work better is giving them a couple examples of working 2017 technology, a few specification sheets, and letting them build their own DVD players and laptops.
This is going to be harder than it sounds.
Knowing how something works doesn’t mean you know how to build it. Imagine if you dropped a 1977 car off in 1850. Sure, they could probably wrap their heads around the tech, particularly if you left an explanation on the front seat. But they don’t have the chemistry to make the fuel, the lubricant, the tires, the battery, or the plastic parts. They don’t have the metallurgy to make the specialty steel. Worst of all, they don’t have the machine technology to make parts with such precise tolerances. The people of 1850 can figure out how the 1977 car works, but they will be totally unable to build one themselves. Sure, they can substitute their own crude versions of all the tricky parts, but the resulting automobile is probably going to look an awful lot like the rudimentary cars they were already building.
The problems get to be even more extreme when you’re taking about building 2017 devices in 1977. Chip technology is greatly influenced by the size of the wafer you can grow in your lab and the size of the circuits you can make. The transistors on modern chips are only a few nanometers across. A working example of this kind of chip won’t be particularly helpful to the poor sods of 1977, who can’t make chips that big and who can’t make transistors smaller than a micronA micron is 1,000 times bigger than a nanometer..
Instead of trying to imagine things in the realm of nanometers, let’s scale this problem up to the visible realm. Imagine you’re drawing circuits on a piece of notebook paper with a quality ballpoint pen. The more lines you can fit on that sheet of paper, the faster your computer chip will go. So you pack those lines as close together as you can. Now I’m going to take away your 2017 tools. Instead of a ballpoint pen, you have to use a big knobby chunk of sidewalk chalk that makes marks the size of an American quarter dollar. And instead of a standard piece of paper, you have to draw your lines on a postcard. I can show you a chip made in ballpoint pen, but it won’t help you improve the one you’re trying to draw on a postcard with sidewalk chalk.
Essentially, the key technology in your smartphone isn’t inside the smartphone itself, it’s inside the factories and fabs where the parts are made.
Sure, you can include Wikipedia articles on modern fab technology. The problem is that a lot of the really important stuff is secret, the stuff that isn’t secret is still pretty dang hard to find, and there’s a lot of it. Making better cleanrooms requires numerous improvements to air filtration, clothing materials, building construction, cleaning apparatus, HVAC and airflow control, and a bunch of other things. The Czochralski Process is similarly a complex network of interconnected tools, processes, machines, and chemistry to produce the silicon wafers we need to make computer chips. The process was around well before 1977, but we’ve made huge strides since then and those improvements are numerous and complex. Photolithography – the sorcery we use to make integrated circuits from all those silicon wafers – is similarly a web of ever-improving techniques and tools. None of this stuff is documented on Wikipedia in enough detail to enable the people of the past to make that 40-year leap.
The modern microprocessor isn’t a single invention, it’s a hundred inventions. And even once you master the technology required to produce a chip, you’ve still got to work out how the circuits should be laid out. The people of 1977 can handle the job, sure. But it will take time to design a good chip. Maybe you can send them a map of ours, but I’m betting those designs are proprietary and not something you can easily download. You can give them an example chip to study under a microscope and reverse-engineer, but that might be less efficient than just designing their own.
The Future is Expensive
No matter how we do this, it’s going to cost them a lot of money to access anything stored on a format they don’t already use. Which is a shame, since all of their storage formats are terrible. You can stick video on VCR, audio on cassettes, and print everything else on paper, but you’ll run out of room in your suitcase really fast.
More importantly, you need to get them to spend the money in the first place. If Red Forman opens up the suitcase and sees it packed wall-to-wall with DVDs, what will motivate him to undertake the expensive and time-consuming task of unlocking all of that information treasure?
Maybe you’ll trade out some of the papers for floppy discs, since Red Forman can already read those. Or maybe you’re worried about data degradation and you’d rather not entrust such important data to fragile magnetic media. Then again, can you write a floppy in 2017 that Red can read in 1977? Operating systems and file formats are not interchangeable. From the Wikipedia article on floppy disk formats:
Floppy disk format and density refer to the logical and physical layout of data stored on a floppy disk. Since their introduction, there have been many popular and rare floppy disk types, densities, and formats used in computing, leading to much confusion over their differences.
Sure, you might be able to buy a floppy drive on Ebay and download DOS Box. Maybe you’re good buddies with someone like Clint Basinger and you can use his retro MS-DOS gear to make some floppies for the nice people of 1977. That’s cool and I envy your access to cool people with cool technology, but that’s not necessarily going to close the gap between you and Red Forman. MS-Dos didn’t arrive until 1981. If you want Red to be able to read your discs, then you need a drive that can properly write 1977 floppies, an operating system (probably CP/M) that can write in a format Red’s computer can understand, and floppy discs that are physically compatible with both.
Who is Red Forman?
You can pick anyone you like to receive the package. Who do you choose? Will this man or woman believe what they find? Will they be responsible with it?
Maybe they’ll start filing for patents based on the stuff you send them. Maybe they’ll share all the tech with government powers that will do some kind of Area 51 deal, and the advances won’t benefit the general public. Maybe they will share the information as you desire, but they’ll also mix in their own (fake) information to further some personal, financial, or political agenda. Maybe they’ll try to pretend they have personally invented, discovered, or devised all the secrets you’re sharing with them. Maybe they’ll be careless and end up destroying some of the information or gadgets. Maybe they will object to some of the information and quietly destroy the bits they don’t agree with. Maybe personal problems will intrude and they’ll procrastinate on this box of confusing information, which means it might languish for years. Maybe they’ll get robbed soon after announcing what they’ve found.
Maybe they’ll auction off the contents to strangers who are likely to do all of the above.
You want someone who has some sort of money, power, or influence so that they can’t be easily robbed or overpowered by financial, legal, or bureaucratic pressures. You want someone trustworthy and principled. You want someone who will share the information in a way that aligns with your vision. You want someone old enough to be wise, young enough to have all their wits, and at the right point int their life that they can afford to worry about this business. (Couples with new babies or lots of young children are probably not the best people to entrust with tons of additional responsibility.)
Before You Hit “Send”…
To sum up, here are the questions we’re trying to answer:
- Who gets the package?
- How will you entice this person to examine the package, take it seriously, and distribute the information according to your wishes?
- How will you store information in the suitcase, and what format will you use?
- What information will you send them?
I know you’re probably all eager to jump down to the comments and tell us all about the awesome plan you’ve got, but the point of the exercise is to take some time and think it over. I can promise you, the plan you have a week from now will be vastly superior to the half-baked scheme you cooked up while reading this article. I say this as someone who has spent months involuntarily thinking about the problem. The more time you give it, the more complete the plan will be.
Give the idea a week. Talk it over. You can’t enlist government help and funding, but you’re not forbidden from asking around. Get advice from friends. Ask the technology and science nerds on that one forum you always frequent. Get feedback and refine the plan.
Next week I’ll do another post where we can share our plans and show our work. Meanwhile, let’s use the comments this week to talk about the exercise itself. I’m sure I overlooked some challenges, so now would be a good time to point those out.
 Protip: Get a printer capable of two-sided printing.
 A micron is 1,000 times bigger than a nanometer.
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