Last week I proposed an exercise: You can send a package back 40 years and have it delivered to one person. But sure to read the original post to get all the parameters. At the end, I posed four key questions:
- 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?
My proposal is going to be very USA-centric. It’s hard for me to think globally about the pre-internet (and almost pre-consumer computing) world of my childhood, so here I’m just focusing on what I know. This creates an interesting question for people in small countries: Will you send your suitcase to your own country, or will you send it to your favorite global superpower?
Also, this post got to be really long. I’m going to answer the first three questions this week, and question #4 will be next week.
As a reminder, I’m really building this proposal under the assumption that I’d actually have to do it myself. Some people are taking a more liberal approach to the exercise by saying, “It would be best to send them gadget X and information Y,” without worrying about how they would pay for X or obtain Y. I’m not going to suggest sending things I can’t get all my my humble self. That means I’m not going to send them 100 smartphones, because I can’t afford 100 smartphones. I’m not going to send them classified information, because I don’t have access to that either.
And finally, I’ll admit that last week I did a bit of a fake-out. I presented my original assumptions from when this idea first came to me. “How can I give them a bunch of technology?” It took me a few weeks to realize that if I really wanted to help people, technology wasn’t nearly as useful as information on natural disasters, disease, war, famine, and the final installment of Mass Effect. I thought I’d make myself look clever by pointing this out here in part 2, but quite a few of you noticed this right away. Thus I am left looking not-so-clever. Such are the hazards of these sorts of thought experiments.
I suppose this shows that if you do find yourself involved in some sort of time-travel scenario, you should ask your friends for advice in case you’re overlooking something important.
Anyway. Enough preamble. Here is my proposal…
Who Will Get The Package?
I do want it to go to an engineer or scientist, and not a business mogul or politician. That’s probably my innate pro-engineer bias talking, but that’s what I’m comfortable with.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want it going to Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, or Steve Jobs. I don’t trust any of them enough to hand them this project. Sure, Bill Gates is being pretty generous now that he’s a billionaire, but he was also fiercely competitive and cutthroat when he was young and hungry. The last thing I’d want to see is a world where everyone has to license a patent from Microsoft to build internet hardware. And I wouldn’t want the legendary Jobs ego in charge of deciding who gets to look in the suitcase.
27 year old Steve Wozniak is my top pick. He’s always been a subscriber to the hacker ethic, which is nicely summed up on his website, “Welcome to the free exchange of information, the way it always should be.” Even before he was rich he was freely sharing his learning and discoveries with anyone who might be interested. That’s exactly what I’m looking for in a Red Forman. He’s got the right outlook, the right knowledge set, and he’s a really smart guy.
On the other hand, he was a very busy guy in 1977. He was also in an uncertain financial position. I’d love for him to quit his job at the newly-formed Apple and work on this project full-time, but he wasn’t independently wealthy yet. The dude still needed to earn a living. Worse, his proximity to Steve Jobs makes him a dangerous pick. Jobs is probably tied with Bill Gates for the position of “The very last person in the world I’d want messing with the suitcase”. If Jobs asks the Woz why he’s acting so strange lately and the Woz shows his friend the suitcase, all bets are off. Jobs was a persuasive guy and I suspect he would decide he wanted to be involved.
I know I’m not the first person to observe this, but it is really strange to me that Apple was founded by such conflicting personalities. Mr. “Information wants to be free” teamed up with Mr. Everything Must Be Proprietary and created one of the most important machines in the home computing revolution.
So the Woz is my current pick, but I’m a little uneasy about him and I suspect there’s probably a less risky choice out thereAs someone pointed out last week, Carl Sagan would make for a dependable pick. His lack of technical prowess and wealth might make him vulnerable to deception on the part of bad actors, but I trust he’d try to do the right thing. And hey, maybe give Sagan a note telling him to ask Woz for advice?. Woz will be a safer bet in three years, since by then you’d be sending the suitcase to an independently wealthy Woz in 1980. Also, don’t forget to warn him about that plane crash.
How will I entice this person to examine the package and take it seriously?
The first thing you see when you open the suitcase is a pamphlet I’ve written specifically for Steve Wozniak. It would explain the deal with this suitcase and give him an outline of the kinds of information I’ve sent him. I’ll make some suggestions on how to handle things, but ultimately the whole thing is up to him.
To convince him this isn’t a hoax, the pamphlet would include pictures of him at different ages. The pictures would range from childhood, to his present day, to his near future, to my present day. That ought to get his attention. I’ll include a VHS tape that opens with this 1984 interview with Wozniak, followed by this one in 2014There will be a lot of tape left after the interview. I’ll fill it up with other near-future news reports featuring famous people and events that are relevant to the project.. Again, this is just to blow his mind and get him to take the rest of the package seriously. Woz probably won’t have a VCR yet, but from his point of view they were just introduced a month ago in July of 1977. I’m sure he won’t mind getting one.
That will hopefully win the Woz over, but he’s still going to need to convince other people to take him seriously. He was a notorious prankster back in the day, and if he jumps on TV talking about how he’s got a suitcase from the future people will think he’s either crazy or pulling their leg. This is bad, since I really want to avert some deadly disasters and I can’t do that if people ignore him.
To help him establish credibility, I plan to give over a bit of precious suitcase space to three or four additional VHS tapes. I hate doing this because VHS is bulky as hell, but getting people to believe him is more important than including more treasure. This is particularly important since space isn’t going to be nearly as precious as much of a problem as I made it out to be in the first post.
To this end, I’ll include some modern movies that should blow the minds of the folks in 1977. The Matrix, The AvengersI’m not attached to these first two. If the mood takes me, I might swap them out for two other big-budget FX-driven blockbusters. The Incredibles or Toy Story might be a good pick, since they’ll have no idea how those visual were created., and Top GearI never pirate stuff, but I’m fine with sending bootlegged copies of copyrighted material to 1977. There’s just no way that harms the copyright holder.. I’m not choosing this stuff based on artistic merit. I’m choosing these movies because they will be inexplicable to folks doubting the suitcase comes from the future. I’ll urge the recipient to make copies of those videotapes and give them away. People will make copies of those copies, and so on, until people start asking questions. Unencumbered by copyright, I imagine they’ll end up on TV. Even if the networks are weirded out by them, the dirt poor and content-hungry UHF stations should gobble them up and play them to the point of cultural ubiquity.
Given that the VCR is so new, it might take some time for the tapes to spread. These tapes could possibly tip things even more in favor of VHS over Betamax. Sorry SonyNot really.. That’s fine. If it takes a year for the buzz to build in this slow-moving pre-internet world, that doesn’t hurt any of the information I’ve sent.
These future blockbusters were a sensation here in our time, but in 1977? They should hit pop culture like friggin’ STAR WARS. Once word gets around, everyone will end up talking about them. The Woz won’t have to weasel his way onto the news like some crackpot and try to convince people he’s got the future in this suitcase. The media will be coming to him. (And asking where he got the tapes, and if he has more.)
Top Gear might sound like an odd choice, but hear me out. There’s an episode where they feature a race through Television Centre between a motorbike and a couple of parkour guysTop Gear Series 20, Episode 2.. That building is incredibly iconic, it was in regular use by the BBC in 1977, and the Top Gear episode gives us lots of internal and external shots of the location.
Let’s say someone in 1977 doesn’t believe in this ridiculous time-travel “hoax” they’ve been hearing about. When presented with this episode of Top Gear, how can they explain it? Where did these outlandish new cars come from? Who designed and manufactured them? How did they make such dramatic changes to the area around this iconic building (and then change everything back!) without anyone noticing? What about these clothes? This lingo? Where did this parkour idea come from? These haircuts? This unconventional style of editing a television show? This unknown music? Heck, what are these strange instruments in the musicElectronic music was still in its primordial stages, so the pumping electronic baseline they use when showing off supercars ought to sound very strange to 1977 listeners.? How did someone completely gut this famous building and drive a motorbike through it without getting arrested? How are they doing these fast-moving handheld shots with heavy-ass 1977 television cameras? How are they using so many cameras without going completely broke?
Believing this video is a fake requires you to believe in a conspiracy that would span half of Hollywood and half of London. How many creative people would it take to invent all of this new stuff? The movie stars. The new genres of music. The styles of cars, inside and out. The unexplained pop-culture references. The new car technology. This would require worldbuilding on a scale that would make Tolkien look like an amateur. It would make a faked moon landing conspiracy look like a college prank.
Director Ron Howard is the celebrity guest on this episode, and Howard was big as an actor in 1977 playing Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. That gives us a distinctive-looking celebrity that the average American can recognize and puzzle over.
Just to twist the knife, the other episode of Top Gear (one VHS should hold two episodes) would be from 2002, just after the show was rebooted. If there’s any space left on the tape, I’d throw in a clip from YouTube of Top Gear in the early 90s. This will multiply the number of alien car designs while at the same time giving everyone a view of host Jeremy Clarkson in 1991, 2002, and 2016. They can compare this to teenage Clarkson of 1977Shit, I’ll bet 17 year old Clarkson is going to LOVE this attention. Imagine how much BIGGER his ego will be in this new timeline. and and see that it’s clearly the same person. Same face, same ridiculous accent, same outsized personality, same body language. We couldn’t pull off aging effects that good using today’s technology, so it ought to be pretty baffling to the folks of 1977.
All of this is just so that Woz and the public will pay attention to the other material in the suitcase. I don’t care if they like the show or not. All I want is for them to take my various warnings and advice seriously.
I’ll let Woz know that there are more future-movies locked away on these mystery silver disks. This will hopefully get the public very eager to see what else is on them. This ought to entice a government or company to invest in deciphering the disks. Should Woz go with government support, or corporateIgnoring the fact that he’d almost have a half-decent chance of building a working CD player by himself.? Or perhaps a combination of the two? Or maybe farm it out to universities? I’d leave that sort of decision to him. Once the suitcase is in his hands, it’s his project and his responsibility. He has a better feel for the landscape of 1977 than I do. I was just six years old at the time.
How will you store information in the suitcase?
The information will come in stages. The most provocative or time-sensitive information will be on paper and VHS. Last week someone suggested using microfiche. This never occurred to me. While I saw a few microfiche machines in school, I never personally used one and and I’d actually forgotten they existed. Having said that, I’d only use microfiche if things got really tight. I’d rather use paper so the information can be read and cheaply copied with maximum convenience. The amount of information in the first stage isn’t that bulky, but it’s really important.
The next stage of information will be on compact disks. The final stage will be DVDs. There ought to be quite a bit of space left over for gadgets. DVDs can hold a lot of data and you can fit an awful lot of them inside a suitcase. In fact, if I’m working alone then I’m not sure how many DVDs I’ll be able to fill. Rounding up data takes time, and I don’t want to spend years assembling this suitcaseIt would of course be reasonable to spend years on this, but I don’t want to actually spend years thinking about it..
Each stage will be a mix of culture and science. You’ll get music, movies, music videos, and television shows to keep the public curious and provide a profit motive to keep digging. Mixed in with that will be inventions, news, scientific papers, raw data, the chemical makeup of life-saving medicationsIf I remember correctly, it’s common to show the exact chemical makeup of a medicine on its information sheet. The chemists of 1977 will still need to figure out how to synthesize it, but at least they’ll know what they’re aiming for., and so on. They’ll still need to do FDA testing on the drugs, but (assuming my Red Forman does his job) the formulas should enter the public domain instead of the patent office. I guess I should probably throw Viagra in there too. You’re welcome, 1977.
The Politics Hazard
I have a no-politics rule here on the site, and I’m actually adopting the same policy with my version of the suitcase. My no-politics approach is both moral and pragmatic.
I know some people’s first instinct is to say they would use the suitcase to make sure their party wins. But look at it from the other side: If someone from the rival party was in charge of packing the suitcase, how would you want them to behave? Would you want them to tilt elections in their favor? Would you want them to expose scandals on your side, help conceal or avert them on their side, and present data that only supports their worldview? Wouldn’t that enrage you? Perhaps it might even strike you as villainous?
Moreover, what if I’m wrong? I’ve got my political opinions and I’m free to present anything I like to the folks of 1977. But if I’m wrong and I make My Party win anyway, then I’ll have done harm. More importantly, over time politics is less about elections and more about winning hearts and minds. Why win an election over a nation that doesn’t really support your ideals? That will just result in your ideals being implemented badly and halfheartedly. Over the long term, that might be worse than losing elections.
I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re strongly aligned to either the left or rightAgain, remember that we’re VERY much locked in a 1970’s USA framework here.. Now let’s imagine that here in 2017 we get a suitcase from 2057. Let’s also assume that in this suitcase is data that was assembled (cherry picked) by someone from the OTHER party. Your rivals. (Those jerks.) This future person gives us 40 years of politically-charged facts and figures: Charts, graphs, think pieces by OTHER party pundits, and books from OTHER party leaders. Combined, they show that all of YOUR policies are terrible and ruinous, and all of the OTHER policies lead to prosperity and peace.
How do you feel? Are you feeling like you want to run out and change party affiliation? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing you won’t find these charts and graphs and editorials any more persuasive than the charts and graphs and editorials those idiots are putting out right now in 2017. Worse, now you’ll regard this suitcase as a tool of the OTHER side. I mean, if it was put together by someone from the OTHER party, then who knows what they’re hiding from us? How do you know this future person is telling the truth? Maybe he’s like Skynet. He’s lost the political war on all fronts and now he’s sent this suitcase full of LIES to cheat, hoping his side can win the cultural debate before it starts.
I can show the people of the past the results of their future policy decisions, but I doubt it will be any more effective than showing people TODAY the results of the policy decisions of the PAST. There’s always a rationalization.
OPPOSITION PARTY: You tried solution X and it didn’t fix the problem! Your solutions are worthless!
INCUMBENT PARTY: No, without our solution the problem would have gotten EVEN WORSE! We have charts to prove it!
OPPOSITION PARTY: No, without your meddling the problem would have gotten better on its own. We also have charts, and they support our assertions!
I don’t want the people of 1977 to think of the suitcase as “a Republican thing” or “a Democrat thing”. I want everyone to be engaged, curious, and calm. Which means no politics. The stuff I’m sending should be non-partisan, so there’s no reason to make enemies on the other side.
And yes, I sort of broached the topic of politics. But I only brought it up to explain why I wasn’t going to engage in political posturing. I encourage you to play it safe in the comments. If you can, be coy about what side you’re on. You don’t need to explicitly tell us what you’d write. We’re here to discuss That 70’s Suitcase, and not to have a stupid Red vs. Blue debate.
But Shamus, what about inherently political topics?
I’m not convinced there are that many. But if something has a risk of turning political in 1977The long-term viability of nuclear power comes to mind. then my solution is to make it as dry and boring as possible. Just send them raw data with no editorializing. Rather than injecting my own opinion into things, I’ll just present the events in dry technical detail and without comment. It’s their world. They can figure it out.
So Now We Just Need to Pack the Suitcase
That’s it for the first three questions. I know who I’m sending it to. (Please don’t let me down, Woz!) I know how I plan to get him interested. (Morpheus is going to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.) I know how I’ll package the data. (Easy and bulky for the early crucial stuff, compact and difficult for the intermediate stuff, and tiny and technical for the later bonus stuff.)
Now all I need to do is pack the suitcase and send it off to 1977Will shipping be expensive because I’m sending it 40 years away? Of maybe it won’t be expensive because postage was really cheap back then and the currency exchange rate is way in my favor? How does this even work? Strangely enough, there’s no information regarding backwards temporal delivery on the USPS website.. Next week I’ll show you what I decided to send.
In the comments: Has your approach changed in the last week? I doubt you spent all week thinking about it. This was my obsession, not yours. But I’m still curious if you managed to refine the idea at all.
 As someone pointed out last week, Carl Sagan would make for a dependable pick. His lack of technical prowess and wealth might make him vulnerable to deception on the part of bad actors, but I trust he’d try to do the right thing. And hey, maybe give Sagan a note telling him to ask Woz for advice?
 There will be a lot of tape left after the interview. I’ll fill it up with other near-future news reports featuring famous people and events that are relevant to the project.
 I’m not attached to these first two. If the mood takes me, I might swap them out for two other big-budget FX-driven blockbusters. The Incredibles or Toy Story might be a good pick, since they’ll have no idea how those visual were created.
 I never pirate stuff, but I’m fine with sending bootlegged copies of copyrighted material to 1977. There’s just no way that harms the copyright holder.
 Not really.
 Top Gear Series 20, Episode 2.
 Electronic music was still in its primordial stages, so the pumping electronic baseline they use when showing off supercars ought to sound very strange to 1977 listeners.
 Shit, I’ll bet 17 year old Clarkson is going to LOVE this attention. Imagine how much BIGGER his ego will be in this new timeline.
 Ignoring the fact that he’d almost have a half-decent chance of building a working CD player by himself.
 It would of course be reasonable to spend years on this, but I don’t want to actually spend years thinking about it.
 If I remember correctly, it’s common to show the exact chemical makeup of a medicine on its information sheet. The chemists of 1977 will still need to figure out how to synthesize it, but at least they’ll know what they’re aiming for.
 Again, remember that we’re VERY much locked in a 1970’s USA framework here.
 The long-term viability of nuclear power comes to mind.
 Will shipping be expensive because I’m sending it 40 years away? Of maybe it won’t be expensive because postage was really cheap back then and the currency exchange rate is way in my favor? How does this even work? Strangely enough, there’s no information regarding backwards temporal delivery on the USPS website.
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