Everyday Time Travel — On Editing Life’s Record Before We Have to Erase It

Or, What I Learned By Building an Award-Winning Time Machine

A lightbox asks if you wanna be a time machine
A lightbox asks if you wanna be a time machine
You really don’t have a choice

This is the final installment of the Who, What, When, Where, Why of Existence series we began in 2019.

“History is written by the victors,” they tell us. We give Winston Churchill credit for the quote. He didn’t say it first. But he was a victor, so there you have it.

As for the rest of us — we edit history. Annalee Newitz takes that notion to its logical extreme in their latest novel, The Future of Another Timeline. They build a clear, compelling fictional world quickly and deftly. Within it, the characters who travel through time are Geologists, tweaking history with edits that hopefully fly under the radar — no tropes where protagonists go back to indiscriminately kill history’s worst humans before they do too much damage.

Instead, heroes and villains plant seeds, making a better world more likely than it would have been. Dueling factions try to outsmart and undo each other. It’s essentially dramatized Wikipedia editors squaring off face-to-face at a ’90s riot grrl concert, and it’s uniquely terrific.

In that same arm of the sci-fi galaxy, Haruki Murakami’s world in his recent 1Q84 gives the edits a literal tilt. Characters write the narrative within his narrative, surprised when it manifests itself in their approximation of reality, which they come to realize is an alternate 1984.

The writers who inhabit and drive the plot 1Q84 pull others into self-awareness of time and place, too, though most don’t notice. Plenty more magically realistic things happen in its nearly 1,200 pages.

For our own real-world, first-person-POV plots, we delete the social media profiles and posts from our timelines. We erase anything that goes against the narrative that we’ve always been the smart and successful, healthy and happy people we curate ourselves to be today.

We even pay others to do it for us, to erase the ephemera of our lives. In movies, bad guys pay more ruthless editors to “make it go away,” or to “take care of our problem.” This is typically so someone doesn’t point the finger at them for something worse than embarrassing digital content.

It’s a form of time travel to negate reminders of history, the fingerprints of time and place. This is hardly new. Die Hard is a Christmas movie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a time-time travel movie. Jedi mind tricks and neuralyzers have erased witnesses in a way similar to — but more palatable than — cinema’s Luca Brasi-types. Cyberpunk authors saw this coming down the digital pipe real early on.

This isn’t limited to fiction, though. Our brains hide history from us, give us plausible deniability. Dementia and amnesia, suppression and delusion — we each have good reasons to get past the past.

The last in that short list is what the Noble Eightfold Path names as one of the the basic defilements of the self. Delusion is what this text calls “mental darkness.” It’s one of the root causes of all suffering, along with greed and aversion.

Knowing our personal motivations, being honest with ourselves about our intent — why we act — gets us out of that darkness, gives us clarity. If we want it. Sometimes that’s inconvenient. We can’t let others know why we do what we do, for whatever reason. Best way to beat a lie detector is to believe the lies we tell. Run from reality, deny it. Fool ourselves into thinking and feeling what we know to be true really isn’t.

This sucks. We get brain and aortic aneurysms from ensuing stress. No end to the suffering.

Unless — unless we’re a sociopath. Or, unless we can undo what we regret. Or, unless we destroy the permanent records.

Time heals all wounds. Get over it. What’s done is done, let bygones be bygones, forgive and forget. Stop living in the past.

Easy on paper. Comeuppance and consequences are tough, though. Some of us do the best we can and live with the results, come what may. We face up to the fallout. Others dispute everything.

With all this in mind, I built a time machine. Which is to say, I built an experiment to facilitate a time-travel experience.

The Time Machine I built for Escuela Verde’s Science Strikes Back 2020 event
The Time Machine I built for Escuela Verde’s Science Strikes Back 2020 event
My Time Machine

My theory was — we’re all time machines. On a good day we are our future selves looking back and figuring out what we coulda, shoulda done better. And we look ahead to anticipate how our actions today will affect tomorrow. Our brains can and oughta do that.

For brevity’s sake and our purposes, I built a time machine. It won first place in a science fair’s Technology category. This took place on February 5, 2020. When I was 44 years old. My first ever award.

And whatever happens from here to eternity, I’ll be able to pass a lie detector test when I say, I built an award-winning time machine.

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The only trophy I’ve ever won

By way of materials, it was primarily conjoined PVC pipes, two silver tarps and a full roll of electrical tape. My dear friend Lia made a super dope mirror, which she does for a living. It acted as a portal into the past or future, any year in a traveler’s life. My friends Ryan and Pat filmed the mirror, which each participant spoke into.

Subjects had a maximum of 99 seconds to tell their younger or older selves anything they wanted — advice, warnings, encouragement or other — knowing what they know right now. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had just set the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, so we clearly had to stop at 99. Which is fine because a minute and 39 seconds is an eternity in front of a camera.

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My dad talking to his teenage self about baseball in Milwaukee

The Noble Eightfold Path also tells us that our expectations “are bound to be dashed to pieces” by inevitable change. So I went into the experiment knowing that despite my expectations, not everyone would sit there trying to prevent climate change or the continued rise of fascism or any other Threat Level Midnight catastrophe that we anticipate will happen in our lifetimes. (Some expectations are bigger than others, of course.)

Most people went into the past. Most of those went to their teenage years. Most of those told themselves to enjoy life a little more, that it gets better. Some went into the future. It was almost always a personal message specifically meant for themselves.

Regardless, though — I expected macro, we got micro. Personal narratives are powerful and alluring. And perhaps fallacies. After a couple hours, Ryan stepped out from behind the camera and smiled. “You didn’t build a time machine,” he told me. “This is a wishing well.”

We are the sum of our own experiences. To a degree. We condition a machine to draw upon past results to come up with the best option for a problem we present to it. Each of us is likewise conditioned. We do our best to connect the dots of cause and effect, if x then y. We love patterns. Machines do, too.

If-then is the tidy narrative we want. We do this, then that will definitely happen. This is how it’s always been, no reason it shouldn’t be this time. Then it isn’t and we get mad. At how unfair life is.

Why, God? we demand. A poor craftsman blames his tools and the rest of us blame a presumably intercessory deity when things don’t go as we expected. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, though. Above all else we must remember — they don’t think it be like it is, but it do.

We make a lot of our decisions based on expectation. What do I get out of it is the why that motivates us. Toss a penny into the well and wish for what we want. Typically that’s a personally gratifying result, a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. Guarantees that we don’t suffer more than we absolutely have to.

That’s why we’d time-travel — to redo yesterday and tell tomorrow that it’s not too late. We don’t so much put in the work and use it as a shortcut. Time travel is not a Biff Tannen get-rich-quick scheme.

But there’s another cheat-code, no machine required. The Causes of Suffering are also essentially The Way to End All Suffering. All we have to do is head off suffering at the pass, the biggest culprit being ignorance. You fight ignorance with wisdom. So it’s not really why we suffer but what we do to stop it.

That’s how we control the narrative. Newitz shows it’s about incremental change in their novel. We each have expertise in certain areas where we can affect more desirable outcomes for the future. And to Murakami’s point, we can improve time and place, be the authors of our own fate or narrative.

And we can be the why, the reason it gets better. My time machine wasn’t just an experiment or experience. It’ll be a film, too. Those participants telling their younger selves to enjoy it, be more comfortable in who they are — teenagers from the school where our science fair took place will see that. And there were a few kids in there telling their future selves not to mess the world up any worse than it is, to remember where they came from and their dreams, hoping that it’s not too late by then — we’ll make sure adults see that, as well.

There’s no guaranteed, cheap and simple panacea to fix life. Wisdom isn’t something we download into our brains. It’s not data. You’re not trying to win a trivia contest. You gain wisdom over real time, through experience. And experience isn’t always ideal. There’s suffering you can’t skip or wish away.

I write for a living. And for fun. You get better by writing. But you also have brilliant editors to help you learn — your copy covered in red ink on your desk when you come in, after they stayed late finding everything you could have done better.

I’ve been fortunate to have thoughtful, diligent editors simultaneously looking over my shoulder and watching my back. It makes their editing job easier when you’re conditioned to see what they’ll see later, to stop it before it’s out of your hands. Eventually it’s second nature, unconscious. You edit as you go, backspacing immediately instead of tracking changes in a new version.

We weren’t always so good at it. Which is why we erase social media presences, and posts from our digital timelines. One vendor in this cottage industry says we might want to do that “to get a fresh start.” There are no shortages of why we do what we do.

But Richard Powers included a relevant Chinese saying in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction, The Overstory. It’s stuck with me and I’ll paraphrase — “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

We’ll edit human genes soon, proactively heading off potential difficulties before birth. CRISPR won’t solve all our problems. Life has some a nasty 12–6 curveball. Best case it tips the scales, makes the desired outcome more likely. Worst case is starting to creep up already.

We take what we know and do our best. It’s one thing to not have any regrets about our past. It’s quite another to recognize what’s happening, and stop ourselves today before we do something that we might regret later. Isn’t that what time travel stories are always about?

Intent matters in why we act — what do we want to happen? But so does the fallout — what happened? It’s painful to learn about ourselves, the details and the collateral damage done. There are ramifications and regret, lessons and life in there, no skipping. It’s in this way that we can proactively edit tomorrow today so we don’t have to erase who we were tomorrow.

For ongoing updates on Cedar Block’s time-travel project, keep a tab open on othertimemachines.com.

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Shadows of Mark Winter

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How to be a time machine
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There Will Be Video

Adventures in reading and writing. Making sense of what’s new in science, sci-fi, philosophy, culture, and creativity. And basketball.

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