Time capsules and disappearing civilizations in Daydreaming on the Porch

  • Sept. 24, 2020, 1:53 a.m.
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  • Public

Remember the infamous Y2K bug which would cause all the world’s clocks and calendars to get messed up? Computers would go haywire and there would be chaos unleashed on the planet. I grimly waited for the countdown on December 31, 1999, thinking to myself how the ushering in of new millennium was supposed to be a Great Event, with the corruption and world wars of the 20th century gone for good and a future full of hope and scientific progress as 1999 finally rolled over to 2000.

Well, the computer bug thankfully turned out to be a bust. But the ensuing first two decades of the new millennium brought us this: GWB and endless war in Iraq and the Middle East, and 200,000 dead in Iraq; the failed dream of hope and change that was to issue from a new age of racial harmony under Barack Obama; a global warming tipping point reached with hundreds of wildfire infernos blazing across the across the West this summer, the Arctic and Antarctica melting at alarming rates; and four catastrophic years under Donald Trump as the rule of law, civility and political sanity (if there ever could actually be such a thing) were dragged through the muck and what was left of the USA’s global reputation went up in smoke. Topping all that off, a worldwide coronavirus pandemic that has just reached a tally of 200,000 Americans dead, more than any other country in the world. And it’s only 2020

Which brings me to the subject of this essay: time capsules, which are highly relevant now that human civilization seems to be on a collision course with extinction.

Recently, I came across something I wrote 20 years ago on the occasion of the new millennium. Time capsules were big news that year as people, schools, and organizations created their own quirky collections of artifacts for future humans, who had survived the 21st century, to open and see what life was like for their primitive ancestors. Or perhaps aliens would discover them and puzzle over those mysterious physical artifacts contained within the capsules. How would they find them? Well, higher intelligences from other worlds probably could figure out that our libraries were the repositories of the printed, and now digital, knowledge and learning of all the ages of human history, and that many would have time capsules buried at their entrances with plaques pointing the way to the treasure. Of course the aliens would be able to easily decipher our English alphabet.

So for the occasion of the year 2000, the National Millennium Time Capsule was created, which, according to an article in The New York Times, would contain “a freedom essay by an elementary school student; Ray Charles’ sunglasses; photos of earth from space, a Twinkie, Corningware, a computer chip, the Bill of Rights; A World War II helmet; a cell phone; and a piece of the Berlin Wall.” Wow!

Someone also suggested including a novel by John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” because, as the nominator said, “This novel captures a profound and constitutive experience in the composition of the American psyche and culture. This is a nation defined by the courage and fortitude of a citizenship seeking a better, fairer and more generous life.” Shift to 2020. So much for hope at the dawn of the new millennium.

This is how I described what a time capsule is: “Time capsules offer intriguing and revealing stories and histories about what some people decide is relevant and interesting, important and emblematic of the present age, and which they believe future human beings, or possibly other beings, would benefit from knowing about. It’s all terribly subjective and based on the whims, personal preferences and judgments of all-too-human members of our legacy and history-minded generation, but creating and filling time capsules are nevertheless valuable exercises in painting a picture of our civilization. Reasonable people may disagree about this.”

I did some thinking back then about what I would like to include in my own time capsule for 2000. I listed a number of books that I thought were truly records of our lives. I went to my bookshelf and very unscientifically, and quite subjectively, came up with a list, some of the titles from which are listed below.

But first, objects and artifacts: (This was 2000. Some items will seem quite dated)

  • A shrink-wrapped package containing the Millennial issue of The New York Times, my local newspaper, and USA Today.

  • A well-preserved formerly frozen, microwavable dinner, preferably made by Stouffer’s.

  • A road map of South Carolina.

  • An iMac computer and a Palm VII personal organizer. (Not that I have these).

  • A collection of classical music CDs.

  • A shaving kit filled with the essentials needed for a trip.

  • A ViewMaster 3D viewer and reels from the 50s and 60s.

  • A leather-bound diary

  • A selection of CDs with New Age music

Books and magazines:

  • “The History of American Life” selected and edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

  • “A Sense of History: The Best Writing from the Pages of American Heritage”

  • “Dorothea Lange: American Photographs”

  • Covers of “The Saturday Evening Post”

  • “Beneath an Open Sky: Photographs by Gary Irving” (Midwest U.S.)

  • “Walker Evans: American Photographs”

  • “Winogrand: Figments from the Real World” (Photographs)

  • “Small Town America: Photographs by David Plowden”

And finally,

  • “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat Moon

Now 20 years later, I would include some of the same books, but offer these additional ones:

  • “Smthsonian History of the World in 1000 Objects”

  • Any book about the cosmos, space and time by physicist Brian Greene

  • A bible

  • “The Secret Teachings of All Ages”

Objects/artifacts: (This is just an initial list; it can be added to, modified or changed)

  • The latest iPhone, loaded with apps that future discoverers of my time capsule would decode to learn about our popular culture and civilization in the year 2020, including news, art, book, travel, finance, science and humanities apps, YouTube, The New York Times and Wikipedia, perhaps the most valuable source of information, as virtually the entire history of recorded knowledge can now be discovered in some form through Wikipedia. Who does not use it as their first and most convenient source of information?

  • Access via an app to the entire back issue library of “National Geograpic” magazine.

  • A vegetable and flower seed catalog

  • An MRE (Meal Ready to Eat)

  • A bottle of multi-vitamins

  • A digital camera

  • A copy of “Mad Magazine”

  • A Slinky, YoYo, and a container of Silly Putty

  • An Atlas of the World

  • A Rand-McNally Road Atlas

  • A digital camera and a laptop

  • A mirror

  • A box of bran flakes (should last indefinitely)

  • A DVD with live concert performances by Dimash Kudaibergen

The big question is, “Where would I bury my time capsule?” I think there should be a National Time Capsule Interment Park where my time capsule (if selected for inclusion), and many others, can be buried and easily located by future humans (again, if we survive the 21st century) or visitors from other parts of the universe who discover a planet devoid of humans, but which has been taken over by giant intelligent insects and reptiles. The time capsule burial ground will be safe, minus earthquakes and stray asteroids.

Last updated September 24, 2020

ConnieK September 24, 2020 (edited September 24, 2020)


If I were to make one, I'd bury it in my backyard, but the time capsules opened in the past did not reveal any new surprises. Too many people are enamored with conspiracy theories. Y2K was a big one. Why perpetuate a myth? JMO Traditionally, they are buried in the cornerstone of a building.

Oswego ConnieK ⋅ September 24, 2020

I might not even have a backyard before long if my siblings and I sell this house. So I think I’ll carry my time capsule around in a suitcase and present it to the aliens whenever I have that “close encounter of the third kind!” :)

A Pedestrian Wandering September 24, 2020

I think I would collect $250,000 in donations to bury because our money will probably be obsolete with some new cryptocurrency. I would also bury a few gallons of sunscreen because, you know, climate change. I would bury it all in in my backyard where only I would know where it is. If it accidently got dug up in 6 or 7 years, who would know???

Oswego A Pedestrian Wandering ⋅ September 24, 2020

If you bury it in your backyard it will probably never get dug up, unless years from now someone puts in a swimming pool, enclosed and climate controlled because of global warming, of course! :)

Marg September 25, 2020

I don’t think I could decide what would go in a potential time capsule - there would be too much to choose from! The idea of a Time Capsule Park in each country appeals though :)

Jinn September 28, 2020

What this did was inspire me to do a time capsule for my house and start thinking about what to put in it ; a written journal of my life , photographs , seeds , an iPhone with downloaded books , movies I love ,and music. I would put seeds for a garden , recipes , jewelry , coins I have collected , poems I wrote and collected, an atomic clock , a Teddy Bear , incense , a good fountain pen and ink , some good paper , a four leaf clover , a mustard seed encased in a glass holder, a Bible, a crystal ball , A music box . I am going to have to think more about this but it’s an intriguing project . :-) Great essay !

Oswego Jinn ⋅ September 28, 2020

What a great list! I really lke this. Time capsules don’t have to be literal to be very useful. The very concept makes us think hard about what we value in our lives and in our civilization, and what we would wish future humans or visitors could learn about our world.

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