You're Reading This in the Future

Apr 16, 2021 · 650 words · 4 minutes read

You’re reading this in the future. Isn’t that weird?

Even I’m reading this in the future. Let’s say I write the last “C” in this sentence at 7:41:50 EDT in the evening of Friday April 16, 2021, or exactly 1618616510 seconds since January 1, 1970, UTC. Even as I started typing this next sentence, let alone editing this and pushing this to my blog, that time has passed, and we’ve all moved on.

It’s one of the most wonderful things about writing. Not only are we able to conjure up images in each others’ brains across vast distances (quick, imagine two flamingos doing a crossword puzzle), but we’re able to do it across time as well. It’s like a mental bridge to exactly what the other person bothered to write down, hopefully edit, and share. It’s often even a circular bridge to your own mind, showing up in the form of shopping lists and reminders (note to self: don’t forget to buy dog food on your way home).

Video, music, and pictures do this well too. I’ve recently gotten into watching reruns of What’s My Line, a TV game show that started in the 1950s. The only problem with it is that every episode is available on YouTube1, and with 16 years of weekly half-hour shows, I can easily spend a large chunk of my free time watching these old snapshots of the 50s and 60s.

It’s writing, though, that goes back even farther. One of the early panelists on What’s My Line was Fred Allen, who had a successful career in vaudeville as a poor juggler and a fine comedian before transitioning to another successful career in radio. Many of Fred’s television and radio appearances were recorded, and those recordings live on for us to listen to today. His work in vaudeville, on the other hand, is much more ephemeral. Vaudeville itself is ephemeral, existing largely before things were recorded, dying in the early 1900s, and living on through acts that were able to transition to radio or movies.

I recently read Fred Allen’s autobiography about growing up in Boston and entering vaudeville2. Between the vaudeville theaters, the circuits, and the countless talents, it’s a snapshot into an era that is largely otherwise inaccessible. I’m glad he wrote about his early life, because it helps that time to live on in a way that other mediums don’t.

(Scollay Square3, home to many of the theatres where Fred performed in Boston, was later demolished in the late 1950s)

It’s also a human connection, where you can see yourself and the modern world in epitaphs for beloved pets in Ancient Greece and Rome or a cuneiform complaint about customer service. Nearly everything has changed, but these motifs through time help us see what hasn’t.

At the same time, one of the joys is having a snapshot of an earlier time and viewing it with a modern lens. You’re reading this in the future, much like we’re both in the future reading about Ken Olsen saying in 1974 that he couldn’t see any use for a computer in someone’s home4. Some day, maybe even already in your future, we’ll be looking back on this snapshot with some mix of hindsight and incredulity, and it’s fun to think about what future readers might question:

“You could just get in your car and drive as fast as it could go on the highway? No wonder so many people died in car accidents before self driving cars."

“Why did the number of states in the US plateau at 50 for so long before going up again?"

“Your computers only dealt with 1s and 0s? No wonder they weren’t powerful enough."

I hope your future is going well.

  1. Every What’s My Line episode on YouTube ↩︎

  2. Fred Allen’s Much Ado About Me ↩︎

  3. Scollay Square ↩︎

  4. Interview with Gordon Bell, Creative Computing Magazine (April 1980) ↩︎