By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1999
A wide gulf of time separates this issue’s two intended audiences. It is addressed to those reading it today, on a Sunday on the verge of the year 2000, and also to those reading it—assuming that quaint practice survives—on a distant today in the year 3000.
Every time capsule is a kind of mirror. An attempt to speak to the future, it can’t help reflecting the present—in the shape of its container, the choice of its site and, especially, the manifest of its contents. In a sense, deciding what to put in a time capsule is the old “What would you take to a desert island” question writ large, asked not of an individual but of an entire culture. Which artifacts will tell a future reader the most about daily life circa 1999? Which of the songs we listened to and books we read will best capture the cultural weather? Which of our habits and diversions will be so baffling as to require explication? A parlor game perhaps, but one with a point, for the discipline of the exercise leads to self-discovery.
The issue is organized in two main sections—Form and Content. The first concerns the practical problem of building something to last 1,000 years, and finding a safe place to put it. This challenge engaged the imaginations of 48 designers from around the world, and the best of their proposals are presented here, along with a chronicle of the entire project by Jack Hitt.
The second section is devoted to the capsule’s contents—variations on the theme of “What would you take to a desert island circa 3000?” The answers come from people all over. Each article in this section is designed as a kind of search engine, to yield a sampling of the artifacts, artworks, genetic material and descriptions of everyday life that, with luck, will one day help this issue’s second audience better understand the lives of its first.
The actual capsule won’t be sealed until next spring. Until then, it will be on display as part of an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Some space in the capsule has been left open to give readers (and museumgoers) a chance to offer their own ideas on how to fill it (www.nytimes.com/capsule).
If, as Stendhal said, a novel is a mirror walking on a road, a time capsule is a mirror in a fancy crate sent down an extremely long road. Will this one reach its destination, its second audience? Who can really say? The history of time capsules is littered with folly, so many earnest missives to the future gone comically awry or simply lost. But whatever its ultimate fate, for now the mirror is here in your hands, uncrated and uncracked. In its reflection you’ll find something at once familiar and strange—images of our lives and time, but glimpsed through the eyes of the future. Have a look.