As the world celebrates Back to the Future Day, it has forgotten the unknown man whose 2001 internet postings might just have saved humanity.
If time travel is possible, why haven’t we met any time travellers?
This was the question Stephen Hawking advanced on the topic of time warps. But it misses something: what if we have met time travellers without even knowing it? Or what if we’ve met them, but didn’t believe them?
As the world marks the passing of Back to the Future’s fictional future, it has almost forgotten a much less famous series of predictions which started sixteen years ago next month.
It was in the year 2000, on November 2, that a man calling himself John Titor logged onto an obscure internet discussion board and posted this message:
Greetings. I am a time traveller from the year 2036. I am on my way home after getting an IBM 5100 computer system from the year 1975.
“My ‘time’ machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric. The unit is powered by two top-spin dual-positive singularities that produce a standard off-set Tipler sinusoid.
“I will be happy to post pictures of the unit.”
Questions followed. Titor answered them, some copiously, some cryptically. And he did indeed post pictures of his machine: mounted, like Back to the Future’s, in a car (though it was a 1967 Chevrolet rather than a DeLorean).
Between November 2000 and March 2001, he answered many more questions. At one point he was even interviewed on a national talk radio show. He described his time machine in detail, even posting pictures of its user’s manual. A small internet cult grew up around him. Then one day he was gone, leaving his acolytes to pick over the remains. Today, there are little shrines to his name all across the internet. But who was he really?
Titor’s actual target was the year 1975; he was making a stopover in 2000 for “personal reasons”. He was a member of a military unit tasked with retrieving items from the past which could help get society back on its feet. A civil war in the United states had triggered a limited nuclear exchange with Russia in 2015, which killed nearly three million people. In the aftermath, life had returned to something more like what Republican survivalists imagine America should be:
In 2036, I live in central Florida with my family and I’m currently stationed at an Army base in Tampa… the people that survived grew closer together. Life is centered on the family and then the community. I cannot imagine living even a few hundred miles away from my parents.
“There is no large industrial complex creating masses of useless food and recreational items. Food and livestock is grown and sold locally. People spend much more time reading and talking together face to face. Religion is taken seriously and everyone can multiply and divide in their heads.”
Plenty of people were sceptical of all this, but Titor didn’t really care. “My goal is not to be believed,” he said. “Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret. No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that.”
Between such withering asides, he did offer some advice. “Learn basic sanitation,” he said. “Learn to shoot and clean a gun. Consider what you would bring with you if you had to leave your home in ten minutes and never return.” He even discussed the possibility of taking volunteers with him, if he could:
For all of you interested in coming back with me to 2036, perhaps we should discuss the trip. Please be aware, the displacement unit moves through time, not space.
First, we will be driving the current vehicle (Chevy truck) with the displacement unit in it to Tampa Florida. From there, we will go back to my arrival date on this worldline. Then we will have to drive to Minnesota, sell the current vehicle and get another one that would have been around in 1975.
We will then move the displacement unit (500 lbs or so) into the new vehicle and go back to 1975. Once in 1975, we’ll drive back to Tampa and make the final hop to 2036. If you’d like to stay in 1975, you’re welcome to do that.
It can also get quite hot and stuffy during the trip and you’ll be subjected to a 1.5 to 2 G force the entire time. You’ll also need some sort of a re-breather system or oxygen supply.”
(The mechanics of a trip are described in more detail here.)
It was these kind of details which gave a sheen of plausibility to Titor’s wild claims. There was just something about them which was convincing; just grubby enough to seem real, laced with just enough technobabble to convince the lay science enthusiast.