It was like witnessing the creation of a “generation ship” — a vessel that requires multiple human lifespans to reach its destination.
Fifteen of us were gathered in the room. “What will this mean in 375 years?” one asked, pointing out that 375 years ago, in 1639, the cool technological developments included the first printing press in British North America and the first documented UFO sighting. There was a lot of discussion about how “Keepers” still need to be recruited every 25 years to ensure the capsule stayed intact and on track during its long voyage through time.
Yes. Capsule. The Washington Centennial Time Capsule, 25 years after it was sealed, is ready for its first refresh on its 400-year journey. And the behind-the-scenes effort is worthy of comparisons to science fiction.
On this generation ship, however, the cargo isn’t people. It’s artifacts.
The original Time Capsule was part of the Nov. 11, 1989 statehood centennial celebration. The 3,000 pound “capsule” is actually a green vault, in plain sight at the south entrance of the Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash., containing 16 individual stainless steel capsules. The first was filled back then, and on its every-quarter-century schedule, it’s time for the second 16.3” x 10” x 7” space to be populated.
But with what?
The group was beginning the process of brainstorming what might be suggested for safekeeping that would be unique and have meaning when the capsule is set to be opened on the state’s 500th birthday. Among those joining Knute “Skip” Berger (architect of the original capsule efforts), were Jennifer Estroff (board chair of the non-profit Keepers of the Capsule), Greg Bear (science-fiction writer and capsule adviser), and a dozen of us with roles ranging from futurist to curator to scientist.
A lot has transpired since 1989. Merely in tech that touches Washington State, a sampling includes the dot-com boom and bust. The founding of Amazon. The development of the first major airliner made primarily of composite materials, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
So why not just toss in a fully loaded Kindle and call it a day? As a capsule guideline document pointed out, “In the 1989 capsule, a CD of Microsoft Bookshelf was included. In 2014, this disc may be difficult to read even if it’s in pristine condition.” Now fast forward that accessibility problem 15 more 25-year periods.
Ideas flew fast, furious and occasionally frivolous. Microfilm of the Dreamliner plans. Recordings of grunge. Since Hostess closed its Seattle bakery in the covered time period, a Twinkie. (I maintained it would still be recognizable, and perhaps more delicious, in 2389.)
Berger says a key ingredient will again be the equivalent of a messages in a bottle: notes from individuals, of which there were more than 10,000 in 1989. “The messages to the future from ordinary citizens create a really interesting record of what the regular folks of this era think – and that often seems to be missing from the historic record, especially as our means of communicating get more ephemeral,” he adds.
It turns out that a time-traveling Kindle wasn’t so far-fetched. “Amazon has agreed to give us a Kindle loaded with the works of Northwest authors,” Berger says (presumably one that could be readable in the very long run). “We are actively working getting our contents plan finalized, but it will emphasize a picture of life in 2014, and what has happened here of significance between 1989 and 2014.”
Then there’s the human element: the Keepers of the Capsule, recruited from 10-year-olds as guardians of the effort. About one hundred of the 300 first-generation Keepers, today all 35 years old, have responded to contact efforts. Estroff, who is one of them, is continuing outreach to draw as many as possible to a ceremony in Olympia on Nov. 11, along with hosting a fund-raising drive to help pay for the event and Keeper participation.
Estroff is actively looking for a new generation, either kids born between November 4 and 18, 2004, or children of the 1989 cohort. “We have over 70 signups for new Keepers – Keepers 2.0 – from our initial push,” she says, to be sworn in during the November ceremony.
A lot remains to be done between swearing-ins, vault opening, Keepers’ content decisions, archiving and second-capsule sealing in a smaller ceremony in February 2015. But it’s also clear the human and artifact elements are inextricably linked.
“There is a deep time wonder to the whole project,” Bear observes. Berger points out the “social anthropology” of the stewardship itself is part of the capsule’s uniqueness. “We’re at the first phase of the experiment.”
As in science fiction, no generation ship really deserves the name until the second generation takes over.
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He’s actually more concerned that nothing we do today will ever be forgotten.