Dear people of the future

£32.99 on Amazon gets you a ‘Time Capsule Waterproof Stainless Steel Durable Lock Container Storage Future Gift 7.3”’. It’s made of polished stainless steel (‘best material for time capsules’) which is ‘high strength, high corrosion resistant’ and ‘can last for 200 years.’ Is 200 years a long time for a time capsule?

The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) was established in 1990 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, by Knute ‘Skip’ Berger, a Seattle-based journalist. The ITCS provides instructions on how to make a time capsule (step 6: ‘Have a solemn “sealing ceremony” where you formally christen the time capsule with a name’), and also maps hundreds of registered cases. Oglethorpe University is itself home to the ‘Crypt of Civilization’, an airtight chamber locked in 1940, inspired by a contemporary fascination with Egyptian pyramids. The chamber contains glass bell jars with models of men and women dressed in 1930s clothing; audio recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, and others; and engraved steel panels of the Atlanta Journal carrying reports from the first year of World War II. The whole thing is not due to be opened until 8113CE: included in the room is a hand-operated film projector with sound that can teach future generations how to understand English.

According to the ITCS, there are 4 time capsules around the Chilterns in England, near where I’m writing now, including one deposited by Exeter College, Oxford: a 22.5 inch stainless steel tool storage box, buried on 2 August 2015, to be opened 2 August 2065 to mark the 100th anniversary of the graduate common room.

It’s not on the map, but in about 1982 I buried in a corner of our Buckinghamshire garden a tin box containing a plastic bag with a newspaper, some coins, and a letter I’d written. I think I was influenced by the children's TV programme Blue Peter which seemed in the 80s to be burying things in the ground all the time. I can’t remember what my letter said, but it probably began, ‘Dear people of the future.’ Six years later the spot was built over, so it won’t be found for a while. In 2017, I buried another in our garden in Elsfield, outside Oxford (also unmapped by the ITCS), containing a letter from my daughter, Anna, then aged 5, that began, ‘Dear people of the future.’

Historians sometimes point out the poor evidentiary value of time capsules: prone to decay, the materials are usually quite meagre and tell us not much we don’t already know about the lives of the past. Time capsules are also, like dormant museums, necessarily hidden until the moment of digging up, so they tell us nothing until they tell us what little they know. But these criticisms miss the point: the wonder of a time capsule is less in the digging up (although that must be good, too), but in the burying. Time capsules are a way of placing a piece of ourselves in the future.

In May 2014, Scottish artist Katie Paterson planted 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees in Nordmarka, a forested area to the North of Oslo. In 100 years’ time, the trees will supply paper for an anthology of texts. The texts for that anthology will be written, one a year, between 2014 and 2114; each will be held in trust, at the New Deichmanske Library, Bjørvika, where they will remain unread by anyone until their publication in 2114. What would you write to a reader a hundred years from now? The roll-call of contributors is thus far pretty spectacular – Margaret Atwood (2014), David Mitchell (2015), Sjón (2016), Elif Shafak (2017), Han Kang (2018), Karl Ove Knausgård (2019), and Ocean Vuong (2020) – although, of course, no one knows, except the authors, what they have put down on paper. As Paterson says, ‘nobody who is part of the project [today] will ever read the piece[s] that are written,’ and what is moving about the project is in part Paterson’s trust that future authors, not yet born, will finish the job.

Paterson describes her Future Library as ‘an art work that will unfold over 100 years’; she says the trees will in the fullness of time contain the ideas of these authors. But it’s also a time-capsule in the sense that a text from now is deliberately stored away for an unknown future audience: not buried in the ground, but held in a library, unread, until 2114.

Paterson’s project has an environmental commitment to a period beyond our own, but it is also a project that makes us think about books and time. The temporal reverie of the Future Library draws into focus what is always at stake in writing: writing is a future-facing action, is itself a kind of time capsule, and a book is a container of ideas sent out to meet the unknown future.