Intentional amnesia

On September 23rd, 1938 at the New York World’s Fair a sleek futuristic cylinder — the Westinghouse Time Capsule of Cupaloy– was ceremonially lowered 50 feet into the ground beneath Flushing Meadows. It’s builders hoped the capsule would rest there undisturbed for 5000 years until the year AD 6939 when our descendants would exhume the cylinder, examine is contents and gain insights into life in the 20th century.

The capsule’s designers assumed that all trace of the Capsule on the surface of the ground would be lost, and thus they also created messages pointing to the Capsule in the form of a limited edition book printed on acid-free paper whose pages described the time Capsule’s location and contents. These books were donated by Westinghouse to libraries across the country, and printed in each was the instruction: “(this book) is a message to the future, and should be carefully preserved. If you do not wish to keep it, please send it to a library, museum or other permanent repository.”

One copy was donated to the Rosenberg Library in Galveston Texas on 31 October 1938, and apparently sat on the Library shelves for many decades — until at some point an industrious librarian withdrew it from the collection and the tome made its way to a bookseller, and eventually, to my desk.

Now, the Rosenberg Library is a fine library with a long history — it is the oldest public library in Texas in continuous operation. And judging by the number of copies of this book available from antiquarian booksellers, it certainly is not the only library to have deaccessioned this book. I am certain that the decision to withdraw the book, and not to give it to another institution as per the instructions in the book made perfect sense understandable to any librarian, but the fact that the volume resided in the library for less than two-hundredths of the temporal trip to 6939 would certainly have been a disappointment to those who built the time capsule and so lovingly designed the book messengers.

It is thus also an apt metaphor for the lack of respect granted to the future in these obsessively present-centric times. If we can’t be reliable caretakers of messages sent forward by earlier generations, then how can we ever expect messages of our own to arrive in a distant future? And if we can’t care for a simple message, then how can we possibly meet the many present-tense challenges that threaten the futures of generations to come? In this regard, withdrawal of this book carries an even stronger — and more urgent– message than it’s authors intended. It is a reminder that we owe an obligation to both the past and the future, an obligation that we neglect at our peril.