If time travel is possible, why haven’t we met any time travelers?
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?
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.”
On the other hand, they still had internet.
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.
Okay, I can sense you rolling your eyes. But you have to understand, this was a different time. In 2015, the internet is completely intertwined with our ‘real’ lives; we meet future colleagues on Twitter and send old school friends geo-tagged photos before checking our emails on the train. But in the year 2000 there were no smartphones, no social media. The cold blue glow of the CRT monitor was a portal into another world entirely – big, mysterious, and with no fixed identities. In this liminal place – one where, as the New Yorker once put it, nobody knew you were a dog – the idea of a time traveller posting on a bulletin board almost seemed plausible.
And then there was his reason for travelling. Titor claimed he had been sent back to 1975 to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer, which was needed to debug ageing machines still used in 2036. That in itself isn’t too wacky: in 2002, NASA had to buy outdated medical equipment on eBay just so it could scavenge their obsolete Intel 8086 chips for their booster testing machines, and even the Orion spacecraft, whose first manned flight is scheduled for the 2020s, uses computers from 2002.
But here’s the kicker. Titor claimed the 5100 was needed in the future due to a special feature which IBM did not publicly announce. Sure enough, Bob Dubke, an engineer who helped design it, confirmed that such a feature existed. The 5100 had the rare ability to emulate programs in older languages used by IBM mainframes, but the company was worried about how its competition might use it, and told nobody. So Titor was at least a very well-informed hoaxer – a computer scientist or enthusiast who used his knowledge well.
For a few years, John Titor’s legend passed around the net, drawing power from the paranoia of the Bush years. A company called the John Titor Foundation, registered in Florida, started selling merchandise and even a book called John Titor: A Time Traveller’s Tale. There was a brief period where his predictions weren’t yet due and where they could still technically come true.
But then 2004 arrived and there was no civil war. The Olympics that year were not cancelled. “Western stability” did not “collapse” the year after, and mad cow disease did not become rampant. And the president in 2005 did not “try desperately to be the next Lincoln”. The president in 2005 was George W. Bush.
After the failure of these predictions, most of the Titor activity online died down. But not all of it. In 2009, a report by John Hughston, who runs the Hoax Hunter website, named Larry Haber, a Florida entertainment lawyer, and John Rick Haber, his computer scientist brother, as the men behind John Titor.
Larry Haber is the CEO of the John Titor Foundation, and an IP address connected with Titor points to the same town in which he registered it. A private detective hired by an Italian TV companyconcluded that John Rick, with his presumed computer knowledge, was the culprit. And Titor’s name had actually been first used in 1998, with a different set of predictions (including chaos caused by the Y2K bug). Larry apparently claims to be the lawyer for John Titor’s mother.
So Titor was wrong, and there’s a clear candidate for his real identity. Mystery solved?
Not according to some fans. You see, Titor’s writings contained a get-out clause. Simply by travelling back, he said, he had created a new “worldline”, distinct from the one in which he grew up. There was no guarantee that they’d follow the same path. In fact, he had already noticed some changes: “News events that happen at different times, football games won by other teams, things like that.” He put the “temporal divergence” between this worldline and his own at 1 or 2 per cent, but warned: “the longer I am here, the larger that divergence becomes.”
In this narrative, the Habers really were just family friends. Perhaps Titor stayed at their house for a while. And when he left, they were moved to keep his memory alive, in the hope of changing the future.
That’s right: just by posting on the internet about the coming war, John Titor might actually have averted it – and nobody can prove otherwise. As one website puts it: “That we have the ability to guide the outcome of our worldline among the many possibilities in the multiverse …is perhaps the most important message Titor gave us.”
So maybe instead of fawning over a cash-in sci-fi sequel, you should really be thanking John Titor. You ungrateful, decadent sheep.
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