On Friday, June 15, 2007, a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere was lifted out of its’ underground vault near Tulsa Oklahoma. It had been buried on June 15, 1957 to both commemorate the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma becoming a state, and to serve as a time capsule for the 100th anniversary in 2007. This led me to immediately think about what might be put into the ground today that would be unearthed in 2057.
First however, some interesting facts about the unearthed Plymouth. The car had been buried in a structure that was built to withstand a nuclear blast. When the car was unearthed, it was discovered that this structure was no barrier to ground water, which had seeped in and converted the dirt around the car into mud, making it look like a victim of a flood. This of course made me think about all the nuclear fall-out shelters that were being built in the late 1950s and early 1960s when a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a real perceived threat. An ever present threat far greater in scope than the terrorist events we are fearful of today. Well, since radiation moves quickly into water, it looks like the shelters that were going to save the survivors of a nuclear holocaust wouldn’t have done much good. This suggests that our general perception of our ability to protect against bad events can be woefully over confident.
The time capsule aspect of the Plymouth was of obvious interest. The car had been buried with 10 gallons of gasoline, in case that type of fuel would be obsolete in 2007. This is interesting as even in the heyday of big automotive iron there was a sense that gasoline might be a transitory fuel source. We of course are starting to realize the wisdom of that view today. In the time capsule there were the obligatory civic records, historical documents, an aerial photo of Tulsa in 1957, a 46 star American flag, and a list on microfilm of all the contestants who guessed what the population of Tulsa might be in 2007 [390,000]. There also cigarettes and old cans of Schlitz beer, that best selling brand of the time. Well, as written here, cigarette usage is now in steady decline, and whatever happened to Schlitz beer?
So, what would be put into the ground today to be unearthed in 2057? If it was to represent the dominant aspects of American life the vehicle would be an SUV. It would be filled up with gasoline as there might not be much available in 50 years. Inside the SUV would be a standard flat screen TV, a bunch of remote controls, a six pack of Budweiser, advertisements for super sized fast food (the food itself wouldn’t last), pictures of McMansions, sports jerseys, a sampling of DVDs, a Blackberry and a laptop.
If we wanted to look somewhat more forward thinking, the car would be a plug-in hybrid, knowing that it could be plugged in to the electric grid in 2057 and be operational. Inside the car would be an Internet-ready HD flat screen TV, a yoga mat, a Starbucks mug, a touch screen tablet notebook computer, an iPod and iPhone, an e-book, a map of the U.S. coast line and pictures of solar paneled houses built with recycled building products.
It is interesting that both of these paragraphs represent substantial parts of the American population. One view of America would be the dominant cultural view, stuck in the Present and recent Past. The other view would be the emerging cultural view of simple, tactile, user friendly electronics, small cars and houses that use renewable energy, and an acknowledgement that climate change is ahead. The urge would be to bury the artifacts that represent where we are going, so we don’t look quite so stupid. Think about it. What would the people in Tulsa in 2057 think of a huge SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon of – what was that called – gasoline, pulling into the driveway of a 6,000 square foot house heated and cooled by fossil fuels with a big watered lawn in front. Would they be angry because of what we had done? The immediate feeling is that the future residents of Tulsa would look more kindly upon us if the car was a small hybrid pulling into a small house covered with solar panels and surrounded by natural vegetation.
There are two points to be made here. First, we are living in a time of rapid and radical change so that even as we look around our own culture we see great movement from what was to what will be. Focus on consumption moving toward focus on renewable. A trend from large to small, from traditional mechanical interface to high touch intuitive interface. From a wasteful use of natural resources to a reliance on electronic displays and connectedness. Second, even what we think is so cutting edge today will be quaint in 50 years. A car made out of metal? A hybrid car that burns fuel? Beach homes? An e-book that only holds 100 books?
The amount of change that has occurred in the last 50 years is nothing short of amazing. It is in fact a greater amount of change than in any 50 year period of time in human history. I am firmly convinced that the amount of change in the next 50 years will dwarf the changes of the past half century. That is both exciting and somewhat scary. It points to the fact that no matter what we put in a time capsule this year, it will seem quaint, nostalgic and perhaps puzzling to the residents of Tulsa in 2057