Reflections on the Time Capsule

Jonathan Harris before the eventIn early July, I received a call from Yahoo!, asking me to help create a time capsule. It was to be a single simple space where users from around the world could converge to share impressions about their lives. The nature, scale and purity of the idea struck a deep chord with me. In my past work, I have been very interested in finding ways to better understand human nature through the things people leave behind on the Web. I have made a number of projects in this realm, including 10x10, which uses news photography to encapsulate single moments in time; We Feel Fine, which uses large scale blog analysis to explore human emotion; and WordCount, which explores the way we use language. All of these projects use passive observation to draw conclusions about people, whereas the Time Capsule was a chance to ask the world directly: “What matters to you?”

When the Time Capsule opened, I had no idea how the world would respond. Would they write it off as an anachronistic anomaly? Would they dismiss it as a Yahoo! publicity stunt? Or would they embrace it, and rush to leave their mark? Sixteen days after it opened, the Time Capsule has gathered over 80,000 submissions from over 200 countries, and has been seen by over 2.2 million people.
Yahoo! Internet Time Capsule
The rules of the Time Capsule are simple: You can add five types of things (words, pictures, videos, sounds, and drawings) in response to ten universal questions (What do you love? What makes you sad? What makes you angry? What do you believe in? What’s beautiful? What’s fun? What do you remember? What is your wish? Describe your world. Who are you?). The questions are intentionally open-ended, chosen for their ability to resonate in any culture. One might expect such broad questions to inspire reflection upon the world at large. But instead, I have found that, overwhelmingly, people have used the ten questions to reflect upon themselves, making quiet personal statements about their own lives.

I am writing this from New Mexico, in the desert outside Albuquerque, where just Wednesday night content from the Time Capsule was projected onto the side of the canyon wall at the Pueblo of Jemez. Huge light beams (each two miles tall) formed a glowing pyramid in the sky overhead, while a laser shot the capsule contents off a mirror and into space. All the while, the Jemez tribe was conducting a drum circle and performing tribal dances. (You can catch some of the highlights in the video below.) Several hours into the event, it started raining torrentially, with crazy desert winds, which only made it seem even more surreal. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and also one of the most humbling. I realized that my role in this project was minimal, simply creating the conditions for this to occur. The real creators of the Time Capsule are the tens of thousands of people who chose to share a little corner of their lives with the world.
Jemez Nation drums
Watching thousands of images stream across the massive rock walls, I was struck by how similar they all seemed, in some very basic way. Superficially, the images were amazingly diverse, depicting people of different races, ages, colors, religions, and backgrounds, in all sorts of locales. On this level, the world seems incredibly stratified. But on some deeper level, a clear common thread ran through those images. No matter what the culture, birthdays are still birthdays, breakfast is breakfast, marriage is marriage, babies are babies. We all love something. We all have something that makes us sad. As I gazed up at those rock walls, the Time Capsule seemed to underscore the great promise of the Internet — that there can exist a single space where we all come together and share our stories, where we start to see common ground instead of distance and difference, and we start to think as one world.

Jonathan Harris
Creator of Yahoo! Time Capsule