Tag Archives: time travel

Time travel from a London hotel room

Thanks to Andrew Hazlett, I paid a visit to Shorpy.com today, to do a little “armchair time travel,” as Andrew calls it.

Before long I was staring dumbing at this photo.

Of course, my first reaction is wonder at the sheer beauty of this automobile.  

It’s only when I page through the comments that I come across this detail. According to someone called Anonymous Tipster, this auto is a “nicely optioned 1940 Packard.”

It’s only several comments later that Tipster reveals the more telling detail:

“Those speedlines on the Packard look like someone’s attempt at customization.”

At first sight, I accepted the Packard whole.  Now I can see as additional those little horizontal lines that appear to issue from the front and back wheels.  

The Packard ceases to be “something from a mysterious past” and “a car the likes of which we will never see again.”  Now it’s someone’s possession, the bearer of their conceit, their play, their ambition.  

Who was this person who felt that his/her Packard just wasn’t fast enough?  Who felt it had to be made to look faster, actually moving even when standing still?

And where is this design convention from?  Those little lines, I mean.  I bet people from some cultures would be unable to read these as speedlines.  I bet these come from a graphic design and probably a cartoon tradition, which tradition probably comes from the furiously inventive popular culture of the first half of the 20th century.  In effect, our owner was making his or her car look faster by making it look like a cartoon.  (Who says this was a rational, technocratic culture?)

My armchair travel brings me first to the car, then to the invisible owner of the car, and then to the culture that helped provide the owner’s customization.  Quite a lot of movement for a man stuck in a London hotel room.  Thank you to Andrew and Shorpy for this opportunity to get out and about.  

To see the photo in context, go to shorpy.com by clicking here.  

Will time travelers please announce themselves at the front desk

It’s time to start training time travelers.

Picture the scene at the NATTA (National Aeronautics and Time Travel Administration).  There is the time traveler (NATTATT) in period costume, and surrounded by his or her advisors who give advice on language, usage, accent, on local history, on the anthropology and sociology of life in the time period, on politics, family life, food, clothing styles, on built form, material culture, and popular culture.

Our NATTATT must “pass.”  He or she must escape detection.  For the consequences of detection are cataclysmic.  The NATTATT would be quizzed, perhaps tortured.  Secrets of the future would be revealed.  People would begin betting on imagined scenarios.  The past would go ass over tea kettle and so would the present.  Imagine leaving in a present that had new turbulence in its past.  We think we live in a turbulent world now.

My assumptions:

1) time travel will someday be possible. We will move through time as we move through space.

2) even if time travel is not possible, we should prepare for it anyhow.  Why?  It is, I believe, the single best way to teach history at high school and college.

NATTA colleges will be a lot of fun.  Deeply grumpy historians will begin each term with a new cohort of recruits.  Kids with more daring than brains or skill.  The instructors will take them through the exact details of life in, say, 19th century London or 18th century New York.  The students will be smart alecks who believe themselves invincible.  Our grumpy instructors will have to persuade them otherwise.  They will have to soak these kids in knowledge.  And unlike some history courses, this will be knowledge with an edge, a purpose, an urgency.

Training a NATTATT will be like training an actor, spy, historian and improv artist.  They will want deep resources of knowledge.  It will take ‘just in time’ recall and, when necessary, daring and imagination.  They must work with what they know and fake what they do not. They will have to swim like fish through conversations that are barbed as anything.  We can craft our time traps to elicit breathtaking acts of improv (or failure).  "Sorry, kid.  You are not ready.  One more failure and you must ring the bell."   

Look at it this way.  That person sitting beside you.  She could be a time traveler. She is doing a wonderful job of passing.  You would never guess.  But what if she is, a time traveler?  Certainly, it would explain why she choose to combine that scarf with that sweater. And that’s the thing, even tiny errors can be telling.  (I have a friend who speaks English perfectly but he speaks it as a second language.  He was "found out" when he said he was putting a billiard ball in the "middle" of the table instead of the "center" of the table.  I know.  This is a distinction too subtle for me.  Still, he claimed it gave him away.)

After a term of exhaustive instruction, we will send the NATTATT into a “time trap” to see if they are ready.  The time trap will be furnished with every kind of puzzle and temptation.  The NATTATT will need to be able to spot the anomaly.  The NATTATT will have to manage conversations at the bar, hotel, shop, and opera house.  Is this person dressed in a way that signifies mourning, status, eccentricity, or fashion?  The NATTATT will have to know how to respond.  He or she will have to perform flawlessly, finding their way through conversations as if their lives depend upon it. 

Of course we may never invent a time machine.  But we can fund our preparedness out of an educational program that will achieve great things even if our students never get out of the 21st century.

time colonies, time colonists: next new thing in marketing?

Until his death in 2000, Dennis Severs lived in London’s east-end in a house that had no running water, no electricity, no toilet, no shower, no toaster, no TV, no modern conveniences of any kind.  

Mr. Severs had done his best to take up residence in the 18th century, and he and his butler managed a pretty good job of it.

You could tour Mr. Severs’ house and as a limited version of time travel, it was a lot of fun.  I got a closer to the 18th century, even if I never felt I was moving away very much from the present day.

Historical recreations like the one by Mr. Severs, Colonial Williamsburg and Upper Canada Village give us a vivid sense of difference. When I was at Upper Canada Village, one of the visitors asked one of the staff, "So what’s it like to live without a car?"  The answer, "What’s a car?" gave everyone a nice little shock.  

The question is this: how and how long would we have to live in a historical recreation to begin to to lose touch with the present day in a useful way.  Human beings are wonderfully adaptive. We begin to recalibrate immediately. A couple of hours and we are sliding out of many assumptions and arrangements.  A couple of days, and we are well down the slippery slope and this close to Stockholm syndrome.   

The reason this is useful for marketers is the shock of reentry.  So much of good marketing is "getting our head out of the bucket" and "thinking outside the box" and otherwise relieving ourselves of the assumptions that prevent us from seeing what is "right before our eyes."

As Andy Grove puts it in his very interesting Only the Paranoid Survive: 

“All business operate by some set of unstated rules and sometimes these rules change—often in very significant ways.  Yet there is no flashing sign that heralds these rule changes. […] The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed—what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we no had to abide by.”

Time travel really helps here.  Spend a couple of days in the 18th century and we would be gifted with sight.  Indeed, a couple of days in the 18th century would be worth its weight in ethnographies, focus groups and brain storms.  Things would just become ever so clear. Grove’s "unstated rules" wouldn’t be unstated anymore.

Hurray for someone.  There must be many people who would like to live in the 18th century or the 7th one for the matter.  I mean, who wants to live in the real world?  Most of us do it out of necessity and under protest.  Or we could take turns staffing the past, on our vacations possibly.  Every so often someone from the present day would come wondering in, clearly unclear on the rules in place.  Patiently, we would ask her "what’s a car?" and ever so gradually the visitor would begin to watch her unstated rules explode like overheated party balloons.  


Artley, Alexandra, and John Martin Robinson. 1985. The New Georgian Handbook. London: Ebury Press.
Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business, location 362 in Kindle format.
Severs, Dennis. 2002. 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields. Chatto & Windus.
Next time:
Time colonies and travel for consumers.
(I am hoping I can pull this off.  At the moment all I have is the new Arcade Fire album on the suburbs and their magnificently interesting website that let’s us go home again.  The album may be hackneyed but this website, Negro, please.
Here’s the Arcade Fire http://thewildernessdowntown.com/
If you have other examples, for crying out loud, let me know.  Press time approaches.  
Thanks to Anne Moscicki for the Arcade Fire reference and to Jenson Bennett for the Andy Grove reference.