The closest you will come to having a time machine is to talk with someone who is older than you. I had the experience once of having a conversation with someone who had seen Queen Victoria in person. On another occasion, having coffee at a cafe, I struck up a conversation with an older man who seemed a little lonely. I was rewarded with his story about serving in a tank during the Normandy invasion. I have also conducted recorded interviews with people who served in World War 2. In each case I was experiencing history through the memories of people who had lived through events and had first hand accounts. More importantly, I was able to preserve these memories recounted in their own words. Last year it was my turn when I was asked to record on video my memories of Scotland in the 1950s.
The memories do not need to be of events as dramatic as war. Much can be learned about life as it was lived in previous times. The contrast with today can be fascinating. And important, for each day countless ‘libraries’ burn down, each as interesting as that storied one in Alexandria.
Unfortunately many of these older repositories of knowledge and experience are ignored, overlooked, a reality poignantly invoked in John Prine’s song ‘Hello in There’. And sometimes this obtuseness to the value of living memory or a disregard for how history can reach out to the present can have unexpected results. When making the movie Titanic one of the officers was depicted shooting a passenger, an event that never happened. It did not seem to occur to the movie makers that there were living relatives of the real person who had access to legal counsel.
And it is not only memories that are lost. Fortunately, bias against older people and their potential contribution to current life, although perhaps too common in American society, is not universal. There are cultures that respect and venerate older citizens and family members. It has been suggested that grandparents played an important role in human cultures from early times on. Some of that realization of the value of elders may be reemerging. For example, organizations such as Eldera (https://www.eldera.ai), which was founded during the pandemic, are based on the concept of matching young and older people online to exchange ideas and to bring the power of life experience to bear on the challenges facing youth. The benefits carry in both directions.
The world that I grew up in bears little resemblance technologically and even socially to the one I inhabit today. But there is also much that would be recognizable, I am not unduly nostalgic about that world. If time machines were real I would not rush to return except, perhaps, to play historian, check a few facts, ask a few pertinent questions, clear up a few mysteries, view family members from my now very different perspective of being older than they were in my childhood. But I am happy to have experienced so many things that now seem fit only for history classes. The real time machine is the one I carry with me in my brain.
I remember when the Beatles were the next new thing, the attempts to go into space filled my formative years, and I remember where I was when I listened to the news of the first landing of humans on the moon, conveyed by a transistor radio. Most special of all is the memory of meeting my wife for the first time.
Having recently experience a second birthday during a pandemic, that also becomes part of the data log of my time machine. There are time machines all over the world. Maybe we should consider putting them to better use.