This essay was written for an exhibition by Marion Garrido at Art Centre La Casa Encendida in Madrid designed around the online adventures of “John Titor” — an alleged time traveler who lit up the web and conspiracy radio at the start of the 2000s. Keep in mind that this was written for a Spanish audience and some of the things I say about U.S. culture may seem a little obvious.
On November 2, 2000 an obscure group called Time Travel Institute received a note on their website from someone calling himself TimeTravel_0. The person claimed to be a US military time traveler from 2036. He discussed some of the details of the time machine that had brought him.
This “arrival” remained obscure until January 27, 2001 when this (virtual) person showed up on the bbs of the Art Bell Show under the name John Titor, writing, “Greetings. I am a time traveler from the year 2036.” Titor claimed that he had been sent back in time by the US government to 1975 to grab an ancient IBM 5100 so that a legacy UNIX problem that was causing future trouble could finally be debugged.
On his way back to 2036, Titor had stopped off in 2000/2001 to visit with family. The alleged time traveler proceeded to entertain, inform and enrage Art Bell show users with details about the future and the time machine, which he described as “a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric… powered by two top-spin, dual-positive singularities that produce a(n) … off-set Tipler sinusoid.” Titor provided images and descriptive specifications of said time machine.
Additionally, Titor warned of a US civil war in 2004 and a nuclear war in 2015 – with Russia and the US on the same side. He told that he was living in a future that was a mishmash of post-apocalyptic poverty — with people in survivalist mode, growing their own foods and fending for their own survival as individuals and in small groups — and pockets of advanced technology; advanced enough, for example, to build the Tippler time machine.
Titor remained on the Art Bell BBS for about four months, answering any and all questions about his life and his machine. He did not come on like a man with an important message from a more enlightened or chastened future civilization. He was casual. Titor seemed like a regular fellow who was just passing through and felt like chatting.
To understand what was being enacted then, it’s necessary to understand the US had just passed through the 1990s — and it’s necessary to understand that decade through the prism of two occurrences — Art Bell’s popular Coast to Coast late night radio show, and American technoculture in that time.
Coast To Coast with Art Bell
Coast to Coast aired on 500 American radio stations during the 1990s and had over 15 million nightly listeners. It featured talk and interviews wherein guests and call-in listeners made wild claims about paranormal phenomena, extraterrestrial visitations, conspiracies, hidden technologies and, yes, time travel. During its peak popularity, it was much beloved by believers and skeptics alike. All appreciated the way it took the wild imaginings that were familiar to the readers and viewers of science fiction, horror and other types of fiction and encouraged us to imagine these events intervening in our actuality.
Coast To Coast continues today, although it’s lost an educated portion of its listenership. Those who might have been skeptical regarding pseudo-science and conspiracy theory during the 1990s were nevertheless charmed and amused by some of its more clever adherents. The believers and those who covered their theories and efforts were given the title “fringe culture.” During this century, in the US, we’ve seen the rise of more consequential interventions into the US body politic by people believing in notions that were once considered the province of “cranks.” A large slice of the US population has become “anti-vaxxers” — people who refuse to have their children vaccinated. A mainstream presidential candidate (now President) echoes conspiracy theories voiced by Alex Jones, a bizarre extremist who believes that mass shootings in America are actually performed by actors and that extraterrestrials are attacking humanity. Many Americans have soured on fringe culture’s amusement value as the resistance to fundamental logic has become detrimental and possibly deadly.
1990s US Technoculture & the Charms of Virtuality
The alleged time traveler Titor makes his casual pit stop through time in 2000 and 2001, in the immediate aftermath of that unique American decade of the 1990s.
The ‘90s began with an emergence of a quasi-utopian tech culture in tandem with an increasingly mass embrace of the personal computer and the slow-but-certain migration of citizens into the conflated shared space known as “online.” In these early moments, the excitement and novelty had a particularly countercultural flavor, with techies holding digital “be-ins” — based on the very influential hippie be-ins that took place in 1967. Although the technology was not yet ready for general use, the idea of Virtual Reality — a technology that would visually completely immerse users in shared digital space — becomes totemic for this period, appealing to the counterculture’s romantic attachment to the mind expanding qualities of hallucinating. Along with excited discourse about Virtual Reality came a broader embrace of the notion of virtuality, engendering an attempt to understand who we were (and are) as humans living largely with – or in – mediated space. As we looked at how much of our time and our sense of identity was given to television, radio, telephones, recorded music and, now, the emergence of the online, we began to relish the blurring of lines between the imaginal and the actual as a niche for alternative existence — a place that could come to be dominated by the cultures most creative, playful and presumably enlightened minds.
Later in that same decade, these quasi-utopian tropes became commercialized, with the migration of business, big and small, onto the World Wide Web. Maintaining much of the flavor of hipness that had already been established, the youthful advertising and corporate mainstream — having grown up with many of the same cultural influences as its more hardcore countercultural cousins — created the myth of a wired world catapulting at breakneck speed towards a “long boom” global economy in which poverty and social problems would fall before the rapid onslaught of technology and science. A whirlwind of technological development would change everything, with no need for any messy political challenges. It was not unusual, during this time, to find extravagant discussions of tropes like time travel in the popular representative periodical of the era, Wired magazine.
Darker Undercurrents and “John Titor”
The utopian hopes and imaginings of that time were always shadowed by the dystopian potentials of the same technological excitements. The culture’s love of cyberpunk’s hard-edged futures and Philip K. Dick’s twisted stories of mind rape and the loss of a recognizable self in a recognizably real world were equally a part of this milieu. It was within this context, that we find a love of pranks — trickery used to make a point, or merely to experiment with how people will respond to the deliberately-created illusion. And so, as the ‘90s gave way to the new millennium, we get our virtual persona — our fake traveler through time — John Titor. Titor attaches his casual tales of near-future disasters to our fascination with technological possibilities — in this case, the technical details of making and using a time machine, complete with shoddy photographs (which only added to the aura of mystery) of the various elements of said machine.
Titor faced some skepticism and some hostility during his visitation on the Art Bell bbs. He also had some enthusiastic believers. But he didn’t face the sort of anger — replete with the coarsest sort of name-calling and death threats — that we see so much of online today. Today, our wide-open space for hallucinatory imaginative mind expansion seems to be dominated by angry abusive adolescent boys of all ages side-by-side with self-appointed righteous call-out inquisitors. Rather than sharing creative imaginings, we have filled our world with surly opinionating. Perhaps this is just the age of text and the age of virtual reality will be much better. Meanwhile, we can look back on John Titor’s future as a story that didn’t come to pass, but that nonetheless provides us a narrative upon which to project various images and ideas. And maybe, some time in the future, another time traveler will pass through and accurately tell us what will come to pass. That would be one tricky trick.