Thinking about Time Travel

I've been thinking a lot about time travel lately, and messages from the future.

Some weeks back, there was a game on twitter: #tweetyoursixteenyearoldself. The idea was to send messages back in time that would have been useful to you then. My advice to myself was simple:

Don't bother with uni. And take English Lit & History, not Maths and physics for A-Level.

The game started me thinking about what would happen if I received a message from my future self:

Of course, it would be more useful if my 50 year old self could tweet me and give me a heads-up

I've been thinking a lot about time travel lately. Because I am travelling into the future day-by-day, and I'm not sure what lies ahead of me. Before you know it, you’ve leapt fifteen years on, and you’re not the person you expected to be. Those little day-by-day steps in the past seemed to be in the wrong direction. 

I’d probably have thought less about this, except for an article I read in the paper, where a woman had drawn up a bucket list, a list of things she wanted to do before she died.

Bucket lists are a disturbing idea in general, the idea that life can be reduced to a series of goals that you achieve or don't, and a life fails if some are left unticked. (And what are you supposed to do if you do finish the list? Start another list of things you really have to do?) There were nine items in this woman's list, some of them things she'd been planning to do for years and not got around to. One item was to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

If this person could send a message back in time, it might be to see Phantom at some point in the next 20 years. But maybe there were other priorities. In each of the 7,000 nights she could have watched that show, something else was happening. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." 

And I've been wondering about the me in the future, and the things I might want to scream into the past, the days here and there that were squandered thinking there would always be more to come. Something interesting happens when you consider your future self and your current self as two separate people. Decisions I make now have an effect on me in the future.

And I make decisions now that I will live with in the future. Douglas Coupland expressed it well in Girlfriend in a Coma:

"Imagine you're a forty-year-old, Richard," Hamilton said to me around this time, while working as a salesman at a Radio Shack in Lynn Valley, "and suddenly somebody comes up to you saying, 'Hi, I'd like you to meet Kevin. Kevin is eighteen and will be making all of your career decisions for you.' I'd be flipped out. Wouldn't you? But that's what life is all about – some eighteen-year-old kid making your big decisions for you that stick for a lifetime." He shuddered."

I imagine the tweets that would be sent by by 54 year old self. Or the one in six months time. So many of the things that were important to me at 24 seem irrelevant now. I might have been able to justify how I spent that time a month later, but now I can't.

The clash between past and future selves is one of the main sources of procrastination – we imagine our future self will be more willing to do the work we don't want to do now. Behavioral economists and psychologists refer to it as dynamic inconsistency ("when somehow the preferences of some of the selves are not aligned with each other") or present-bias (as a brilliant article described it, "This is why when you are a kid you wonder why adults don’t own more toys."). It's hard to guess what the future you will want. 

I expect my future self will be similar to me, in that he would be frustrated with the short term goals that his younger self sought, the time spent doing fake work. He would be annoyed that focussed on the things that really mattered.

While I hate the idea of a bucket list, it's worth asking, what am I doing right now that might still seem worthwhile in twentry years? What would I want to have done before I die? Only a few things. I guess I had better get on with them.

I've been thinking about time travel lately.

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6 thoughts on “Thinking about Time Travel”

  1. We watched Prince Caspian last night on iPlayer. Peter majorly underachieves in that film. Lucy on the other hand, though it doesn’t look like it, gets everything just right. The reason? Peter tries to do it on his own…

  2. Lou – your question just made me realise that I’ve been blogging for about 10 years. I started when blogger used FTP and still have those old files somewhere. I will have to dig them out!

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