The best time and place in history

This week we had a little competition at work: a bottle of wine for the best answer to the question posed by an article in Intelligent Life magazine: what was the best time and place to be alive? The article clarified the question in the standfirst: if you could travel back in time, what would be your destination? It also presented a sample answer by one Patrick Dillon, historian.

I didn’t win. But that’s because, though I wrote a response (which forms the basis of this post), I didn’t really answer the question, at least not in the spirit in which it was intended. Short answer: I give nostalgia very short shrift.

Part of the trouble is that they are two rather different questions. I can think of plenty of places and times I’d like to visit, whether to experience a piece of historic culture first-hand (the premiere of Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies, in the same concert) or to satisfy curiosity (were great whales really in the waters as abundantly as recent theories suggest, before humans got involved?). But I wouldn’t necessarily want to live there or then. I could also agree that a certain time period was a good time to be alive, without any great longing to be then myself.

And there’s another, larger issue.

Patrick Dillon’s answer very much assumes that the time-traveller must be purely an observer. This is understandable: if time-travel is true time-travel (and not, say, a means of casting you into an alternative universe that just happens to be running a few centuries behind our own) then anything that has happened has happened. You already know that you failed to prevent the First World War or the Fall of Rome. And unless you can persuade yourself that you can seamlessly assume the identity of an established person in history (that they were you all along), you know that you didn’t bring the heliocentric model of the solar system to the sixteenth century or women’s suffrage to the twentieth. You might be able to work behind the scenes: be a passer-by who comments to Newton in the orchard ‘I wonder why apples always fall down?’ (Or, if you have a mischievous streak, you could be the Person from Porlock who interrupts Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.)

I’d much prefer to be in a position to make a difference in the world. But in travelling to the past, you’d never know if you were really necessary or not. It’s true that perhaps, but for your interference, the Black Death would have been infinitely worse. But perhaps, but for your interference, it wouldn’t have happened at all. You just can’t know. And that would mean that whatever your actual role, it wouldn’t really feel like you had achieved anything.

There’s also the question of how you would live in the past you’d chosen. Most people in this culture have skillsets which would leave them superbly ill-equipped for any sort of earning in past time periods. My work-related skills revolve around the operation of a machine which has only existed in a form I’d be capable of working with for about 20 years – and nothing at all like it existed before the mid twentieth century. One of my main hobbies involves a musical instrument which only reached its current form in the eighteenth century. I suppose I might be able to earn a living of sorts as a singer, back to the period when cultural understandings of music differ so greatly from my own that I wouldn’t have any listeners. By then literacy would be rare enough that, if I can learn the language of the time, I could become a scribe. But in reality, there aren’t an awful lot of options. In much of civilised history, without my husband I’d have two choices: nun or prostitute.

I was recently unexpectedly reminded of the importance of gender in identity, so I am rather disturbed by Dillon’s blithe assumption that we can easily ‘switch genders if we feel like it’. That would be to fundamentally change who I am, which is surely not the point of the exercise. Dillon can only offer this so easily because he knows he wouldn’t have to take himself up on it. I doubt he’d leap at the chance to become a woman to experience life amongst the mythical Amazon warriors.

It’s also fundamentally selfish. Don’t like the way women were treated in ancient Rome? That’s ok, you don’t have to actually be one. Don’t like the atrocities in the Congo Free State? You can be one of the soldiers who chopped off hands instead. That makes everything all right, doesn’t it? Anywhen can be the best time to be alive if you’re allowed to ignore all the bits you don’t like.

I’d rather steer clear of times past entirely. If time-travel into the past is possible, then surely time-travel into the future is equally possible. I can’t believe there’s a mechanism by which I could travel to the sixteenth century which would not also allow the people from then to travel to my present. And if they can travel to their future, I should be able to travel to mine.

Dillon is speaking nonsense when he suggests that our time has little potential left: speaking from breathtaking ignorance of his own privilege and an astounding lack of imagination. His excitement may have leaked away, but mine certainly hasn’t. I’d love to visit an era where we have a benevolent Government of World Peace; where everyone enjoys the level of comfort that people like Dillon (and me) take for granted now; where malaria and dengue fever have gone the way of smallpox; where people really do treat other people without prejudice; where clean energy is limitless and speedy travel to distant planets routine. I want to see teleporters, matter replicators, anti-gravity devices, brain–computer interfaces, non-Terran sentient life; cures for dementia, tooth decay, and selfishness. I want my holosuites, dammit!

Dillon claims that the question is not about technology but about ‘lifestyle and ideas, people and manners, things that ebb and flow’. I don’t think the two can be so easily separated. How could we have developed mass literacy and the exchange of ideas without the printing press? How could we have a lawful society with an effective police force without rapid communication? Or how about modern philosophy without the advances in housebuilding and furniture-making (not to mention electricity and central heating) that enabled people to sit down and read and mull things over in comfort? What would music look like without the techniques to build modern instruments, or trade without global transport? I’d love to see what cultural advances can be achieved by the development of technologies that are currently the preserve of science fiction.

But even if I travel forward and find the Utopia I hope for, I’m still robbing myself of agency and relegating myself to the role of observer. What could I say to a people so much more advanced than my own? Wouldn’t it be better to stay here and now, and play my small part in bringing this future into being? (Or, if I discover a post-apocalyptic wasteland, how could I begin to go about putting it right?) And, again, what would I do with my life? My computer skills would be irrelevant in an age when computers have evolved beyond recognition. I’d probably end up as a curiosity at some university, pedantically correcting historians on twenty-first century trivia.

Ultimately, the best time travel is the only one available, and it’s one we can all use: moving into the future at the rate of sixty seconds a minute. This is potential for both more experience than can be contained in an entire lifetime, and more power than we know how to use. We all of us have the potential, and the duty, to change the world, here and now, in ways small and large, seen and unseen – to make the future we deserve. We have the present to work with, and it’s a powerful tool. We should learn to wield it wisely.