Metatalktails January 29, 2021 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Scientists have discovered a way to peer into the past1 and record historical events without interacting with them.2 They then turn the recordings into interactive virtual realities. When do you go? What burning question are you finally going to be able to answer? As always a conversation initiator not limiter.

[1] You know, hypothetically. In case that wasn't clear.

[2] Suck it Heisenberg.
posted by Mitheral to MetaFilter-Related at 11:50 AM (111 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

So what would I do with the machine from Devs?

Off the top of my head, checking out some first run Shakespeare at the globe theater would be cool. And sitting in on some Beethoven improvisations.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:17 PM on January 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

For big picture questions, it'd be great to use this to visit times/places where there aren't records (I was thinking mainly of pre-history, sites like Göbekli Tepe, but applies to other times when eg records were wiped out), and try to figure out how much truth there is in various theories about what the people were doing. I feel like we have very patchy archeological evidence about early people and a lot of theories are spun to fill in the blanks (eg what did various seemingly ritual places/objects mean), and it'd be amazing to really see.

On a much smaller scale, I'm curious what my own personal ancestors were like on a human level, so I'd go check them out.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:19 PM on January 29, 2021 [14 favorites]

ok I'm going back to 15th cent. England to find out for sure whether or not Richard III killed his nephews. this is literally thing #1 that popped into my head.

then I'm gonna pop into 12th cent. France and chill with Eleanor of Aquitaine. we don't even know what color her hair was!!!

then...I want to see what Stone Age Europe was like, across centuries. how did people live, what did they believe, feel, do? what do the remains of their cultures mean?
posted by supermedusa at 12:36 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

So I can peer into the past without affecting events there, but my viewing session isn't one-way, but an interactive virtual reality.


Sounds like this past reality (which I can now interact with) is what Gibson calls a Stub in his Peripheral/Agency books, a branching of reality into a new timeline.

But before I say where I'd "go" I need more info. Is my interaction with the past via a screen only? Is it color, or monochrome? Can I smell the past? Can I choose, and change my location easily? Because I really want to visit the 1940s, but there aren't any burning historical questions to which I require answers.
posted by Rash at 12:37 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ooh, what a great question!

I suspect I'll have a million answers as I mull this over the course of the day, but my first thought is:

I developed a strong interest in old San Francisco architecture and history, and I've loved going through old maps and city directories to learn more about what a particular block used to look like and who used to live there.

I would love to visit parts of the city that were still mostly empty lots in 1905, or see this bit of Kearny Street in 1894 - and I'd love to check out other cities, too, see what it was like walking around Chicago in the late 1800s. I'd just want to soak up the people and the street scenes, pop invisibly into the shops and see what they were like. (There were a ridiculous number of candy stores in the Richmond in the early 1900s. What did they all sell? How were they different?)

Terrific MetaTalktail, Mitheral - I'm looking forward to reading everyone else's answers. Thank you for posting this!
posted by kristi at 12:39 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I read a lot of regency-ish historical romances. Like, a lot. So I would definitely go back to the early 1800s to hang about Almacks and attend the theatre at Drury Lane and eat the tiny thin slices of ham at Vauxhall Gardens.

Also during that time approximate time period, I would like to go back and see the time when the Ladies' Gallery at Westminster was really just a bunch of women in the attic peering through a hole in the ceiling. Because I recently learned about that, and I can't find a lot of details about what the situation was actually like.

None of that is earth shattering or important to history, I just want to.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:09 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think about this all the time. I would go back to prehistoric times & watch things getting born like agriculture, money, slavery, language, rituals.
posted by bleep at 1:14 PM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I would like to find out 1) who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp; 2) who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong; 3) who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop; 4) who put the dip in the dip da dip da dip; and 5) whether any of them also let the dogs out.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:20 PM on January 29, 2021 [12 favorites]


posts on the green and blue, bad and good luck tales
posted by dismas at 1:22 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'd spend so much time seeing what dinosaurs look/acted like. In between I watch the Great Pyramid being constructed, stroll the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, experience the 1833 Leonids, fish the Grand Banks before European exploitation, take in a sermon by Jesus, find out who the Sea Peoples were, investigate whether Silphium actually worked, finally see what was in the third shaker, and find out what happened to DB Cooper.

So I can peer into the past without affecting events there, but my viewing session isn't one-way, but an interactive virtual reality.

The idea was to allow one to open boxes, dig things out of the ground, have conversations with people, whatever, but not have a discussion on changing history or paradox theory. Basically holodeck with 100% accurate starting conditions of any time/place in history - recorded or not.
posted by Mitheral at 1:22 PM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Let’s find out the real deal about what went down with Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, and all other major religious figures.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:23 PM on January 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

Surprised that I'm the first JFK assassination person. I don't even really care about JFK; it's just that the uncertainty drives me absolutely crazy.

Same with the Diatlov Pass incident.

Other than that, I've been reading Life in a Medieval City by Frances and Joseph Gies and I'd probably just go back to Troyes in the 13th century to experience that.

Oh, and I have this lingering question about suburbs. Did people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regard what are now inner-ring suburbs with the same disdain we regard late 90s exurbs? I used to live in Upper Arlington, Ohio, which is a super-wealthy and old suburb whose housing stock has a good reputation for quality. But like, when it was being built, were snobby people in Columbus like "psshhh, Upper Arlington houses are all cheaply constructed garbage for new money impostors! I'll stay here in my built-to-last mansion in Olde Town East!"? Basically what people in 2021 UA say about new construction in like Lewis Center? (Obviously they didn't call it Olde Town East back then but whatevs. Or did they respect what builders in UA were doing? This is not important at all but I wonder.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:41 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Search methodically through major wars and disasters to identify where the coolest bits of artifact and treasure ended up, and then go "find" them to great acclaim.

So, for example, monitor the grandest houses in Pompeii, check out the Minoans, scan through great Norse settlements a few years at a time looking for burial events, and so on and so on. It would take for damn ever, bouncing back and forth to check, re-check, and so on. I'd probably also look over the shoulders of scribes in Alexandria to see if I could get decent snapshots of things in the Library.

Boring, unimaginative, hideously painstaking, and lucrative.
posted by aramaic at 2:12 PM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

Gonna go record some Proto-Indo-European and figure out what the heck the laryngeals actually sounded like.
posted by damayanti at 2:16 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

Search methodically through major wars and disasters to identify where the coolest bits of artifact and treasure ended up, and then go "find" them to great acclaim.

I think this would be a first class, express ticket to lifelong PTSD.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 2:31 PM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm gonna go find a moeritherium, tell her it's ok, we can all plainly see how hard you're trying, I for one think you're beautiful and will always love you.
posted by phunniemee at 2:43 PM on January 29, 2021 [17 favorites]

I want to know how Frescobaldi and Froberger played, and what keyboard instruments Bach actually hat at home in Leipzig. And when Beethoven had his 1903 Erard piano’s action changed, nay, butchered. And I would not turn down listening to a few piano recitals by Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Busoni. This is just a beginning; stay, er, tuned.
posted by Namlit at 2:50 PM on January 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

I'd virtually visit my assault and mugging half a block from my apartment in San Francisco in 1996, to find out once and for all if it was a "hit" called by my downstairs neighbor who always made me give him $20.
posted by bixfrankonis at 3:01 PM on January 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

A few years before he died, I asked my dad why he had left me and my mom when I was 10. He claimed it was because my mom had bought an appliance on credit without his permission. He seemed ashamed when he told me the story.

We both remembered how he left the house and I followed him down the sidewalk, asking him where he was going and him not saying anything. He told me he didn’t know what to say. So I would want to go back and witness what was said between my parents on that fateful day and then, as an adult, watch my dad leave our house with me trailing behind as a child before he got into his car and drove away.

I don’t know why that was the first thing to come to mind but I would do that first. Then I would go figure out what the sexy lesbians were up to during various eras. Plus eat a lot of delicious food because this is an interactive adventure. Thanks for the post!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:16 PM on January 29, 2021 [16 favorites]

Time to settle it once and for all: seriously, how the fuck did they get those cats wedged into those scanners, and why?
posted by googly at 3:36 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

posted by ChuraChura at 3:42 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Just to focus on one issue, I'd settle some linguistic mysteries.

1. What language did the Indus Valley culture speak?
2. Ditto the Sea Peoples.
3. Ditto the speakers of Linear A.
4. Check in on Sumer around 4000 BCE and see if Sumerian and Akkadian were around, and if not, what was.
5. Around 1200 BCE, go find where the Armenians were. As a major branch of IE, they must have existed, but we don't know where.
6. Match up all the pre-Inka cultures of the Andes to languages.
posted by zompist at 4:01 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Which came first: the chicken? or the egg?
posted by aniola at 4:02 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

The absolute first thing I’m doing is going back to a certain day in March 2012 and seeing if the bird me and another birder saw was a white tailed kite or a northern harrier.

After I’ve proven that it was a kite I’d like to go see Neolithic art being created, it must have looked so beautiful by firelight.
posted by lepus at 4:03 PM on January 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

I'd get an answer for where in my life It All Went So Fundamentally, Distressingly Wrong.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:03 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Where all the books went that I've lost over the course of my life.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:07 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Whenever I come across a question like this I think of this interview with retired soccer player Domic Matteo:

If you could have any one person – past or present – in your bar for the evening, who would it be?
Without a shadow of a doubt, my old room-mate Razor Ruddock.

Eh? But you already get to spend time with him, we're offering you any person from all of history.
Believe me, when you've had a night out with Razor, nobody can compete. To be honest, Razor and Charlie Sheen might be a good laugh nowadays [laughs].

Have you got any one story you'd like to tell us about Razor right now to embarrass him?
I remember at one point we kept getting caught going out drinking so he said "don't worry son, we're going under cover, we've got a new car so no one will recognise us. So I turned up to meet him and he's only bought a yellow Porsche 9-11. I don't know how many weeks' wages he paid in fines after that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:14 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd love to witness the meeting between the Polynesians and the south Americans
posted by dhruva at 4:16 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

O also: What happened to the inhabitants of Mohenjo Daro? What happened to the Anasazi? Where did the lost colony of Roanoke go?
posted by Going To Maine at 4:45 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'd visit the golden age of jazz clubs and be there for the birth of the cool. And best of all, I would know that I as witnessing something great.
posted by mightshould at 4:59 PM on January 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

Would nål down the origins of knitting. Oo, and find out what those bronze Roman dodecahedrons were for!
posted by clew at 5:10 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'd like to see a dinosaur. I'd like to walk around parts of what is now the US when there were people living there but before colonizers came. I'd like to see the house I grew up in being built, over 100 years before I was born. I am vaguely curious to see my parents together before they were parents, just to see them walking around and hanging out with one another. I'm not really sure I have any burning questions but I'm sure hitting Post Comment will make me think of some.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:42 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

The moon rock post links to some real puzzles about the Moon, if this system has a powerful fast-forward.

Oh, I’d like to stand on the last shore of the loess hills that wasn’t torn away in the Missoula Floods and watch them go.
posted by clew at 5:57 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'd love to go back about 90 million years or so and see what Antarctica looked like as a rainforest.
posted by Roger Pittman at 6:15 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would love to see the first date of my parents.

I would like to see the discussions surrounding the drafting and adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I would like to be inside the space capsule with John Glenn. Also, with the first untethered space walk with one of those jet pack things.

I would like to spend a week in an Old West town (like Tombstone?).
posted by AugustWest at 7:09 PM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd look to see if Lizzie Borden really murdered her parents.
posted by mollywas at 8:03 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

June 16th, 1937, just outside the Maxine Elliot Theatre in Manhattan - arriving just in time for word to go out that the whole cast of The Cradle Will Rock, which had been locked out of their theater by the National Guard, would be decamping up the street and doing....something. Maybe the original show, maybe just a concert reading, maybe a raucous audience-participation thing, who knows.

Staying just long enough to join the parade up to the Venice Theatre, take a seat in the house - unknowingly somewhere near where one of the cast was sitting - and watch and take part in the whole thing. Maybe lingering to shoot the breeze with some of the Maxine Elliot or Venice Theatre stagehands and help clean up a little before going home.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:28 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'd like to see major astronomical events like the Earth being formed, whatever happened that created the Moon, the breaking up of Pangaea into the current continents (all in vastly sped-up time, of course) and the Chicxulub asteroid strike and its worldwide after-effects.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:32 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'd like to run it on random.
posted by mephisjo at 8:38 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

I want to do a lot of what's already been listed above so just assume that's also part of my answer.

In addition, I'd like to find a lot of black female composers and make sure that their works survive. There is so much that has been lost because they weren't valued. This is true for a lot of writers but I would focus on music and let some others focus on literature and visual art.

And for funsies, collect all the missing episodes of Doctor Who and a lot of other stuff that the BBC and other networks erased in the 60s to save money on tape and storage costs.
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 9:04 PM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'd like to walk around parts of what is now the US when there were people living there but before colonizers came.

Same. I live in the western US and would love to be able to see the landscape and intact societies before colonization.

I wouldn't want the associated PTSD from watching the trauma, but otherwise it would be fascinating to see societies going through periods of intense change (like during colonization itself, ecological collapse, etc.).
posted by Dip Flash at 9:10 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I always want to know how people came up with things. Not like the history of human innovation, but the experience of the first person saying “I think the prickly thing hanging from that tree might be food.” What was going on when someone first decided that they should grind up wheat? What were people talking about when they noticed and named constellations? What came out of the mouth of the first sentient person who unexpectedly came upon the Badlands? Who first made alfajores or fesenjan or other delicious things, and did they know the magic they’d done? I’d go back to the little human aha moments of my favorite foods and objects and places and ideas.

Then I’d go see some dinosaurs so my kiddo and I could giggle about how wrong everyone was about what they looked like.
posted by centrifugal at 9:16 PM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

You know all those things from your childhood that you remember vividly, but when you try to talk about them with your sister she says, “No, it didn’t happen that way at all?” I would go back and look at those things to see who was right, because it’s probably me, dammit.

I might make a trip back to settle similar arguments from previous generations, too.

So many more historical things I think I’d like to see, it would be almost heartbreaking to not be able to change them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:31 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

the experience of the first person saying “I think the prickly thing hanging from that tree might be food.”

The first person to eat a crab
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:10 PM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Oooh, a lot of the above suggestions are ones I'd echo. I've often speculated on such a power, as it is as close as we might get to time travel without the chances of paradoxes and such.

I'd like to watch various places I know well being built. My maternal grandparents were next door neighbours as kids -- they were six months apart in age and it'd be amazing to watch these two people whom I knew in their fifties through their eighties playing hopscotch as four-year-olds. I'd love to find out the real story behind a few mysteries, both historic and personal.

I was recently surprised to find the name of my great-great-great-grandfather Biscuit on a genealogical site, with quite a lot more biography for him than I previously had at my disposal (essentially what I had was year of birth, year of emigration to the new world, year of death, and names of his wife and four kids). The info was posted a few years ago by another descendant of his -- my fifth cousin, if I count right -- who has understandably followed her own branch with more detail than mine.

On my branch, she gets down to my great-grandfather Biscuit and notes briefly his kids (Grandpa Biscuit among them). She notes my great-grandfather had six kids, which was a surprise to me as I thought there were only four: three boys and a girl. This site has three of each, with the three girls arriving fourth, fifth and sixth. The fourth was a daughter who died after one day in the mid-nineteen-twenties, the fifth is the one I knew (my great-aunt) and the sixth is another daughter... noted as being born in the twenties and living until the 2010s, but with no name attached.

All the family members of that generation are gone, and my dad and his siblings know nothing of this mysterious aunt. One of them mentioned once visiting her Aunt Jessica (who would be the youngest of the four I knew of) and as they were looking through some old photos, spotted a black-and-white photo of a young girl and asked who it was. Aunt Jessica, I hear, snatched the photo away angrily and said, "That's no one you would know!" and no more was said of it.

If the researcher is right, this brings up all kinds of questions, not least as Jessica is listed as the fifth of the six children, and the last mysterious one was mentioned as being born in the 1920s. Jessica was born in late April 1929, which leaves a verrrrrrry narrow window to gestate another baby before January 1.

Unfortunately, the original researcher has deleted her account and I have no way to ask where she came across this info. If it is somehow accurate -- did my great aunt Jessica (who died a few years ago) have a twin sister whose existence has somehow has been concealed from everyone?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:17 PM on January 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

This is the plot of the very enjoyable science fiction novel The Light of Other Days (←Wikipedia article with spoilers; here's the “Find this book...” page for it without any) by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke. A couple of rough edges, but overall really awesome.

The narrative device is very thoroughly explored; the technology is discovered by a corporation and it's secretly used by the company, then obtained by governments, then mass-produced cheaply and released for general use. Resulting in societal mayhem, of course: younger people start having sex in public once anyone's private sexytimes can simply be spied on anyways.

There's Shakespearean inter-generational conflict in a family, plus a love story, and depiction of other world-changing events besides the technology. Lots of historical unknowns answered feasibly, of course.

Like Mitheral and Going to Maine, with access to it myself I'd want to peer into the time of Jesus. I'm an atheist, and my bet has always been that he didn't even exist historically, but even if he did I'd be keen on comparing his life to mainstream scripture and apocrypha.

Then, I would feverishly begin gathering samples of every spoken language in history and every written script that was ever inscripted, glued to the screen and with big COMINT earphones on like an online gaming addict, knowing that I'd never even get close to finishing a thorough compilation in my lifetime, but that it'd all be terra incognito from a modern perspective.

Also I'd like to see how accurate Oliver Stone's re-creation of a brilliant blue-walled Persian Babylon was for Alexander (2004). And I'd like to know what the people who wore the Mold cape wore along with it. And whether “forensic hairdresser” Janet Stephens has gotten her reconstructions right, and see what a dry Doggerland looked like in all seasons, and see avocados eaten by the giant sloths they evolved for.
posted by XMLicious at 12:54 AM on January 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

I mean obviously you have to start with dinosaurs and pteranodons. And some birding during the early days of post-dinosaur birds. Then some of the more recently extinct stuff; maybe moas, Steller’s Sea Cow, sabre-tooth, woolly rhino… dodos are obviously iconic but maybe not my top priority.

For that matter I would be fascinated to just go back to see what pre-agricultural London was like (but you know, not during an ice age)… I’m visualising a sprawling landscape of saltmarsh, reedbeds, and wet woodland full of egrets, spoonbills, maybe little bittern, ducks and geese in serious numbers; even Dalmatian pelican! And then further from the river heathland and ancient woodland, all untouched by pesticides and fertilisers. How many butterflies would there be? What would it like to run a moth trap on the site of my house a few thousand years ago (or even two hundred years ago)?

But OTOH it does seem insane to have access to this machine and not visit the Aztecs, or Knossos, or the court of the Moghul emperors or something. Rome at its ancient peak.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:43 AM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

To see if Elizabeth and Margaret really did sneak out to join the VE Day celebrations.
posted by freethefeet at 2:48 AM on January 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Does this interactive virtual reality have indoor plumbing?

Asking for a friend.
posted by wittgenstein at 3:56 AM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is mega sappy but I'd like to see the childhood of the person I love.
posted by Balthamos at 4:11 AM on January 30, 2021 [16 favorites]

My first thought was "all of it?", like, how could I possibly choose? I'm sure I've mentioned here before that I strongly suspect I'd have been more likely to receive an autism diagnosis in childhood had my two most pervasive intense special interests not always been language and people, so the chance to observe people in all eras, from all walks of life (and, crucially, not just the lives of people considered important enough at the time that some record of them is left for posterity) would be huge for me.

The more I think about this question, the more I want to use it as a vehicle to discover the limits of my own interest in people. From the vantage point of my one life, without this ability to scale history, my interest in other humans (especially how they live, and the ways in which "how they live" was and wasn't different in the past) feels infinite, much greater than I'm conceivably going to be able to satiate in the course of my natural existence. With this power, though, I'd be tempted to test it to its limit, to try to figure out if there is any point at which I'd finally go, "you know what, I'm bored of observing human behaviour now, I'm gonna go play pinball instead."

Another interesting part of this as a though experiment is the extent to which present-day life would grind to a halt if this ability to plumb all of history became possible - I'm imagining a non-trivial proportion of the population spending their entire lives crapping themselves in an armchair à la The Entertainment in Infinite Jest. How many of us would stop living in order to spend our conscious time observing the lives of people in the past? I know I'd much rather do that than continue to eke out my own largely messy, painful and disappointing existence. I might even come out the other side understanding enough about how people work that I finally wouldn't feel like such a clumsy impostor around my own species.
posted by terretu at 4:32 AM on January 30, 2021 [7 favorites]

“How many of us would stop living in order to spend our conscious time observing the lives of people in the past? I know I'd much rather do that than continue to eke out my own largely messy, painful and disappointing existence.”

It certainly would have been easier to convince more people to stay home during the pandemic. And also might have made waiting out the pandemic a lot easier.
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 4:48 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

That's easy, DB Cooper or the Alcatraz escape.
posted by Beholder at 6:28 AM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

sounds a lot like the premise of "Pastwatch" by Orson Scott Card :)

I would love to go back and mingle at the post-conference cocktail party (i'm pretty sure there would have been one) of the 1927 Solvay Conference.
posted by alchemist at 7:23 AM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

As an archivist, I feel like I should say something deep and profound here, but really I just want to hit Thomas Jefferson in the face repeatedly with a frying pan. And also hang out with Abigail Adams and John Quincy, who is super cool (especially post-Presidency) and doesn't get enough respect.
posted by backwards compatible at 7:38 AM on January 30, 2021 [10 favorites]

I would travel back to 1930s New York, fall in love with Edith Keeler, and watch her die in the street to save the world from Hitler.
posted by briank at 9:36 AM on January 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

oooh can I go back to the 1920s and have a custom wardrobe made??? that would be so cool.
posted by supermedusa at 9:53 AM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Can we record what we see? If so we need to dispatch swarms of archivists to scan everything in the Library of Alexandria.

So much is lost to us. Extinct species, languages, cultures, music, art, religions, foods..just within human memory.

Before humans is an incredibly huge amount of time. I wouldn't know where to start.
posted by emjaybee at 10:17 AM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

See the various critters from the Burgess Shale while they were still alive. Lots and lots of looking at extinct animals and plants, actually.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:33 AM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Gonna go to the 1991 worlds to watch Boginskaya's floor routine
posted by fluttering hellfire at 10:50 AM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

The first thing I thought of was the precolonial North American West: the mountains and forests and moraines, but also the people who lived and travelled there.

The second thing I thought of was the Tunguska Event, which I would be interested in observing from various extremely distant vantage points.
posted by Songdog at 10:55 AM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think it was an Asimov short story that pointed out that the past can literally be a millisecond ago, so perfect history-viewing-technology is also perfect spytech. I'd start collecting major blackmail info toot sweet.
posted by Mogur at 12:23 PM on January 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

Grand survey of the history of life on Earth, of course.

Then it would be cool to see the workshop where the Antikythera Mechanism was made.
posted by biogeo at 12:30 PM on January 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

How many of us would stop living in order to spend our conscious time observing the lives of people in the past?

Kids these days always hanging out and watching their Past-O-Grams. When I was your age, we couldn't just log into the 19th century whenever we wanted, we had to subscribe to Netflix and scroll until we found us some Pride and Prejudice or Bridgerton. Your generation will never understand the joy of critiquing inaccurate corsets and overly floppy hair.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:21 PM on January 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

I would go to a safe spot, if such a thing existed, and view the world of the dinosaurs, a week before the Chixiculub Meteor strike. I would be able to peer everywhere, and I would see the meteor's approach.
posted by Oyéah at 1:34 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I mean, yeah, anthropology and sociology aside - I want to go to Woodstock!!!!
posted by Occula at 1:52 PM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

I would pick that day in August 1965 when you could visit the New York World's Fair and afterwards, walk over to Shea Stadium to see the Beatles!
posted by Rash at 3:55 PM on January 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

It seems like there are two groups here, external (like historical fact stuff) and internal (personal things). I think I am on the internal side. I have a bunch of moments in my life where much later in life I come up with a different interpretation than what I thought in the moment, and I would kind of like to get another view of events to see.

At the same time, I would like to see lots of historical stuff but I feel like it would be incredibly depressing. In addition to most of history being pretty crummy, it would probably suck to go to what one would consider a huge moment in history to find out that it either sucked or that the history books lied to us.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:38 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

time travel , eh? what could go wrong
posted by lalochezia at 4:45 PM on January 30, 2021

I want to go to Woodstock!!!!

See, that'd just make me feel bad that it was just a VR illusion -- no way to actually buy that Orange Sunshine floating around.
posted by aramaic at 7:11 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd go back to Zurich on June 23, 1916 to see Hugo Ball at the closing of the Cabaret Voltaire. According to the records, he showed up in a fantastical cardboard outfit.
He then proceeded to intone gibberish in the manner of a priest. Eventually, bathed in sweat, he was carried down from the stage like, as he put it, “a magical bishop”.
The previous six months leading up to this moment was when the Dada art movement was born, as World War I was winding down, so yeah, I'd like to see and preserve that moment.
posted by jeremias at 7:33 PM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Mogur, I thought of that short story, too, it's The Dead Past (Wikipedia) where the government suppressed the knowledge that the chronoscope could only go back about 120 years but published written reports of ancient times in an attempt to deflect attention from its real use (which is as you say: espionage, crimefighting, privacy invasion).
posted by channaher at 7:34 PM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of landmarks I’d like to go back and see when they were new. The Sphinx, the Palace of Knossos, the Parthenon, the Colossus of Rhodes, etc.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:46 PM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Ooh, and I’d love to go to one of Dickens’s live readings. Hear Farinelli or Senesino sing. See the Marx Brothers on Broadway.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:48 PM on January 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

I’d like to go back and see what the buildings at Chaco Canyon were really used for.
I’d also like to see the Pantheon in Rome with the original goddesses and gods in their niches.
posted by dbmcd at 8:40 PM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

The New York rock-adjacent music scene 1975-1985. Punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave, noise, other arty weirdness. In particular I would kill to see one of the early TMBG shows.

BTW Connie Willis has several books on this theme (time-traveling historians).
posted by equalpants at 11:28 PM on January 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

göbekli tepe, sea peoples, indus valley civilization for sure;
witness carrington event;
probe younger dryas impact hypothesis;
head down to roswell;
find out where abel and cain and seth found wives (and any of a number of other events recounted as biblical "history");
observe the deliberations at the council of rome; sit in on the elusinian mysteries; listen to some raw vedas (or observe events recounted therein);
check out the voyages of admiral zheng he, particularly those suggested by gavin menzes in 1421;
observe some andean megalithic polygonal cyclopean architecture under construction;
maybe visit an oracle or two;
or walk a bit with bashō or li bai or rumi or sappho or heraclitus;
and, hell, while we're at it, witness some of the events hypothesized by velikovsky.

i imagine much of this would require multiple trips to triangulate (?) just the right moments, should those moments actually exist on the historical timeline at all. of course i wouldn't be able to understand any of the languages, so maybe a quick jaunt to the future to get a babel fish or universal translator installed first.

wait. must it be terrestrial history? wouldn't mind checking in on the inflationary epoch, or swimming in the quark-gluon plasma. the mind boggles.
posted by 20 year lurk at 11:55 PM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

I’d also like to see the Pantheon in Rome with the original goddesses and gods in their niches.

I'm still rather suspicious, like a baby without object permanence, that Roman and Greek statuary were garishly painted originally rather than the diaphanous white marble in museums. So I'd want to confirm that with my own eyes.

Also, hobbits.
posted by XMLicious at 12:17 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

I am stalled on revisions for my 2018 NaNoWriMo, so I would go back in time to when it's set (1924, small town Virginia) to see if what I've got is even accurate. I would probably just wander around the town square and jot down bits of description and how people talked (I am consciously avoiding dialogue stuff about the "bee's knees," but idk maybe that was as least as accurate as people writing "idk" on the internet?) Maybe I would go find the people who this story is based on, for research.

I'd also like to go find my grandfather circa 1960 and get him to quit smoking. I know you said we couldn't change the past. But I am willing to burn up my get-back-to-the-present card if it means he lives.
posted by basalganglia at 6:15 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

I want to see both sets of my grandparents as young people.

All I know of them are what their children saw, filtered by understanding a generation younger, and nothing of their youth and courtship.

I have a picture of one set of them in New York City, as WWII started and they had just gotten married, out for the evening and laughing. It's so tantalizing.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:43 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is an extremely bad idea, but my very first thought was: sit in on that famous solo meeting between Trump and Putin. Terrible because what a short-sighted use of enormous power, and also because wow, imagine having access to that knowledge without any ability to use it to affect the present...

On a personal level, I’d like to go back to see what my mother and grandmother were like as children. There’s a certain social awkwardness that seems to me to have flowed along a matrilineal path and I’d like to see what this looked like developmentally, viewed with a modern eye.
posted by eirias at 8:01 AM on January 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

The building of Eldamar.
posted by signal at 8:10 AM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also, if we can also travel forwards (and I don't see why not), the construction and testing of the first Ansible.
posted by signal at 8:13 AM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

fillmore east, feb 13 1970, the grateful dead, "dark star"
posted by pyramid termite at 3:54 PM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is going to sound so silly, but I’ve always wanted to know my cats’ exact birthdays. All the cats. Past and present.

So if this fantasy technology allows, I want to go back to the births of my cats and make a note of when they occurred.
posted by armeowda at 3:57 PM on January 31, 2021 [8 favorites]

Signal wouldn't the technology this question is premised on effectively be an ansible? Though I guess the communication is only one-way so nevermind.

So assuming this is view only and I can use it as much as I want and not only once...

There's a bunch of personal family stuff, particularly 1880s-1910s I'd like to check out.

Absolutely would use it to make money, because why not? Find some treasure or something.

I'd love to explore the possible pre-Columbian contact theories, although that might be tricky without knowing precise dates.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:27 PM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd love to see many of the cultural and historical touchstones already mentioned. From a personal perspective, I would be interested to see first hand how spring bird migration has changed in the eastern US on a decadal basis from 1450 or so. I'd also be interested to see how the abundance of American chestnut trees may have changed in response to Native American and colonial land use practices up until the time of chestnut blight in the early 1900s. And, oh, yeah, I'd need to take in a dozen or so XTC concerts, too.
posted by mollweide at 6:06 PM on January 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Which came first: the chicken? or the egg?

Don't need a hypothetical time viewer for this one. The egg, no contest. Things have been laying eggs since well before any of them were even arguably chicken-like. Therefore, no matter how far back in time you're willing to stretch the definition of "chicken", the first one you're willing to say was a chicken certainly came from an egg.

As for what I'd personally do with the hypothetical time viewer: I'd tune it to two seconds ago, then use it to spy on billionaires and ruin insider trading forever.
posted by flabdablet at 6:15 PM on January 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

13.77 billion years with a +/- 40,000 million year lens.
cambodia 1221 C.E.
posted by clavdivs at 7:37 PM on January 31, 2021 [5 favorites]

I worked on the excavation of a Hopewell Culture site when I was a young person, and to this day it's the answer I give to this question. Who built that serpent effigy, when, and why?

(And also would love to see the opening night of West Side Story.)
posted by minervous at 7:42 PM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Along with the various speculative fiction treatments of the technology described in the OP here, see also an unfortunately fictional method of recovering sound associated with the term "archaeoacoustics":
[A] trowel, like any flat plate, must vibrate in response to sound: thus, drawn over the wet surface by the singing plasterer, it must emboss a gramophone-type recording of his song in the plaster. Once the surface is dry, it may be played back.Daedalus, 1982
Gregory Benford (astrophysicist-author, In the Ocean of Night, Across the Sea of Suns, A Darker Geometry, Cosm—Black female protagonist IIRC so unusual for white guy author sci-fi, Eater) wrote a 1979 science fiction short story Time Shards (full text) about researchers who re-assembled a medieval piece of pottery that had been decorated with a needle as it spun on the potter's wheel, then were able to recover the audio of a conversation in Middle English from the groove. Language Log expounded on an archaeoacoustics hoax back in 2006.
posted by XMLicious at 9:05 PM on January 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

For an absolute ton of reasons that don't need unpacking right now, Japan is super, super into nostalgia for the Showa Era, which ran from the post war period to the early 90s. Among other things, the period saw an immense rebuilding and massive advances in general quality of life for most people. It certainly wasn't all good, but there is a whole realm of industries about just how swell it was, and I confess, I wasn't even here for that, and there isn't a lot of overlap between it and my lifetime. Even so, I'm a total sucker for Showa nostalgia, specifically books filled with photos from the Showa period set next to current day photos.

It's kind of hard to explain without a short (I promise) history of coastal Chiba, but up until the mid 1980s, the coast was a mile or two (or more) inland, and then the housing shortage, the bubble, and a ton of other things conspired, and bam, Japan just sort of reclaimed land along the entire northern shore of Tokyo Bay. What had been tidal flats where families went out to collect clams and whatnot at low tide became an entirely new stretch of land, complete with its own train line serving several communities along the shore, and, well, Tokyo Disneyland.

I'm entranced by photos of that time. I love looking at photos of this country from a time before I was even born, let alone dreamed I might live here. There's something amazing to seeing old black and white photos of the area that, 15 years ago, was my stomping ground, that, even from then to now has undergone such change.

There's something about it, this older Japan I only ever see in photos, that just enthralls me. I'd want that. I'd want to see Chiba city in the 1950s and 1960s, to see the place I've known the longest here become the place I know today.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:15 AM on February 1, 2021 [8 favorites]

I live on a street in New York City that once had an elevated train running down it and would love to see the street before that train was torn down. I'm at a high enough floor where presumably I'd be at the level of the tracks or above them, and it's just impossible for me to imagine the tracks running down the street in the present day.
posted by andrewesque at 8:22 AM on February 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

I grew up in an old farmhouse on a salt marsh, and I'd like to go back to the 1800s and see it as a working dairy farm, with cows grazing on the marsh. One of the fields had some gnarled old apple trees and the foundation of what we assume must have been the original barn, and I'd like to know if we're right about that barn, and see those trees when they were young. Really, I'd like to check in with the house every few years right up until the time my parents bought it.
posted by dizziest at 11:37 AM on February 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

There are real events I'm sure I could think of that I'd like to view, but after a year of quarantine, honestly my first thoughts are of lost movies I could watch and dead musicians I could see. I'd check out The Magnificent Ambersons. Or see Louis Prima live at the Sahara. Or watch Mississippi Fred McDowell play on his porch. Or see Nina Simone... anywhere. Even sports. I'd watch Jackie Robinson debut. Or Babe Ruth call his shot. Or eavesdrop on Jason Heyward's famous closed doors speech to the other Cubs during the rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:00 PM on February 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'd like to go to an old-timey baseball game at Fenway Park. I'd like to see Elizabeth I get dressed for court. I'd like to tour Cahokia and other large pre-European settlements in North America. I'd like to see Julius Caesar landing in Britain, and watch Hadrian's Wall under construction. I'd like to see what Ireland looked like before the English started invading.
posted by suelac at 3:24 PM on February 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd like to go and watch family homes.

I live in a 100 year old house which has been renovated a few times, but still has some of the old features. I'd love to watch how the space was used. Where did people hang out? What did they do with the kids while they were doing the laundry? How did the kitchen work? Not just in my house, but throughout history. I'd hang out in the servants quarters and visit farms and go to winter in iceland and see if they really did spend six months of the year in the hotspring pools.

And then I'd go back and watch Mozart and Bach and opera's and ballet's. And go to a gladiator match and sail with the british navy and see a dodo.
posted by kjs4 at 7:27 PM on February 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

The One Love Peace Concert for starters.
Pre-invasion Australia: Naarm specifically.
Maybe watch the Wallabies beat the All Blacks.
Then, of course, there's a couple of old family mysteries that I won't go in to here.
posted by pompomtom at 12:12 AM on February 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

I live in a 100 year old house which has been renovated a few times, but still has some of the old features.

Same here. Miner's cottage, with two(?) extensions. I'm sure they could do us a time-lapse.
posted by pompomtom at 12:14 AM on February 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Ooh, my house is 92. Good idea. I’d like to spy on the owner who thought it was a good idea to remove bits of some of the studs in the garage wall, from bumper-height all the way to the floor. Guessing one of those boat-sized classic cars was involved.
posted by eirias at 3:10 AM on February 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

Another vote for Proto-Indo-European eavesdropping. Hearing Tocharian in the original would be interesting, too.

I think I'd be interested enough in "daily life" observations of Roman-era communities that I'd be occupied for all the "time" that was available for such an experience watching a town or two in Gallia Narbonensis.
posted by gimonca at 5:22 AM on February 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would go see so many concerts of bands I either never got to see, or didn't get to see in their prime. I'd go to one of the early Suicide shows at The Kitchen, see DEVO in Akron and then at Max's Kansas City, see Talking Heads at CBGB's, see Kraftwerk on the Computer World tour, see David Bowie on... many different tours.
posted by SansPoint at 8:20 AM on February 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Follow bands of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens separately and interacting. We know they sometimes interbred. We know two (sub)species went in and only one came out. But how did it go down?
posted by pracowity at 1:14 PM on February 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

I too would love to see that and confirm my suspicion that it would probably not look too unlike any prestige drama. We'd be like hm, well, yes, that makes sense.

Also can you imagine the sheer explosion of scientific journal papers that would come out of this technology. I think we'd have to invent a new way of quantifying and disseminating these learnings.
posted by bleep at 4:12 PM on February 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I was watching AOC with 4 women today and I cried.

I would like to see what happened to my mom so maybe she would have sought help before she met my dad. Which would erase me. But that is my wish.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:14 PM on February 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Set the time machine to remain at the nanosecond before the big bang, and the utter nothingness.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:10 AM on February 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Set the time machine to remain at the nanosecond before the big bang, and the utter nothingness.

Ah, nostalgia.
posted by flabdablet at 4:44 AM on February 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nobody wants to see what really happened with Jimmy Hoffa?
posted by jzb at 10:30 AM on February 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nobody wants to see what really happened with Jimmy Hoffa?

Nice time machine y’got there, kid. Sure would be a shame if anything happened to it.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:10 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd like to find out if my theory about who my g'g'g'grandfather's father was is true. And relive a few personal moments as they really happened, without the mythologizing and family stories that have grown up around them since.

I'd also love to visit L'anse aux Meadows and see the Vikings there. And find out what the built-up plain at the center Old Stone Fort State Park was actually used for during the Middle Woodland Period. And find out more about the Denisovans.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:58 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Assuming the time jump is a quick and painless process, and that there's an option to observe, but not be corporeally present, I'd really like to see some geographical/civilisational speed runs! Sitting in a field, watching Rome being literally built in a day, for example.

It would take some incredible computational planning - ideally the machine would match weather/ time of day/viewpoint to make things as comprehensible as possible.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:37 AM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

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