Here is an interesting issue for you to ponder. For the lack of better name I decided to call it the time traveler problem. Recently I reviewed The Butterfly Effect which sort of touched upon this issue.
I found the method of time travel in that movie very intriguing. It is never explained how exactly does it work, but it is quite interesting. The hero has holes in his memory – periods of time he has blacked out and could not retrieve even under hypnosis. At some point he finds a way to retrieve these lost memories. They come back to him as very lucid flashbacks during which he is taken back to his childhood body but he retains his adult mind and can act accordingly. The actions he takes during these flashbacks affect his present. For example when he burns himself with a cigarette during a flashback, he discovers a healed burn scar on his body that was not there before.
The movie depicts reality as entirely subjective experience. The world as we know it, seems to exists entirely in the heroes head and as his memories change so does his world. Was the scar really new or was it always there? We can never be sure. It is very existential approach to time travel. Reality and time are malleable illusions based on imperfect memory. Is the hero really modifying the time line? Or are all the alternate realities merely delusions he fabricated in his mind? It is unconventional approach to time travel, and possibly the strongest point of the movie.
A similar approach to time travel can be seen in 12 Monkeys where the depiction time travel is a bit more conventional (ie. there seems to be some sort of time machine in use). However we still see the interesting psychological effects that moving back in time has on the traveler. In the movie, Bruce Willis returns from dystopian, post-apocalyptic future to stop a deadly plague only to be institutionalized in an insane asylum. Since he has no artifacts, futuristic gadgets and only hazy memory of the period’s history (most historical records were lost during the plague) he actually starts to doubt that the future he remembers actually exists. He has no tangible proof that he is actually a time traveler and he comes to term with the possibility that most of his memories are schizophrenic delusions.
Let’s assume that time travel exists today, and that it is possible to go back into the past and change the future (hopefully for the better). Let’s also assume that it is not trivial (ie. the hardware is much more complex than a Delorian + Plutonium). Let’s say there is one – maybe two machines in existence, and access to them is strictly controlled to avoid paradoxes and time based shenanigans.
Lets’ say you have been chosen to go back in past with an important mission. Maybe you need to prevent an outbreak of a plague. Maybe you need to stop an assassination of some prominent public figure. Maybe you are being sent to undo 9/11. Or maybe you are simply a historian whose task is to observe but not interfere. Whatever it is, you are not going back to the dark ages or ancient Rome. You are going back only 30-40 years.
The rules are strictly enforced. You cannot take anything with you. They will issue you with the periods clothing. They will re-create your dental work using the periods technology, remove your tattoos and etc. You never know what could trigger unforeseen time ripples and paradoxes. Back to the Future has shown us that losing a silly sports almanac in the past could completely derail a time line. Imagine what would happen if you brought an iPod or a Kindle loaded with the full contents of Wikipedia with you. Total chaos.
In addition, you are not going back blindly. You will be extensively trained on the specifics of the period you will be visiting. You will learn to use appropriate expressions, and references. You will be required to memorize the popular movies, books and music that was popular at that time. You will also have a convincing and verifiable fake identity – a drivers license, social security, a place to stay, employment history, school records and etc – all potentially lifted from some archival records. You may even get a reconstructive plastic surgery to look like the person you will be pretending to be.
If I was running a secret governmental time travel program, this is the sort of preparations I would make. I would keep it low key – making a naked dude appear in the middle of Times Square yelling “I am from the future” would be a horrible idea. I would want my time traveler to blend into the society and avoid unwanted attention.
In any case it would be a long term mission. Perhaps time travel only works one way. If not, your mission will take several years where you are required to maintain your secret identity. Maybe it is possible to extract you, but it will be done only after you accomplish your mission. Or perhaps the extraction window opens every 12 years. Whatever it is, you will be living in the past for a long time.
Here is a question: how long will you last until you will start question your sanity. Remember you have no proof that you actually came from the future, and your assumed identity is very, very convincing. It has been designed to stand up to high level of scrutiny – so background checks or even a police investigation will fail to dig up anything interesting.
Not only that, but you can’t even exploit your knowledge of the future. Remember that you are only few dozen years back so it’s not like you can impress the people of the past by making gunpowder or whatever other gimmick time travelers use when they go back to medieval times. You could try to pitch cool ideas to various companies ahead of their time – stuff like cell phones, laptops, the walkman – but you are not an engineer. You can’t build a prototype and you don’t really know how exactly these things are made.
How long will it take, until you come to a conclusion that your “mission” is a delusion? How long until you abandon it and try to live a normal life (get married, have kids, start your own business, etc)? How long until you seek professional help?
I would venture a guess that staying in the past for an extended period of time will usually lead to this type of mindset. As the memory of the future slowly fades away a time traveler will become more grounded in the current period and more attached to it. After 10-15 years most time travelers will simply abandon their assigned task and come to a conclusion that they just imagined all that future stuff.
Memory is a malleable thing and it will conform to that worldview. They may even be able to create fake alternate memories of their childhood and adolescence – just like the hero of Butterfly Effect did each time he changed the past.
What do you think?