Beats | June 10, 2017

Time travel is subversive

The team at


Rod Taylor in the 1960 movie, “The Time Machine”


Making a future we’d want to visit

At its core, impact investing is about the ability to imagine a different future, and then helping to build it.

That’s why ImpactAlpha has made a touchstone of the year 2030. What will the world — and the financial markets — be like when global goals such as zero hunger, universal education and inclusive sustainable growth are actually achieved, and the low-carbon energy transition is well underway? If we could just go to that future, we could return to the present and reverse-engineer our way there.

So we were intrigued by James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel, a history of such future (and past) imagination. Gleick talked about the book at this week’s Long Now lecture in San Francisco, hosted by the Long Now Foundation, which puts a zero in front of the year, as in 02017, as a prod to long-term thinking (and to highlight the Y10K problem).

Gleick, the author of Chaos (1987), Isaac Newton (2003) and The Information (2011) starts with H.G. Wells, natch, but also brings in Proust, Borges and Mark Twain (who penned one of Gleick’s favorite time travel lines in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “‘Bridgeport?’ said I. ‘Camelot,’ said he.”)

Gleick notes the Chinese government’s State Administration for Radio, Film & Television several years ago banned time travel for “treating serious history in a frivolous way,” with shows that “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

“They’re right,” Gleick says. “Time travel is subversive.” The genre first blossomed before the turn of the last century, around the time Einstein (after Wells) described past, present and future as a “stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Now that we’re living in the actual future imagined in 1985’s “Back to the Future,” we seem to again be grasping for clues as to what’s ahead, not only with artificial intelligence, DNA editing and extraterrestial life, but with the whole human project for the 22nd century and beyond.

“We’re coping with a nostalgia for a vanishing future,” Gleick says. ”We need to recover the future before it slips away.”