Time Capsules

The Talos Principle (2014)

Alexandra Drennan
Project Lead
Institute for Applied Noematics

When I was a little girl, one of our teachers, Mrs. Higgins, told us to make a time capsule, write letters to the future, so one day we could remember what it was like to be children. I thought it was stupid, so I didn't do it, which I really regret. So… I guess I'm going to make one now. Bury it in the Archive instead of under a tree. I don't know if anybody will ever find it, but… Somehow it seems important to keep talking, to keep thinking for as long as I can.

The answer that came to me again and again was play. Every human society in recorded history has games. We don’t just solve problems out of necessity. We do it for fun. Even as adults. Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope, and they will unravel it. Leave a human being alone with blocks, and they will build something. Games are part of what makes us human. We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we've always been a species of problem-solvers.

I was in school when I first read about the Talos Principle. I think it disturbed me at the time, made me hyper-aware of my body as a physical object, the material reality of the brain. Ideas that made me uncomfortable at first. But… I think in the long run helped me understand how frail human beings are. And how precious. It's not a comforting way of thinking about the world. But I'd rather face the truth than lie to myself.

When I was in ninth grade, my parents took me to Pompeii. At first I was amazed by the feeling of walking through an ancient city, but then I suddenly got scared. I realized that I was walking through a real place where real people had lived. People like myself with mothers and fathers and lives and hopes and dreams. And now it was all gone forever. I ran to my father crying and told him about this. And he said… I remember so clearly. He said: "Yes, but we are here. So long as there are people in the streets, The past isn’t really gone."

I keep having these dreams. Great empty cities, silent roads stretching for miles. The Earth from space, all dark. Not a single light to guide me home. But if someone really came from another world, what would the Earth look like to them? A wilderness? A wasteland? I don't think so. Even after thousands of years they’d see a world shaped by our hand in every aspect of its being. They'd see the cities and the roads; the bridges, the harbours. And they would say: Here lived a race of giants. These dreams, they scare me, but they also remind me that we built all of this.

DNA is information transmitted across time. The living and the dead are part of the same chain, bound together by chemistry. That’s true of all species, but humanity has taken this bond further. Thanks to technology we have access to the thoughts and ideas of people whose physical bodies are long gone. Like you listening to me now, even though I'm definitely dead at this point. You're part of that chain. You have the capacity to remember

How do you solve a problem that extends beyond your own lifespan? That question may be the essence of civilization. The only answer I can find is to initiate a process, to create an environment in which the solution will occur independently of yourself. But… that requires a difficult sacrifice. Letting go of your desire to bear witness, to exist at the center of the cosmos. To participate in the project of civilization is to accept death.

Oh Alex, you're such a fun person!

On the first night, when I knew it was over, I went out to look at the stars. And I thought: Somewhere up there are the stations we built and the probes we sent out, Voyager 1 and 2, beyond the edge of our solar system. Continuing their long journey through interstellar space like memories of our ambition, ambassadors who have outlived their homeland. And then I thought – if they still exist, are we really gone? If machines are an extension of the human body, then so long as they continue to function we’re still here.

Sometimes I think about the Middle Ages. About what it must have been like to live in the ruins of a great civilization, to know that so much has been lost. But then I remind myself that while the West sank into darkness, others picked up the pieces. That civilization has always survived, because the great insights of philosophy and science are not bound to any one culture or people. They belong to all of us. And one day they'll belong to you.

Sometimes I worry that the answers I embraced are too simple. Can we ever truly, fully understand the divide between our biology and our intellect? How much is nature, how much is nurture? If my intellectual capabilities and my knowledge were replicated in a machine, would that machine be me? Would it be human? And what would be more humbling to my ego: if the answer was yes, or if the answer was no? What if I'm making too many assumptions? But there’s no time to worry about my ego now. There’s work to be done.

When the scale of it all overwhelms me, this is what I tell myself. We can calculate the age of the Earth, the size of the universe, the future of the stars. Sure, we are minuscule, momentary flashes of thought on a grain of sand drifting through the cosmos. But our minds can recreate the past and predict the future. On, say, Friday, a million years from now we'll all be dead. But right now we know what the night sky will look like on that day. And so, in a way, we're not entirely bound by time. Knowledge is a… a kind of freedom.

This is all ego, isn't it? Recording these random thoughts, these letters to the future. Just a desperate grab for immortality. But you should know. Yes, this was my idea, my project, but so many people helped. People I don't even know, people I haven't even met, who can do things I don't even begin to understand. That if we succeeded, if someone's listening to this, I really can't take credit for it. What we achieved, we achieved together. And if we failed… It doesn't matter.

Oh God, there's no time. Just not enough time. We're trying to build the future out of old video game code and half-finished research projects. We should've had years! Maybe decades. And with the kind of money they used to put into building the bombs. If I stop and think about how crazy this is, I'll have nervous breakdown.

So I won't.

Yeah. OK.

Back to work, Alex.

Intelligence is more than just problem-solving. Intelligence is questioning the assumptions you're presented with. Intelligence is the ability to question existing thought-constructs. If we don't make that part of the simulation, all we'll create is a really effective slave.

I look at this inert shape and I wonder who you're going to be. Will you hold the same values as we do? Will you love us for having created you? Will you resent us for having put you into an uncertain and dangerous world? Looking back at our history – our achievements, our crimes – what will you make of us? Will the world you create be like ours, or so different that we can't even imagine it? Either way, I hope that you’ll find this little blue planet to be as beautiful as we did. I hope you’ll take care of it a lot better than we did. And… I hope one day you’ll look up and reach for the stars.

If you're looking through the Archive, you may find people from my time claiming that civilization doesn't really matter. That we'd be better off dead. We have a lot of cynics like that. I hope they seem as absurd to you as they do to me. I hope you can find something in all those files – a song, a book, a movie, – maybe a game – just something that you'll love, that makes you realize how much poorer the universe would have been without it. I really hope so, because… a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices to preserve it all.

Nearly everything on this planet, from the surface of the earth to the composition of the atmosphere itself, has been shaped by life. It's a process that takes millions of years. But we humans, with our technology, with our understanding and manipulation of systems, have changed everything in just a few centuries. I think that's also part of what makes us human. We reshape the world in our image. It's how we create ourselves.

And how we destroy ourselves.

Is there anything that we associate more closely with intelligence than curiosity? Every intelligent species on Earth is attracted by the unknown. Our mythologies are full of riddles and mysteries and divine knowledge. Even the word apocalypse… Even the word apocalypse means revelation. It seems like our ancestors always imagined that even at the very end we would solve one last mystery.

My best friend died today. In the abstract a human death is nothing, of course. An insignificant blip in a sea of billions. But the world is not abstract. Reality is always specific. Painfully so. And that one specific human being, who existed only once in all the infinity of time and space. That human being was my friend.

But he’s not coming back, no matter how much I want him to.

So… all I can do, in the end, is keep working. Because that specificity, that uniqueness – of people, of real people – is worth preserving.

I look in the mirror sometimes, and I see myself like some alien being. I think: who am I? Why do I have these eyes, and those hands? Why do I see the colors that I see? Why do I think like I think?

I did not choose to exist. I was created Every single part of my body, every strand of my DNA, is part of a story that stretches back billions of years. I exist only because of the choices and sacrifices made by so many others, but I don’t know who they are. And what effect will my choices have on those who come after me? Maybe that’s what it means to be human.

Every species is part of the story, but we’re the only ones who know that.

There are… flaws in the system. I think sometimes it accesses the wrong databases. Pulls random data. I don’t know… I don’t know how bad it is. It all seems to be stable, but I can’t tell what kind of impact this is going to have on the process, and… I just don’t have the strength to go over all of the code again.

I just…

I just… I just don’t want it all to be for nothing. I spent all my time here. I didn’t visit my parents. I didn’t see my friends. I did nothing but work. And I’m so scared that it didn’t mean anything.

That I just wasted it all because I thought we could…

we could save the world.

I… I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. I think this… this is it. The end of… me. I… I don’t believe that I will continue to exist. I would like to think there is a… a soul or spirit. Some part of my… consciousness that will persist. But all… all the evidence says that when my brain dies, I will be…


I’ve lived my life never turning away from the truth, even if it scares me. And… I can face this… face… my own end… and… and say… with absolute conviction…

that it was good to be human.