Last week (not this most recent round of classes, but the previous) I talked with my students about technology, including (since I’m in charge) such topics as robots and time travel. They had some interesting answers to the questions I posed. Most surprising to me was the fact that the vast majority of my students do not believe that there will ever be a robot that is as intelligent as a human. (Side note: I told this to Christina and shared my astonishment, but … she seemed to sympathize with the views of my students. It blew my mind. Have we learned nothing from Sci-fi Channel Original Movies?!) But their views on time travel are what I want to talk about right now.
Naturally, when asked where (or more accurately when) they would go if time travel were possible, many were willing to share their opinions. Among their answers were the Tang Dynasty (because of its liberal approach to women and because being … well, “husky” was considered beautiful), back to their childhoods so they could relive them, and to the future so they could make sure they had good families.
But then we started talking about what the consequences might be like for a world where time travel was common. They seemed apprehensive to say decisively whether or not time travel would be good or bad until I introduced the idea of unintended consequences. This problem is, I feel, best illustrated by the episode of the original Star Trek series entitled, “The City on the Edge of Forever” (nerds unite!). In a nutshell, McCoy goes back in time to 1930’s New York and saves a woman from getting killed by a truck. That woman goes on to form a powerful pacifist group that delays the US’s entry into WWII long enough for the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb and conquer the world. Unfortunately, by the time Kirk realizes this, he’s already gone back in time after McCoy and fallen in love with the woman in question. Thus, he must choose whether to save the woman he loves and change history forever or watch her meet the business end of a truck. You can watch the episode here if you’d like to know what happens … or read the wikipedia page … or highlight this text: Kirk watches her die for the greater good. Suck it, pacifism!
All and all, my students agreed that we shouldn’t mess with time travel because we could never know if the changes we made to the timeline would ultimately be “good” or “bad.” But the more I talked about it, the more I found myself wanting someone—anyone—to stand up and say, “By golly, yes! I would use time travel to avoid disasters—as many disasters as I could!”
Universe-ending paradoxes aside, shouldn’t we want to change the tragedies of the past? Would you balk at the chance to go back and prevent the levies from failing during Katrina … avert 9/11 … stop these most recent attacks in Mumbai … get Hitler in to art school….
Plus it would have been great to hear a Chinese student say, “By golly.”
But even if there were unintended consequences—which, of course, there would be—do those go on the shoulders of the time traveler? Let’s take the Star Trek example: Say I went back in time and saved some woman from death, which inadvertently led to the Nazis winning WWII. Is it my fault that Hitler made the choices that he did? Is it my fault that FDR made the decision not to go to war sooner? Aren’t their decisions still ultimately up to them?
So I say let’s do it! Grab the keys to the DeLorean and let’s peel some tires like it’s 1985!
Some students made the case that the past is past and that this is how it’s supposed to be. That changing events would go against the Natural Order. But I submit that that is bogus. If there is some sort of a Natural Order—if the world is supposed to be this way by some design—then that Natural Order blows monkey chunks (<—what does that even mean?). Any “plan” that gives cancer and natural disasters such starring roles is a pretty shit-tacular plan, in my opinion.
What do you think? Yay or nay on time travel?