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Mike Elgan: How to build a time machine

Mike Elgan | Feb. 26, 2011
The real-time Internet is crowding out the future and the past. Here's what to do about it.

FRAMINGHAM 26 FEBRUARY 2011 - Search the Internet for a time machine and you may end up with an empty wallet and painful injuries, if the movie Napoleon Dynamite is accurate.

I don't recommend buying a time machine on eBay. But hidden among the quarter-billion Web sites on the Internet are a few that give you many of the benefits of an actual time machine.

Together, these sites let you "travel" into the future to conduct Google searches moments after new results are posted online, send e-mail messages reminding your future self to do things and more. And they let you search both the Internet's past and your own.

These services, listed at the bottom of this column, let you peer into the past and take action in the future.

The reasons you would want virtual time travel are identical to the reasons you might want real time travel: to satisfy curiosity, to learn and gain intelligence, and to give your career an unfair advantage.

Virtual time travel is now more important than ever. The so-called real-time Internet of Twitter, Facebook and Google's shiny new social media-obsessed search algorithms artificially elevates the importance of information being posted right now, and de-emphasizes the importance of information that was posted in the past or is yet to be posted in the future.

Let me give you one example from my profession. In the fickle universe of technology media, every breathtaking new claim, idea, hardware concept or prediction is massively and redundantly covered by literally thousands of news outlets and blogs.

Two problems: First, there's often little research to place news in context -- to find out if the idea is really new, or just a new spin on very old news. And second, hardly anyone follows up on whether these speculative or provisional events ever take place in real life.

My favorite example is the recurring cheap Indian laptop or tablet story. Every year or two, some high-ranking minister in India announces a "breakthrough" that will result in millions of Indian school kids being given $10 laptops, $35 tablets or something like that.

Whenever the announcements happen, literally thousands of mainstream media outlets, from The New York Times to CNN and the BBC cover it with breathless reports. The delivery of actual, cheap learning computers is taken as a given in these stories. Why?

If news media cared about the past, they would do some research and discover that such announcements in India never result in actual devices. If they cared about the future, they would find a way to follow up on the claims by setting a reminder to see if key publicly announced deadlines are met.


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