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"The Story of Pathfinders and the Time Machine," by Stuart Moulthrop


Looking at a picture of you,

Traveling through time…

-       Uncle Buddy, “Time Machine”


In this sense every machine was a time machine.

-       Steve Tomasula, TOC

Though the true subject of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is probably something like the trouble with Being, the work also has a good bit to say about science fiction, and especially that major science-fictional theme, time travel, abbreviated “TT” on the card above. Artifactually, the Funhouse comprises the sort of time machine called a time capsule, a set of documents and media objects bequeathed to a reader who finds her- or himself literary executor of one Arthur “Buddy” Newkirk. About this mysterious person a lawyer’s letter asserts:

…you have, at some time, known Mr. Newkirk.  Probably as a family acquaintance referred to as “Uncle Buddy.”  While you may not remember this, we are instructed to inform you that there may be reasons for this involving “lapses of memory” or other “divergences” of an unspecified nature.

(Funhouse, “READ ME FIRST,” Card 1)

As the text of Card 189 suggests, one kind of “divergence” may be a disruption of causality or temporal integrity associated with the intrusion of a traveler from the past, future, or some other dimension of space-time. This effect may manifest in “absences,” but just as easily in uncanny presence. Our failure to remember Uncle Buddy, this card insinuates, may owe to his status as an “owl at dusk,” an agent of the Time Travel Conspiracy who has somehow escaped or flouted the general cover story.

All of which is fiction, or the basis of an ambitious structure of metaphor: the Funhouse is indeed about disruptions of Dasein und Nichts, but to a stubbornly realist way of thinking, these effects may have more to do with language and poetics than with the physics of time. However, like all so-called novels, but particularly in the case of this unconventional example, McDaid’s work proceeds from a specific, material and technological context. It comes as a box of actual objects (tape cassettes, page proofs, diskettes) and a collection of HyperCard stacks ostensibly backed up from a 1990s-era Macintosh owned by the mysterious writer.  The relationship of this context to the fiction it transmits is highly significant, because it frames certain problems of time and mediation that are at once theoretical and interestingly practical.

Here then is a true story about time travel.

Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse makes significant use of multiple media. In most of the stacks, words share the screen with painstakingly digitized hand drawings and photographic images. The arrangement and design of cards can be essential to their interpretation.  It was therefore desirable, in making the visual record of McDaid’s traversal, to capture images of the computer screen, like the rendering of Card 189 in "The Writer's Brain" stack, shown above. Retrieving these images as part of the video record of the traversal posed problems. Because of its instantiation in an obsolete hypermedia system (HyperCard), the Funhouse is best experienced on vintage computers that are not capable of video output. Attempts to shoot the screen directly were frustrated by incompatible refresh rates, tired phosphors, and the finely scratched glass of 20-year-old monitors.

A better solution lay in software screen capture, a feature implemented from the beginning in Apple’s revolutionary operating system. When certain keys are pressed, the system will write the data for the current display (the screen bitmap) to an output file.  It was thus possible, using a vintage Macintosh laptop, to re-visit and record certain cards McDaid accessed during his tour of the Funhouse, offering the viewer detailed visual context for the texts he read aloud.

However, a further problem presented itself: We were retracing McDaid’s steps on a “Wallstreet I” G3 PowerBook manufactured in 1998; how would we transfer the image data from this machine to a modern system? The screen images are saved in PICT format, which is no longer widely supported.  

More troubling, the CD-ROM device installed in the vintage laptop could only read, not write. Using a legacy installation of Adobe Photoshop on the old machine (version 4.0), we were able to transcode the images from PICT to the more useable JPEG format, but we still could not transfer the data.  HyperCard’s time capsule seemed stubbornly sealed.

It might have been possible simply to find another old Macintosh with a CD-ROM burner, or a vintage third-party device equipped with a SCSI interface compatible with the PowerBook. Neither of these was readily available when editing of McDaid’s traversal began, so we turned to another, ultimately more interesting method.

In the days when the Funhouse was created, there were basically two ways to connect a Macintosh to another computer: the proprietary AppleTalk local-area network (LAN), or a modem allowing data transfer over a phone line. As personal computing environments became diverse and dial-up connections gave way to high-speed optical networks, a third option was added to these interfaces: IEEE 802.3 or Ethernet, a networking technology that became ubiquitous in the pre-wireless era and is still in wide use today.  Ethernet ports remain standard on many laptops and personal systems across manufacturers, and on devices such as network routers.

Using the Ethernet port on the PowerBook, we were able to wire it to our wireless LAN router, which was in turn linked to a cable modem leased from our Internet Service Provider. Once hooked up, the vintage laptop automatically acquired an Internet Protocol (IP) address and was  connected to the Internet. This arrangement enabled some interesting side experiments. 

Readers familiar with the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/) may have sampled decades-old Web pages on modern equipment. We attempted the reverse of this trick, approaching contemporary sites with a 25-year-old browser.  The results were as often enlightening as frustrating.




Though incompatibility with modern tracking and security measures severely limited these experiments, they nonetheless revealed a way forward.  If the old laptop could receive information via Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP), it could theoretically transmit using that protocol as well. All we needed was HTTP server software. As it happens, the version of the Macintosh operating system installed on the 1998 machine (System 8.6) includes an extension called Web Sharing, intended to allow users to distribute files via HTTP, either locally or, if properly connected, across the Internet. Once the image files were transferred to a designated directory on the old laptop, we were able to call them up from any machine on our local network:



This ability to connect pre-millennial and post-millennial platforms underscores the value of non-proprietary, “protocological” resources like Ethernet, JPEG, HTTP, and IP.  It also testifies to the good judgment of engineers and product executives at Apple, who many years ago built these facilities into their machines. Personal computing may be driven by development cycles measured in months, but long-term interests are sometimes also served. To paraphrase Tomasula, given smart design and manufacture, any information machine can at least potentially be a time machine. Back in the day, there was something uncanny and exciting about seeing futuristic software on early personal computers. Something of that same thrill returned, nearly three decades later, as we found we could push data from a desktop configured in the Bill Clinton administration into the information environment of the mid-twenty-teens.  It is one thing to talk, read, or dream about time machines. It’s something else to find you own one.

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