The Age of Cultural Time Travel

2 Jun

I was watching “Lost” a few weeks back, when the thought hit me: Not only is this TV show about time travel, but so is a big chunk of our popular culture.

If you’re a regular viewer of the popular sci-fi program, you’ll know that time travel was one of the central features of the past season of “Lost”.

Over the course of several episodes, some of the show’s main characters became unstuck in time on the mysterious South Pacific island that serves as the main setting for the action unfolding over the course of the series.

A character might be walking through the jungle or along the beach in the present day, when suddenly – one time-distorting flash of light later – that same character would be in the same location, but it would be the early 1950s. Another flash and it would be the ‘80s. Then back to the present. Then back to another point in the future or past.

Sometimes they’d jump a few days forward or backward. Other times it would be many years. Either way, they would encounter other characters who were not unstuck in time, for whom life was unfolding in a linear fashion. When this happened, our time-travelling heroes would often have a tough time explaining who they were and what they were doing here.

The time travel plot created extraordinary scenarios, such as characters encountering younger versions of themselves, or trying (and failing) to change past events. In one time-boggling scene, a mother mistakenly shoots her time-travelling adult son, at the same time as she is pregnant with him.

“Lost” isn’t the only time-travel tale skipping through current popular culture.

The new “Star Trek” movie was made by the same team that created “Lost”, so maybe it’s no coincidence the summer blockbuster also features time trekking as a central plot component.

In fact, one character manages through his time-travelling actions to pretty much recreate the entire familiar Star Trek universe, allowing for not only new relationships among old characters and a whole new potential franchise of sequels, but also the cool sight of young Spock meeting old Spock (Leonard Nimoy himself).

Of course, time travel in fiction is nothing new, going back at least as far as H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in the late 19th century.

And “Lost” is hardly the first TV show to explore the concept of moving through time. Shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and, of course, the original “Star Trek” were doing it more than four decades ago.

But what hit me as I watched “Lost” is how this science-fictional idea of time jumping seems especially appropriate – almost a metaphor – for the cultural times in which we find ourselves.

We live in the Age of Cultural Time Travel.

Our iPods, for instance, shuffle us from the latest hit song to the golden oldie and back again, with no concern for the chronological history of music or for consistency of musical genre. I don’t remember my old CD player – much less record player – doing that so seamlessly.

On our 5,000-channel big-screen TVs, we can surf from the latest show to endless repeats of 70s sitcoms, ‘80s dramas, or ‘90s music videos, everything available on some specialized channel at every hour of the day.

And of course, on the Internet, almost the entire history of almost every cultural product – movies, books, TV shows, songs, commercials, cartoons, video games – is available in different formats at any time for downloading, viewing in any order you want, and mashing up and reconfiguring into something new.

In this era, many of us experience our culture the same way that the characters on “Lost” experience their physical reality: As a non-linear shuffle from one place – or thing – to another.

It’s not that everything old is new again, but more like everything old and new is all there together. Young Spock meeting old Spock is the defining image of our times.

What does it mean? Well, if you are growing up in this era, it means that all of this cultural time jumping is the norm for you. Your 13-year-olds may know the latest dance moves, plus the exact choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, twice as old as they.

For many of us who grew up in another era… well… we recently time-jumped into this place and it may take some time to get our bearings straight.

Anyone know the way back to 1984?


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