Time Bandits


Our Daily Correspondent


The New York Historical Society’s underwhelming time capsule. Photo: New York Historical Society

If you enter the New York Historical Society by its Seventy-Seventh Street side entrance, you’ll see before you a smallish chest: a time capsule, the plaque explains, created in 1914 by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association. It was supposed to have been opened in 1974, but everyone forgot about it, so the powers that be decided to wait until this year, the 400th anniversary of the New Netherland charter. In October, they opened it, and the results proved so generally underwhelming and dry—some newspapers, some charters, a few catalogs—that the New York Historical Society was inspired to make a better one.

To ensure that Capsule 2114 would be more hep and happenin’, the society asked high school students to contribute items. These include smartphones, e-readers, a Lady Gaga concert ticket, and a T-shirt that reads, SOME DUDES MARRY DUDES, GET OVER IT

The problem with any contemporary time capsule is that so much of what’s truly reflective of our culture is ephemeral, and in the literal sense. For instance, any real memorial to the second decade of this century would need to include Someecards. Described by Wired as “the Hallmark of the web,” this wildly popular company combines old-time stock images with cheeky, deadpan captions to create commentary for basically any event in modern life. Belated birthday? Cynical Valentine? Pregnancy scare? Someecards has had you covered for the past five years. As the founder told Wired, “We like to play off the minutiae of life and call attention to it in a funny way. When you’re being honest, stuff comes out that people usually don’t talk about because it’s dark, dirty, or inappropriate.”

We’ve all gotten them, and many of us have used them. Recently, I created my first: a seventies-looking couple juxtaposed with the caption “I mean, Christ (is born).” I categorized it under “Christmas.” So far it has failed to become one of the site’s most popular offerings.

When a friend successfully defended his dissertation last week, I hied to the “Congratulations” section of the site to send him some free, pre-fab acknowledgment of his accomplishment. Someecards did not disappoint. Or, at any rate, they had plenty of topical options. “My Thesis is ruining my life,” says a card featuring a pensive-looking Victorian maiden at a desk. Another portrays a smiling 1980s woman at a desktop: “I worked on my dissertation today by pinning motivating pins on Pinterest about working on my dissertation,” it reads. Or there’s the etched judge at the bench: “Congratulations on plagiarizing Wikipedia enough times to get a degree.”

And that’s just for starters. Maybe you want to send something more general: “You’re not as complex as you think.” “I’d blow a pharmacist for 2 mg of Klonopin.” “The iPhone 6 will have a larger screen for me to repeatedly shatter.” “The last time I saw you I was hoping it was the last time I saw you.” “I would rather be sitting on a toilet with no toilet paper than no cell phone.” “Someone asked me if I wanted to have another child and right before I could answer my uterus jumped out of my body, into oncoming traffic.”

Recently, an article in the Wall Street Journal touted the therapeutic effects of cooking and baking; the sense of accomplishment and absorption in tasks is helpful for those dealing with depression and anxiety. Now, I’m not a therapist—I’m not even a psychiatrist!—but it seems like if reward neurotransmitters are helpful to troubled folks, looking at hundreds of Someecards in a row is the opposite. You’d need to run a controlled study to really prove it, but from anecdotal evidence I can tell you that what might seem innocuous or even mildly amusing in a vacuum becomes mind numbing, depressing, disheartening in large doses. It is like living in a vat of curdled milk. It is bad for the mind and, I would argue, worse for the soul.

And yet, this should be in the time capsule. If the point is to capture the Zeitgeist, how better to do so? I have even made a card for the purpose. The denizens of 2114 can thank me later.