I’m just old enough to read, probably around six years old, so this story takes place in the late 1970s, maybe ’77 or ’78, at my childhood home in Conway, Washington.
I’m flipping pages in a magazine and come across an illustration of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, her body composed of gears and circuits. I read the caption and encounter a word I’ve never heard before: Alice in Technology Land.
I ask my mother what “technology” means. She explains it means machines and computers.
A man’s calm voice appears in my head and says, “Pay attention to this word. It’s going to be really important to you.”
I was always an imaginative kid, but that was the only time I ever heard a voice in my head that wasn’t part of my usual, rambling interior monologue. The voice sounded confident, knowing, and matter-of-fact, and seemed to originate outside of me.
I’ve puzzled over this message for over forty years, occasionally checking in on this strange memory as the trajectory of my life proves its point. Technology has been really important to me, in ways I wouldn’t have been able to fathom as a first grader living on seven acres with a herd of sheep in the Pacific Northwest.
I returned to this memory in high school when I first learned about virtual reality in an article about Jaron Lanier in Rolling Stone. I thought about it again when I got my first corporate job out of college, answering phones at an online bookstore called Amazon.com in 1998. This kicked off a 24-year tech career that has included positions with Microsoft, Netflix, Expedia, a variety of crash-and-burn startups, an audio tech R&D lab, a VR startup incubator, and currently Google Cloud’s top reseller and managed services provider, SADA.
Early in the pandemic, I became absorbed in research on geospatial data, game design, and cloud computing. The mysterious message about technology from my past became something of a mantra: pay attention to this word, it’s going to be really important to you.
Undeniably, technology has become really important to me. Regardless of where the message came from, it was spot-on. Did I gravitate toward a career in technology because I was heeding this message, or did I receive this message because the future was already happening, or had already happened, and some brief tunnel between past and future opened, allowing this message to slip through? By writing the words pay attention to this word, it’s going to be really important to you, am I participating in whatever phenomenon planted this message in my head before the dawn of home computers, the Internet, and smart phones?
The voice definitely sounded as though he knew what was coming. While I never received another verbal message from the future quite like this, I did experience a sudden, intense feeling about my future one September afternoon when I was 13, while watching a high school football practice. In a flash, I knew that my forties would be the most incredible decade of my life. At the time, many of my parents’ generation were entering their forties and the term “over the hill” and related morbid messaging were the norm at stores that sold birthday party supplies. Watching drills on the field at Mount Vernon High School, I idly wondered what my own forties would be like. A wave of positive emotion hit me as answering my question. This feeling also turned out to be astonishingly on the nose, as my forties proved to be the most eventful decade of my life so far. I started my forties with the publication of my best book, traveled to China, Europe, and the Caribbean, experienced the joy of raising two brilliant and hilarious children, met the love of my life, wrote a memoir, finished one novel and started another, and experienced the most dramatic ups and downs of my career so far. The emotions I felt in a single instant at age 13 became common to me between 39 and 50.
I’ve entertained the notion that there’s some supernatural explanation for the message regarding technology and the premonition about my forties, but that rings false. I don’t think it was a spirit or celestial being or aliens or some external consciousness communicating with me so much as it was some future form of my own consciousness communicating with me, possibly through a yet to be developed technology.
I’m not alone in having a weird relationship with the future. During World War II, Kurt Vonnegut supposedly had an experience in which he clutched a tree and saw his whole life laid out in a flash, an episode recounted in the documentary Unstuck in Time. This sounds consistent with an author obsessed with time travel, especially in his masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five, which finds Billy Pilgrim, yes, unstuck in time.
My own grandfather was also WWII veteran, as well as a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was awarded for gallantry with a silver star and received a distinguished service cross. But the acts of bravery for which he was recognized, including saving a munitions supply barge off New Guinea’s Cape Sudest, didn’t strike him as especially heroic, given that he endured three wars with an overwhelming sense that he wasn’t destined to die in them. He told me once that he just knew he was going to survive, and that this knowledge was the key to his bravery.
There’s a term for the phenomenon of future events influencing the past: retrocausality. Scientists have begun conducting experiments with photons to test whether time travel of some sort is possible. Was Vonnegut’s premonition the result of some kind of future technology that ensured he survived the war so he could write his novels? Was my grandfather’s sense of his own longevity as bullets and bombs landed around him just a coping mechanism, or was it the result of the near death experience he had as a teenager, when he almost drown in a pond in Pontiac, Michigan?
Alice in Technology Land. I couldn’t have devised a more portentous image to kick off this weird, decades-long puzzle in my mind. The projects I’m working on nowadays sound like the science fiction I loved as a kid — designing video games that combat climate change, figuring out if it would be possible to translate fungal language with cloud computing, using artificial intelligence to write short stories — but perhaps the most vexing challenge I’m puzzling over right now is how one might send a message back in time into the brain of a six year-old boy perusing a magazine one afternoon in the seventies while sitting in his mother’s lap.