PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“John Titor: Time Traveler”

by Patrick Stephenson,
wikipedia source and titorite

Note: These are the two John Titor articles I wrote way back in 2004. The first was for a “Secrets of the City” feature in Rochester Magazine, the second for a cover story in the Rochester Post-Bulletin’s Tangent. Both articles were tailored—w/r/t presentation and writing style—to each publication. The first was published in August 2004, the second that winter. Since their publication, they’ve been widely discussed on net bulletin boards. In addition, the first article was sourced for Wikipedia’s entry on John Titor. I know this because I google my name compulsively. On with the show.

ROCHESTER MAGAZINE // In November 2000, messages from a self-proclaimed time traveler—name of John Titor—began appearing on Internet discussion boards. John TitorDespite the surreal nature of Titor’s story, the intelligence and lucidity implicit within his messages were, to many, convincing. Moreover, his claims held up under questioning from many Internet skeptics. The story soon became the stuff of Internet legend.

Titor claimed he’d traveled from 2036, a time in disrepair in the wake of a nuclear conflict that had killed three billion people worldwide, and that had resulted from an American civil war between rural and city dwellers. To provide proof of his predictions and claims, Titor gave exacting descriptions of the technology that had allowed him to move backward in time, and uploaded photos of the temporal components he’d installed into, of all vehicles, a 1967 Chevrolet.

However, warning of future events, and becoming a Cassandra, were not among Titor’s foremost objectives. He felt the destruction he’d predicted was inevitable. His real mission, he said, had been to travel to Rochester, Minnesota in 1975 and make contact with his grandfather, an engineer on the team in charge of developing a computer called the IBM 5100, which Titor needed to acquire. He claimed the 5100’s future value came from an ability that hadn’t been revealed by IBM upon its 5100release, and that this then unknown function was required by scientists in Titor’s time to resolve a computer problem they’d encountered.

According to Bob Dubke, the second engineer on IBM’s 5100 team in Rochester (and now co-owner of the locally based eXport Venture Corp.), that secret function was his contribution to the computer’s design. The function, which IBM suppressed because of worries about how their competition might use it, was an interface between the assembly code surrounding the computer’s ROM exterior, and the 360 emulator hidden beneath it. (IBM declined to comment for this story.) The 5100’s emulator gave programmers access to the functions of the monstrous, and much less portable machines, that IBM had produced during the 1960s. An imprint of a hook on the outside of the 5100 symbolized the ability of Dubke’s interface to drop into what Titor called “legacy code,” and scoop out any necessary operating instructions.

A hook is an appropriate symbol for Titor’s story. His posts ended in March 2001, after his supposed return to the future. In the wake of his disappearance, the claims he’d made about the 5100 became the starting point from which all manner of Internet kooks conducted searches for corroboration. Unlike his vague predictions of future doom, the information he’d relayed about the 5100 was concrete, and filled with statements that readers could research. It’s a surprise, then, that Dubke hadn’t heard about the Titor debacle until we contacted him in July.

Period documentation Dubke provided calls the computer a “dramatic step forward,” and reveals that the 5100 team were justifiably excited about their project’s release. According to Dubke, they’d been set free from bureaucratic controls, and so had worked smoothly and efficiently on the 5100’s design. The end result was a computer that, though antiquated in comparison to current technology, was an engineering marvel. Bulky but functional. When Dubke heard about John Titor, his first question dealt not with whether John Titor was a time traveler, (“I’m not a ‘Star Trek’ watcher,” he says, “or into building fantasies”) but with who among his team had the right sense of humor to orchestrate the Titor furor.

“Somebody is trying to tickle somebody else,” Dubke says. In response to our inquiries, he mentally reviewed the list of engineers with whom he’d spent turbulent and fun times at IBM. One candidate who emerged, a man with a “caustic” sense of humor, seemed to Dubke the most likely jokester. However, as he reviewed Titor’s posts, he dismissed them as being “too simple” to be the product of any of his friends, and his eyes stumbled over the phrase “legacy code,” which, he says, no members of the 5100 team would ever use. Titor’s 5100 material, he concluded, was merely “derived from information available on the Internet.”

Despite skepticism, online debate over Titor continues to this day, three years after his redeparture for the future. And we may never know if he time-traveled to Rochester. But maybe more importantly, the roots of the civil conflict that eventually turned nuclear will soon take hold. Titor warned the cause for that conflict will arrive at year’s end: the Presidential election.

By 2008, said Titor, there won’t be any question about whether we’re at war, but he refused to provide specifics. “How can you possibly criticize me for any conflict that comes to you?” Titor asked. “I watch every day what you’re doing as a society. While you sit by and watch your Constitution being torn away from you, you willfully eat poisoned food, buy manufactured products no one needs and turn an uncaring eye away from millions of people suffering and dying all around you.

“Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret,” continued Titor. “No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that.”

— P.S., for Rochester Magazine, August 2004

Part II: “John Titor” Retooled for Another Publication

Terminator army

TANGENT // Are you troubled by Terminator-esque fears of nuclear Armageddon? Worried our Bush-derived national division—right v. left, rural v. urban—will produce another, and more costly, civil war? Afraid our unchecked addiction to materialism is a harmful and shallow way to live, and that we shouldn’t be consuming so much of that Mad Cow beef? You may be onto something.

The online output of time traveler John Titor, who warped into 1970s Rochester from the year 2036, and who, between November 2000 and March 2001, posted information on the Internet about his time travels, will do little to assuage those fears. Instead, Titor’s predictions and posts will confirm exactly what you’ve been dreading: the world, as we know it, is going to end—soon. In addition, it’s likely you’ll die right with it.

Where does Rochester come in? Unfortunately, our town plays only a minor role in Titor’s story. The “first leg” of his journey took him here, he said, because he needed to procure a computer called the IBM 5100. The model he sought, which is on local display in a museum at IBM, was the progenitor of today’s desktops PCs, and was required because of a function that allowed programmer access into the “legacy code” hidden beneath its front-end emulator.

For another John Titor article, written for the August 2004 issue of Rochester Magazine, I talked with Bob Dubke, the second engineer on the 5100 team, who confirmed the function’s existence. Titor claimed he was chosen for the mission because his grandfather was a prominent figure on Dubke’s development team. After Titor found the 5100, he promised his grandfather he would warn the following generation of the dangers to come. Consequently, Titor traveled ahead and delivered his warning through an emerging medium: the Internet.

Oliver Williams, who operates a site (www.johntitor.com) dedicated to compiling Titor’s 3-year-old predictions, explains their attraction: “What amazes me is the ability the posts have to leave just enough nagging doubt about this being fiction so you can never really put it to rest.” His attraction to them, he says, stemmed from the fact that “[people had] an incredible range of responses to what he said. [They get] very upset, afraid and defensive.”

Despite the inherent semi-insanity of Titor’s claims (a time traveler? posting on the Net? in order to warn us about an approaching catastrophe? right), his online posts were fascinating enough to sustain more than three years of further speculation regarding his origins and credibility. Among the events that had produced his future world, Titor listed a civil war, between our nation’s cities and rural areas, that would eventually extend to the rest of the earth and kill nearly three billion people (half of Earth’s current population).

The impetus for that civil conflict, said Titor, would result from the outcome of the 2004 presidential election and escalate into a series of “Waco-type” incidents that would combine to produce an all-out war. “The year 2008,” said Titor, “was a general date by which time everyone [realized] the world they thought they were living in was over.” Beyond that year, war would consume the United States, and culminate in 2015 with “a very short” World War III. Structurally, what remained of the US would resolve into six parts, each of which would have its own president, and the capital would move to Omaha, Nebraska.

Titor coupled his Doomsdaying with lifestyle criticism, highlighting what he felt were contributing factors to our imminent destruction. Americans of our time, claimed Titor, were lazy, self-absorbed pigs, ignorant of the world and therefore docile pawns of the government. Titor also expressed surprise at our willingness to eat meat, especially meat from animals we had, by force, converted to cannibalism. The anger Titor expresses in this criticism makes him seem more real, like someone whose emotions are actually invested in his actions and less like a hoaxer who refuses to go beyond descriptions of his time machine and explications of the destruction to follow if his warnings are unheeded.

In conjunction with his convincing tone, Titor’s descriptions of everyday life (what future citizens do for entertainment, for money, for safety) make his posts completely haunting. They bring his end-of-the-world scenario down into a conventional setting. Obviously, although that’s a start, it isn’t enough to completely sway anyone. However, Titor’s descriptions of his time machine, for a layperson, seem just as genuine: “The distortion unit reaches its target destination by using very sensitive gravity sensors and atomic clocks. The basic unit of calculation is the second. So yes, in a sense you do ‘dial in’ in a date and the computer system controls the distortion field. At maximum power, the unit I have is capable of traveling about 10 years an hour.” [Ed: That last bit sounds a little shaky, but we’ll accept it.]

According to Williams, no satisfying dismissals of Titor’s travel method have been issued: “I’ve seen one or two scientists,” Williams says, “who claim John’s technology is impossible but I don’t think there has been any definitive proof either way. In addition, these same scientists who are eager to discredit John are also very aggressive and appear to have some sort of negative bias toward the posts. I think their attitudes only fuel the conspiracy theories many people seem to be developing now.” Williams isn’t sure if Titor’s story is true, but he does feel there’s a possibility “we’ll develop some sort of time travel… [though] I’m not sure we’ll do it by 2036.”

Williams also feels that current political conditions are increasingly similar to those that, according to Titor, (may have) caused the United States’s civil conflict, and ultimately World War III: “Four years ago,” says Williams, “John said Mad Cow would be a problem in the US and it looks like it is. Four years ago, before the war started, John said there would be no WMDs is Iraq and there weren’t. I’m not sure it it’s because John was telling the truth or we’re all looking for news that fits his posts. Some people have speculated that since John shared this information with us, we could change our future. It would be a tragedy if that’s true and we just sit by and watch his future happen because we think he’s a crack pot.”

If Titor’s civil war truly does begin this year, with successive Waco-esque incidents (Williams likens this description to our current situation in Fallujah), then it may be time to be mindful of a few of Titor’s suggestions: (1) Be comfortable around firearms. Learn to shoot and use a gun. (2) Find five people within 100 miles whom you trust with your life and maintain contact with them. (3) Eat less, especially less beef. (4) Consider what you would bring with you if you had to leave your home in 10 minutes and never return.

It will, after all, be the end of the world as we’ve known it. Will you feel fine?

— P.S., for Rochester Post-Bulletin, 2004
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Written by patiomensch

March 1, 2007 at 10:20 pm

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