On <em>Twelve Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel</em>

On Twelve Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel

Mark C. Marino

Mark Marino explains Twelve Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel as an allegory of electronic writing, featuring characters that represent salient figures from Alan Turing to Shelley Jackson.

“You appear to be time traveling. How can I help?” asks Ticky the Clock when you launch the chatbot assistant from 12 Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel.

Ticky is just one of the interactive tools that interactors can use to overcome their time travel difficulties in this whimsical fictional cross-media learning module. The hosts or teachers, the forgetful Mr. Dr. Phebson and his lovely bride Mrs. Dr. Phebson, teach an advanced course in time-management techniques. Their case study: a tale of a forlorn time traveler, Barry Munz, who is caught by his past. Like meditating in a labyrinth, by navigating his story through hyperlinks, interactors will no doubt resolve their own issues. If that doesn’t work, the Phebsons’ course also offers other Internet modes of delivery, including an origami fortune-teller, a series of illustrated lessons, and even FAQs. Twelve Easy Lessons becomes an exploration of the aspect of narrative that has been most freed by new media: time itself.

The Lessons

Twelve Easy Lessons is a teaching system built around a series of instructional units. Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Phebson present the work as a cross-media interactive teaching module built for all types of learners, visual, interactive, depressed, and so forth. Among the teaching tools are a tutor chatbot, or conversation agent, named Ticky, twelve (quite easy) lessons, and a study case, focusing on Barry Munz and his problems with time travel. His story is navigable through hyperlinks.

In the Lessons, time travel has two basic rules. The first: Offenbach’s Law: You are always going forward. And the second, Escher’s Axiom, stems from the first: You can never go back where you came from. With these two laws, the time traveler is armed with the disarming truths of time travel. Since most do not accept the basic laws, further instruction is necessary.

To time travel beyond the quotidian second-by-second business that we all participate in, the traveler must look at a picture and imagine what is missing beyond the edges. At the point at which he or she succeeds, time travel has been accomplished. (Of course, the story itself uses words instead of pictures, to prevent readers from actually time traveling away from their computers.)

The Phebsons present the case of Barry Munz to illustrate some of the difficulties that time travelers encounter. The Second Person Lesson
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: There is only one stupid question: “What time is it?”
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Er, It’s nine o’clock.
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: Ha!
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Eight fifty-nine?
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: Nine o’clock is an artificial imposition! “O’Clock.” Of the clock. The clock makes time.
Mr. Dr. Phebson: I see, and the imposition is arbitrary.
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: Well, not entirely arbitrary. It has some relationship to the Earth and the sun, but it is an artificial system that we collectively access on interfaces, such as watches. Now what’s another set of information accessed via interfaces?
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Radio? TV?
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: And the Internet. The WWW is like time, except with a few more dials.
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Except, I can change what’s on the Internet. I cannot change time, well, except through time travel. Ah-ha!
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: You see! Everything has changed. Time: analog, unidirectional, linear time marks one world, the world of obedience. The Internet marks a change in our relationship to information and interfaces and …
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Time! Thus, we no longer share received information, but can change it. So the Internet is like a window into time travel?
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: More than that, Phebby dear: The Internet is time travel!

The Case

Barry Munz is stuck in time, somewhere in the late 1980s, the infamous “End of History,” even though his body continues to travel through time. He suffers from Time Discombobulation (chronus hemorrhoids), an ailment marked by a sense of dis-ease, or anxiety, in moments of low distraction, which prevents him from properly traveling through time. Of course, only one force is powerful enough to monkey with the great arrow of time: L-o-v-e.

Somewhere in his past, Barry has lost something to Molly Jones, his first love. As he travels back to encounter himself, he finds his Virgil, his guide, the nefarious Tab. With his parachute pants and feathered hair, like some trickster summoned from a John Hughes film, Tab runs amok in time. Needless to say, terribly sticky complications ensue. Lesson Three. Instant Instances.
Rule: Changes in the past instantly alter the future.
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: Try to concentrate on the lesson this time, Phebby.
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Yes, my love. One popular time travel theory proposes: if you go back in time and make a change, the ramifications are instantaneously felt in the future. (See the A. Powers G-baby theory and the Butterfly-E Postulate.)
Mrs. Dr. Phebson: Thus, if Mr. Dr. Phebson were to go back in time and hide my keys to the car, I could not have driven here so would instantly disappear. [Mrs. Dr. Phebson disappears.]
Mr. Dr. Phebson: Or if she went back to when I was taking my Timology qualifying exam and performed an exotic jig, distracting me, I would instantly lose all my knowledge of time travel, or perhaps my ability to concentrate. Besides -
Ouch! - She has just gone back and pinched my posterior. She apparently found my magazine featured in Lesson 2. Ow. I can show you the welt.
The problem with this theory, obviously, is that it suggests that there is only one timeline. Also, it suggests time can be changed irreversibly, the very belief that the authorities used to rule time travel illegal in the middle of the third mislenia. Mislenia! Mrs. Phebson, what did I do to deserve this? Ouch!

Virtual Tutor

Ticky the Clock is a virtual tutor who will help travelers as they become lost or confused. Modeled on Clippy the Paperclip, Ticky answers not only the questions you ask, but even the questions you did not think could be asked. Ticky is a customized version of the Loebner-prize winning chatbot ALICE, which was designed by Dr. Richard Wallace.

10,000 Timepieces

This list falls a few thousand short of the promised 10K, but the meditation on the passage of time is important ballast for the turbulent tale of Barry Munz.

The portal to Twelve Easy Lessons is a clock face, which offers access to the twelve chapters of Barry Munz’s tale. Four icons around the side of the clock offer access to the Lessons, Ticky, the 10,000 Timepieces, and the Megaclock, a time-based navigational device. Pressing the Megaclock will send the reader somewhere in the time of the tale. It is recommended for advanced travelers only.

Twelve Easy Lessons was written using a series of forty-two constraints, adapted from Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) practices. Inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the episodes in time offer the same scene, encountered in new forms throughout the narrative. The primal scene eternally returns with variation throughout time periods, thanks to the persistence of memory and the obsessions of narrative. The graphical variations on the Megaclock icon, placed throughout the scenes, also constrained the selection of scenes. Other constraints used include color and number constraints, spawned from an origami fortune-teller. The 10,000 Timepieces continue this aesthetic of repetition with difference in its litany of clocks.

Twelve Easy Lessons follows a lineage of narratives that put time and textuality into play. From Tristram Shandy to Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, the playful forerunners of electronic literature tried to shake time loose from the strictures of narrative. It draws upon the intertextuality of Pale Fire and the forking paths of The Cave of Time, the first Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Twelve Easy Lessons is an allegory that captures the major developments of time travel over the course of computer technology. In afternoon, Michael Joyce taught readers how to time travel electronically. Since then, time has continued to be a central trope of electronic writing. Below is a key to help users decode the allegory, revealing the identity of several of the fictional characters.

Barry Munz: Nick Montfort
Doug: Alan Turing
Molly: Shelley Jackson
Vanity Plait: François Rabelais
Tab: Vladimir Nabokov
Chronic: Italo Calvino
Ticky: ELIZA

The piece employs HTML pages, Flash animations, and Artificial Intelligence Markup Language to deliver its multilinear stories. This cross-media training system can be licensed for corporate time-travel lessons, team building, and sensitivity training.


Twelve Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel (2006). Mark Marino. Bunk Magazine.