Search the Internet for a time machine and you may end up with an empty wallet and painful injuries, if the movie Napoleon Dynamite is accurate.
I don’t recommend buying a time machine on eBay. But hidden among the quarter-billion Web sites on the Internet are a few that give you many of the benefits of an actual time machine.
Together, these sites let you “travel” into the future to conduct Google searches moments after new results are posted online, send e-mail, reminding your future self of anything and more. And they let you search both the Internet’s past as well as your own.
These services, listed at the bottom of this column, let you peer into the past and take action in the future.
The reasons you would want virtual time travel are identical to the reasons you might want to actually time travel, if you had a real time machine: to satisfy curiosity, to learn and gain intelligence, and to give your career an unfair advantage.
Virtual time travel is now more important than ever. The so-called “real-time Internet” of Twitter, Facebook and Google’s shiny new social media-obsessed search algorithms artificially elevate the importance of information being posted right now, and de-emphasizes the importance of information posted in the past or yet to be posted in the future.
Let me give you one example from my profession. In the fickle universe of technology media, every breathtaking new claim, idea, hardware concept or prediction is massively and redundantly covered by literally thousands of news outlets and blogs.
Two problems: First, there’s often little research to place news in context — to find out if the idea is really new, or just a new spin on very old news. And second, hardly anyone follows up on whether these speculative or provisional events ever take place in real life.
My favorite example is the recurring cheap Indian laptop or tablet story. Every year or two, some high-ranking minister in India announces a “breakthrough” that will result in millions of Indian school kids being given $10 laptops, $35 tablets or something like that.
Whenever the announcements happen, literally thousands of mainstream media outlets, from The New York Times to CNN and BBC cover it with breathless reports. The delivery of actual, cheap learning computers is taken as a given by these stories. Why?
If news media cared about the past, they would do some research and discover that such announcements in India never result in actual devices. If they cared about the future, they would find a way to follow up on the claims by setting a reminder to see if key publicly announced deadlines are met.
But they care about only the present. By ignoring the past and future they mislead the public.
Until the real-time obsession started dumbing us all down, reporters were held accountable for following up on the stories they wrote, especially those involving promises made by politicians. And they were also responsible for researching claims to provide context.
Now they just try to win the race to post news during the tiny window when it’s relevant before everybody moves on to the next context-free, consequence-free story.
The obsession with real-time data has turned us all into a bunch of infants, where if something isn’t right in front of us right now, it doesn’t exist! Peek-a-boo! Giggle! Next!
The same phenomenon that degrades journalism also impairs business.
One universal example is meetings, which represent a colossal waste of time and money precisely because they’re too focused on the present rather than on the past or the future.
An effective meeting is by definition one with a clear agenda distributed in advance, which is used as a basis for preparation (i.e. research into what has happened in the past) by all attendees.
During the meeting, each decision is accompanied by action items owned by someone in the meeting with an agreed-upon deadline. Later, those with action items are held accountable for having achieved — or having failed to achieve — their commitments on time.
This is the right way to conduct meetings. Unfortunately, it’s not the normal way.
Most meetings involve no agenda. Participants view the meeting as a “break” where they can shoot the bull, play politics, impress everyone with their brilliant “ideas,” and avoid accountability.
Over the long-term, meetings resemble the movie Groundhog Day, in which the same topics are discussed with minor variations, and nothing is ever accomplished.
Bad meetings tend to be based on what people know “right now,” feel “right now” and are doing “right now.” Good meetings are informed by what has been learned in the past, and are focused on accomplishing something in the future.
Another common example is the management of either people or projects. Every office has a gaggle of weasels made of Teflon, on whom no responsibility, no blame and no accountability can stick.
Let’s say you manage to get a commitment from one of these people to finish something by, say, end of day on a Friday. Wouldn’t it be great to jump into your time machine, zoom to Friday and confront them? Well you can.
Virtual time travel tools can help you lead successful meetings, and also manage people better and reach your own goals. In other words, they give you advantages in your career.
Here are my virtual time travel tools. Collectively, they’re almost as good as an actual time machine. And they’re all free.
For me, this is the single most valuable tool Google offers. It’s Google’s search engine. But instead of searching the Internet of the past, you search the Internet of the future. You type in your search, then forget about it. When content is posted online that matches your search, you get an e-mail with a link to that content.
It’s priceless for ego searches (a.k.a. “reputation management“), but also for staying informed about new information in your industry or areas of interest. By constantly adding, deleting and tweaking Google Alerts, you end up being constantly informed of relevant new information as it happens.
Boomerang for Gmail and Boomerang for Outlook are plug-ins that enable you to send e-mail that will be delivered in the future. This is incredibly useful. Let’s say you want to remind someone of something on Monday, but fear that if you send a reminder now, it will be buried so far down in their inbox that they won’t see it until Wednesday.
With Boomerang, you can type and send the message now, but it won’t be delivered until the time and date you specify. Click a single button, and you can put e-mail on “hold” until some time in the future.
This service works with any e-mail client you happen to use. By simply addressing e-mail in the To:, Cc: or Bcc: fields to an @FollowUpThen.com e-mail address, you can automatically generate a follow-up reminder.
The name in front of the @-symbol determines when in the future you see action. For example, by sending to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com you get your result in two hours or six years, respectively. There is a wide range of possible scheduling formats you can use.
The design of the service is ingenious. If you place the @FollowUpThen.com address in the To line, you get a reminder back to yourself. If you address the e-mail to another person, and add the @FollowUpThen.com address to the Cc line, then you both get the follow up. If you add it to the Bcc line, then only you get the follow up, but on a message sent to another person (whoever is in the To line).
The most effective is to put it in the Cc line, because not only do both parties get the followup, both parties know that it will be follow-up on, and so the task requested is more likely to be accomplished.
This service has been around for years. Just log in, and send an e-mail to yourself, and it will be delivered on the future date you specify, whether that date is two weeks or 50 years in the future.
Learn from the past
The Wayback Machine, which is a copy of thousands of Internet sites from the past, has been around for years. But in January, they rolled out a new version. It’s much better now.
The Wayback Machine archives more than 150 billion pages on the Internet. You can choose the year, and the Wayback Machine will show you all the days archived. Click on a day, and you see a snapshot of the site as it was captured and frozen in amber.
The reality is that a whole lot of information posted on the Internet gets deleted for one reason or another. The Wayback machine is a time machine for the Internet.
As more people dump e-mail and embrace texting, chat and social networking, we lose opportunities to retain a record of the past. That’s why you should forward, paste or otherwise move as much as possible into an e-mail service like Gmail, then index it all for instant recall. One great tool: fwdMail.
You install it on your iPhone, and it sucks down every word ever written or received in Gmail, and indexes it for fast retrieval. If you use it right, you can have the past in your pocket, which can be very powerful.
Other similar tools exist for other phones and other e-mail services, and I recommend that everyone find the best tool for the job and use it frequently.
Together, all these services give you most of the benefits of an actual time machine — without the empty wallet and painful injuries.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.