Losing History

What will we remember about the present day 30, 40, 50 years from now? What will future generations know about what goes on in everyday life today? It's hard to say what will be remembered and what will be forgotten, but I wonder how much history we're losing today.

Think about what you do on a daily basis, what kinds of things make up the hours of your day. It probably involves a lot of computer usage at home and at work, driving a car or maybe riding a bus, some forms of entertainment, and hopefully socializing with acquaintances and loved ones. We eat food either prepackaged or prepared at home, we worry about paying the bills, and we sleep restfully or fitfully for some number of hours, probably not enough. The specifics vary widely, but that generally sums up life for most people. (Note: life is dramatically different for different people all over the world throughout history, so assume I'm talking about a group of people with similar lifestyles when I refer to what life is like for people.)

Of course, the details are where things get interesting. What has changed about those details in the last 30 years? Probably quite a lot, especially when it comes to computers and the Internet, but for the most part day-to-day life 30 years ago wasn't too far removed from what it is today. Most people that were alive then have a fairly good memory of what it was like (although I was alive then, and I'm starting to have a hard time remembering what life was like before the Internet). How about 60 years ago? That's getting tougher. Less people alive today were around back then, and memories are fuzzier. How about 100 years ago? 200 years ago? Living memories of those times are all but non-existent. We have to turn to written works to get an idea of what those times were like.

Romanticizing History

I'm thinking about all of this partly because of a Stratechery.com article I read last week by Ben Thompson. I was discussing the loss of history with my wife, about how we've probably lost a lot of information about what daily life was really like in any given time period even if we have some amount of writing about that time. Then I read Airbnb and the Internet Revolution, and I'm thinking about it more. The entire article is an excellent analysis of Airbnb's relationship with trust, but the section on The Industrial Revolution was kicked off my thoughts on losing history again. In this section, Thompson is critiquing Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky's post about Airbnb's new branding and mission statement:
I thought it fascinating that Chesky invoked the Industrial Revolution in his post:
We used to take belonging for granted. Cities used to be villages. Everyone knew each other, and everyone knew they had a place to call home. But after the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century, those feelings of trust and belonging were displaced by mass-produced and impersonal travel experiences. We also stopped trusting each other. And in doing so, we lost something essential about what it means to be a community.
Chesky’s focus is on travel, but in reality no one actually did so. Nearly everyone lived on subsistence farming, more often than not working land owned by someone else; said landowners, along with the church, exercised nearly complete control, with the occasional merchant facilitating a bare minimum of trade primarily to the benefit of the ruling class. The Industrial Revolution — and the accompanying agricultural one — completely flipped this arrangement on its head. Thanks to the efficiencies afforded by technologies like the loom and mechanical power people were able to specialize and trade the outcomes of their labor for a much fuller and richer life experience than what they had previously.

I get that I’m putting an awfully neat bow on what was 150 years of wrenching change. After all, I just basically described soul-destroying — and often body-debilitating — work in 18th century sweatshops as “specialization”; it’s a bit like Uber’s insistence on calling its drivers “entrepreneurs.” And yet, when you consider how structurally the old taxi medallion system resembled the landowner-peasant relationship of old, why is everyone so eager to declare that the new boss is worse than the old boss?
What's so fascinating about these dueling perspectives is that Chesky's perspective is a romanticized view of what life was like in agrarian society. He's asking us to imagine a life with modern day political and economic constructs, but with what we all imagine the social structures to be like in that day and age, namely everyone knowing everyone else in a tight-knit community. That lifestyle never actually existed. Thompson tries to relate a more accurate picture of agrarian society, and in the process romanticizes what life was like during the Industrial Revolution. He acknowledges the trick he was pulling, and in so doing reminds us of how easy it is to hold false historical perspectives because we are evaluating history through the lens of modern experience.

Written History

It takes a lot of effort and study to imagine what life used to be like ages ago. I remember in high school being taught multiple times to not think of historical events or novels in the context of the present day. The politics, economics, and culture were all different in the past than now, and the farther back you go, the more things were different. It takes knowledge of the entire historical context to appreciate the importance of books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Grapes of Wrath. These books certainly add to our knowledge of the time periods they were written in, but they are also better understood when we augment them with more knowledge of those time periods.

Historians have a fairly good understanding of recent history—meaning the last couple hundred years—because of the large volume of written works they have available to study. As we go farther back in time, resources get more and more sparse, and the resources we have get harder and harder to interpret. It's much harder to understand what life was really like in the middle ages from works like Le Morte d'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales or what it was like in Ancient Greece from The Iliad and The Odyssey. It becomes difficult to separate what is faithful to reality at the time and what is fantasy. Adding to the reduced amount of writing is the bias in who wrote. Hundreds of years ago, the land-owning elite had both the ability and means to write while the peasantry did not, so we get an overwhelmingly biased perspective of the past. Without enough information to determine what's fact and what's fiction, and a serious lack of common people writing about their day-to-day lives, it becomes far too easy to romanticize history in a way that's not entirely accurate.

We romanticize history in other ways as well. Most movies and TV shows give a biased or distorted view of what the past was like. The more popular the movie, the more likely it's exaggerating the truth or playing to a fantastic legend, like the Ancient Greek tales. After all, myth and legend makes for a much more interesting movie than real life does. It's quite rare to see a movie that's actually historically accurate, and our perception of reality becomes distorted by all of the fiction. Not intentionally, of course, and I love a good action movie about Spartans as much as anybody, but the distortions take hold all the same.

Our memories also do funny things to our perception of the past, this time a more recent and individual past. Almost everyone who had a decent childhood looks back on that time with rose-tinted glasses. I know my grandparents did, my parents do, and now I'm starting to as well. I look back on my childhood as an easier time when life was simpler and more worry-free. Of course this is not really true. Take any decade in the last hundred years and you can find all kinds of scary stuff to worry about.

The real difference is that I was a kid, and a kid's brain has natural defense mechanisms against worrying about the world outside of its immediate surroundings and needs. I was completely oblivious to the things my parents worried about when I was growing up, and they happily ignored what their parents worried about. I didn't worry about world politics or the economy; I mostly worried about doing homework, playing sports and video games, and eating as much pizza and junk food as I could. The brain also tends to forget the tedious day-to-day stuff, and even most of the negative aspects of the past, while remembering the good stuff. That gives us an especially biased view about our own past and the good old days.

Creating History

Considering the woefully incomplete picture we have of history and the biased views we have about our own past, I wonder how we will remember today. With the Internet we have more data and information being written, generated, and uploaded for the public record than ever before, but that may not mean we have a more accurate record of what life is really like today.

We may have more data available, but the sheer volume of data could be a barrier to a real understanding of today's reality for future generations. If the vast majority of information we have is tweets about shopping and pictures of food and cats, what will future generations think about us? Even though the volume of data we have is going up exponentially, the quality and meaningfulness of that data may be going down at a similar rate.

Reducing the friction required to post something in public view certainly increases the number of people posting and the frequency of posts, but it also means we are inundated with much more trivial posts. When people used to have to sit down and write out a letter with a quill and a bottle of ink, much more care was put into what was written down. But diaries and letters written on paper have fallen to the wayside. Now that you can snap a picture of that burrito you're having for lunch with the smart phone in your pocket and post it to facebook in seconds for all of your friends to see, that's what we get.

An astonishing amount of the Internet is also transient. Tweets disappear, links rot, and hard drives crash. The older something is on the Internet, the harder it is to find and the more likely it's gone forever. Projects like The Wayback Machine are trying to save some if it, but it's like trying to save some of Niagra Falls in a swimming pool. Future historians may not have as much valuable information about this age as we think they will.

The truth about the life of a peasant or trader or farmer from ancient times up to the post-war period has quite possibly been lost to history, and the farther back we look, the more likely we don't know the real story. That may be true of what goes on in everyday life today, but for the opposite reason—too much information instead of too little. These are not revolutionary ideas, nor probably are any of the ideas I write about. They're not newly discovered epiphanies, merely me trying to organize my thoughts and hopefully learn in the process. Therefore, there's no grand theory here about how society is collapsing because of our loss of history, no sharp conclusion about how we can save ourselves by doing better at generating and preserving knowledge, just a general awareness of the fact that much of life won't be remembered and what is remembered may not actually be how it happened or why. It's something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you how things used to be better in a simpler time, especially if that person is trying to sell you something. It may be worth asking, "How do you know what life was like then?"

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