Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- History

I don't know nearly as much about history as I'd like to. One of the reasons history is worth knowing is that it helps one understand the present and therefore have wiser opinions about contemporary issues. For example, it's obvious that one cannot have a worthwhile position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict without having knowledge of events at least a century old. That said, I'm most interested in history simply because I'm curious about what life was like in the past. As L. P. Hartley put it in the oft-quoted opening sentence of a novel: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This sentiment has become axiomatic, but it's important not to underestimate its insightfulness. After all, just think about the generational changes you've witnessed during your lifetime. Culture mutates very rapidly in a society with ample freedom of expression and association. And modern communication technologies have undoubtedly amplified this process. So it's not surprising that there can be a world of difference between the same geopolitical entity from one lifetime to the next, not to mention over the course of centuries. In light of globalization, I imagine that most foreign countries today are culturally more similar to each other than they are to their 19th-century ancestors.

Unfortunately, our ability to understand the past is insurmountably limited not only by our modern point of view, but also by our limited records of the past. In addition to the fact that many records have been lost or destroyed, the records we do have are sketchy, like a highly pixellated digital photo that gets even blurrier as it is blown up. How accurate can our conception of daily life in the Middle Ages really be given the absence of Medieval newspapers, much less recording technology? We are thus forced to make inferences based on a set of records that is necessarily partial in both senses of the word: skewed towards the records we happen to possess, and inherently unable to tell the full story of the past. Even our relatively recent records, such as TV broadcasts from the '70s, color -- literally in this case -- our perception of the events they depict. When I watch, say, a '70s basketball game, I cannot help but see it as dated and slightly cartoonish, not just because of the short shorts, but primarily because it is palpably historical footage. Accordingly, I'm not sure to what extent my perception of it is shaped by the dated medium ('70s TV quality) as opposed to the dated media ('70s basketball and commentary). We can imbibe the past only through a thin, leaky straw.

Of course, our link to the past cannot possibly be lossless: there is no true substitute for being there -- for direct, immersive sensory access -- when it comes to understanding an event. However, there are striking differences of degree. Barring apocalyptic developments, it will not be long before portable audiovisual recording devices with better resolutions than our eyes and ears are ubiquitous. Once this is the case, future generations will have unprecedented access to our world. History to them will be more of an interpretive enterprise than an investigative one. They will experience the pleasure, wonder, and horror of actually knowing how we did things in our foreign country.

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