Tuesday, June 21, 2016

History and Future

When Francis Fukuyama claimed History has ended, in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, he was wrong, because history came back with a vengeance on 09/11. However, the idea proved extraordinarily resilient. The optimism at the end of Cold War, which was itself a hangover of the great wars of the Twentieth Century, along with realisation of gains from the scientific and technological breakthroughs of hundreds of years for improvement of day-to-day life, made Fukuyama's vision resonate: We seemed to have discovered a straight-line to future.

So even if history did not end, it certainly declined. Generally, the idea that our future will be different from our past. We came to accept that it is more important for us to develop ideas for the future and master the tools to deliver it than the efforts to understand the thoughts and trajectories of the past. Business and Management, along with Engineering, took the place of pride in the hierarchy of disciplines, as it provided those tools and ideas that would be needed to build the future.

The decline of history, if not its death, came from, as is common in the history of ideas, its over-reach. The study of history in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth century often exceeded its brief of studying the past - "to tell, how it really was" - and adventured itself into predicting the future. In one sense, it is unavoidable: As a student of history would always perhaps discover, all those similar points of the past, those challenges which still resonate today, the ideas and discoveries that helped build our world, the defeats that still rankle and those victories that are still felt with pride, that history lives on and shapes our future. It is only a small step, though an arrogant one, to draw the conclusion that it determines our future. Such was the folly that unmade history at a time when future unshackled from the past, at least in common imagination, though the arrogance of the claim never went away (Last Sunday, while explaining his campaign to remain in the EU, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said "Britain always finds a way", as if that historical fact will save us in the face of a Brexit!).

But, now, we are having an opposite kind of over-reach, of the technological kind. As we escaped the cycles of European wars, we have become amnesiac about the scientific progress that made our world possible. In popular culture, the celebration of entrepreneurs obscure all the painstaking work that may have gone before, the less glorious world of laboratory science is now lumped together as 'academic' and discarded from public view, and the disingenuous claim that imagination of a few of the Steve Jobs kind is responsible for all progress has taken hold. It is not that history has been eclipsed by technology; rather, technology has become the new narrative of power and justification of social privilege as history used to be.

But the lack of history has its cost. It is not about our ability to predict or determine the future. Any serious student of history would say that history shows the complexity of forces, and unpredictability, rather than the other way around. History's pattern is merely the obvious fact that the dots always join backwards, and the practice of history is not a study of causations and measurement of impact. Rather, lack of history leads to a forgetfulness of Historical Time - the understanding of how we came to be instead of what we are going to be - and that we are history's people ourselves.

The forgetfulness of Historical Time is self-explanatory: We forget the building blocks that made our world. Our celebration of the entrepreneur has this here-and-now implication - we believe, as Douglas Rushkoff says, everything happens now! Narratives of ourselves are full of claims that the time has acceleratated, and never, as is perhaps the case, that our perspectives may have narrowed. We believe actions have direct and immediate consequences, and if they do not, they are not worth committing to. To take one example, such thinking makes commitment of public funds to basic science research harder to justify, as the outcomes are indeterminate and long term, whereas we marvel at the possibility to private space tourism, which is an entrepreneurial wonder.

This leads to the other problem I mentioned, a blindness to our own historical role. While we seem to be always creating the future (or, more grandiosely, denting the universe!), we forget our responsibility to the future. That our future is unshackled from our past means that our actions mean nothing to people who will come after us. It is not just about climate, but also political actions that we take, machines that we build and opinions we subscribe to: The uncoupling of historical time allows us to escape our responsibilities, not just to our past but also to our future, and live outside the historical ethic.

This is where history repeats itself. And, this, a student of history can perhaps see - the abdication of the responsibility of progress has undermined the train of progress many a times in the past. This has been a feature of human history that it obscured itself only to return, and while we may not care much about dead people, we are better off paying heed to Edmund Burke's dictum: "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it".





 


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