How Many Versions of History Will There Be in the Future?

My wife likes to make fun of me because she’s heard me use this Norm MacDonald bit on multiple occasions:

I will not apologize because I love it (although I’m still working on my delivery).

It’s wild to think about how all of the non-stop news, information, opinions, videos, blog posts, social media shares and pictures impact how people will think about today’s day and age in the future. We haven’t had nearly enough time to think through all of the changes the internet, smartphones and social media have brought about now that they’re so ingrained in our lives.

I’ve seen estimates that show we now take more pictures in a year on our phones than the entire human history of film photography.

And it’s not just pictures but the way we’re documenting history that has changed a great deal.

When he discovered the Americas in 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote, “We saw naked people,” in his diary. Or at least that’s what people say he wrote. Columbus’s diary disappeared sometime in the 1530s and much of what was written was passed down through stories and hearsay.

It’s hard to know what really happened or how people were feeling for much of history in the pre-modern age.

Jill Lepore explores this idea in her book These Truths: A History of the United States

Most of what once existed is gone. Flesh decays, wood rots, walls fall, books burn. Nature takes one toll, malice another. History is the study of what remains, what’s left behind, which can be almost anything, so long as it survives the ravages of time and war: letters, diaries, DNA, gravestones, coins, television broadcasts, paintings, DVDs, viruses, abandoned Facebook pages, the transcripts of congressional hearings, the ruins of buildings. Some of these things are saved by chance or accident, like the one house that, as if by miracle, still stands after a hurricane razes a town. But most of what historians study survives because it was purposely kept—placed in a box and carried up to an attic, shelved in a library, stored in a museum, photographed or recorded, downloaded to a server—carefully preserved and even catalogued. All of it, together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past—remains, relics, a repository of knowledge, the evidence of what came before, this inheritance—is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.

In the history of the world, most of the people who have ever lived either did not know how to write or, if they did, left no writing behind, which is among the reasons why the historical record is so maddeningly unfair.

They say the winners write the history books. In the past these winners may have been crowned simply because they survived, either on paper or in terms of being a powerful enough story to stand the test of time.

We don’t have to worry about that these days. Today our record of current events is so massive that it’s overwhelming. We can’t even agree on the present. How are people going to agree about this time in the future?

Are people in the future going to have multiple versions of the past and go with whichever one feels best? Will there be biased history books written exclusively for the far left and the far right or whatever extreme factions there are in the years ahead?

Maybe it doesn’t matter but I find it interesting how most of human history occurred without a good written record and now we’re entering an era where there is far too much recording of current events.

We spoke about this and more on this week’s Animal Spirits video:

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Further Reading:
Why History Gets Stuff Wrong All the Time

Now here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

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