The Dawn of Recorded History
Someone shared a video on Facebook the other day. It came from a smartphone. That’s not surprising. This kind of thing happens thousands of times every day, probably every minute. Most of those that end up on my Facebook home page show cats climbing into boxes or being startled by cucumbers, but some capture events of more significance.
Regardless of the content, these videos reflect not only what is going on in the world, they reveal much about who we are. As I watched a cat jump two feet in the air in inexplicable fear of a long green vegetable, I found myself wondering, with some embarrassment, what an anthropologist digging through data archives a thousand years from now will think of us. And this made me realize something. We are living at the dawn of recorded history.
“That’s not true,” you may say. “People have been recording things since they invented writing over 5,000 years ago.” And you would be right in a conventional sense. Stuff written in or about the past is pretty much our definition of history. But in an unconventional sense, you’d be wrong because prior to the invention of photography less than two centuries ago, what people were doing was relating events, not recording them.
Actual events are seldom as clear or as simple as the narratives people write about them make them appear. Much of what we know about human history comes from accounts written several years after events occurred, often by people who weren’t there. But even firsthand eyewitness accounts, as many court cases and psychological studies have shown, are surprisingly unreliable. Our minds filter our experiences so that we can make sense of them. What we remember includes not only what we observed but also our biases, our beliefs, and our interpretations. When people write about events, they are not recording what objectively happened; they are relating how they saw what happened, which includes, consciously or not, what they thought and how they felt about it.
And this assumes the authors are trying to be objective. We know this isn’t always true. Stories purported to be true are often intentionally slanted and even invented to support personal or ideological positions.
So how can historians judge the accuracy of these written accounts?
Archeological evidence is one way to do it. Ancient ruins and artifacts can support a written account, but it can’t prove it is true as written. And lack of archeological evidence can’t disprove it. If, for example, people two thousand years from now cannot find the ruins of the Statue of Liberty (possibly because it sank with much of the rest of New York City when sea levels rose in the first half of the 21st century), that doesn’t mean it never existed.
Another way is to compare different written accounts, if they exist. If several of them say pretty much the same thing, that adds to our confidence. But this assumes that these are independent of one another. This may not be the case. They may all be regurgitations of a single preceding written or verbal story, the veracity of which we cannot ascertain.
This has long been the problem with history. It relies heavily on subjective, incomplete, and often intentionally slanted secondhand accounts. The farther back in time you go, the scarcer even these are.
If all we care about is a list of kings and wars and things like that, this isn’t much of a problem, although even these may have intentional additions or deletions. But if we want to know details about historical events or the people involved, our resources have been limited, and our ability to fact check even more so.
Assuming our civilization isn’t destroyed by some natural disaster* or by exercises in human folly**, much of the data we are currently creating will probably be preserved in some digital archive. There, our videos, blog posts, possibly even our Tweets will remain unchanged and ignored for quite some time, possibly centuries.
I imagine that eventually some history or anthropology major, desperate for a thesis topic, will think of mining them for inspiration. That lucky person, let’s call her Alice, will have a resource unlike any that has ever existed before. Those random bits of archived digital flotsam provide an exhaustive record of not only momentous events but also of the daily lives of ordinary, sometimes embarrassingly thoughtless, people. She’ll be able to see every unedited and poorly considered post, every racial slur, every sexist comment, every hateful insult, every irrational dogmatic rant, every dick-pic and boob-flash…. I shudder at the thought of what she’ll think of us.
She may wonder how we survived. Sometimes, so do I, but we have, and I think we’ll continue to. Despite our prevailing tendency to act without thinking, occasionally we do stop for a moment of rational consideration. Occasionally, we even manage to do something smart. These moments may not be common, but they have clearly happened often enough in the past to grow a civilization. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. There’s no guarantee, of course, but I see no reason to think that won’t continue.
So before you do something stupid, consider that someone may be recording it for posterity. Before you post something obnoxious, consider how someone in the future might see it. Ask yourself, “What would Alice think?”
*like the eruption of Yellowstone or an impact by a large comet
**such as climate change, religious conflicts, economic meltdowns, or nuclear war
Written by D.L. Morrese for the ASPL Blog