Using Human History as a guide Could Our Present Civilization Fall Into a New Dark Age?

BAYLOR

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I have The Second Sleep by Robert Harris on my 'to read' pile. I'm trying to quickly finish another book so that I can start it. It sounds excellent. Begins in 1469 with a monk riding to Devon to bury another monk. People began to write to Harris after they had only read the second page to complain about his historical inaccuracies. Spoiler: it isn't set in the past but in the future.
Sounds Interesting. :)
 

Dragonlady

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I think there's a very real possibility of social collapse due to climate change. We are already seeing unpredictable weather leading to poor harvests and flooding and other natural disasters. A significant disruption to food supplies may not be too far away if our politicians and business leaders keep their heads in the sand.
 

sknox

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Yet, human history is no guide at all to dealing with climate change. In fact, if we look to history we might well conclude that we'll be fine. After all, we've made it this far! And through some pretty major catastrophes.

In fact, I'll put forward an opposite propostion: the best guide to the future is not history but imagination. And here, artists lead the way. We are usually cautionary, only occasionally inspirational; not only science fiction writers, but artists of all sorts warn of dangers and point the way to possibilities. Think of the extent to which SF writers inspired whole generations of scientists and engineers. How writers and movie makers--these are the big influencers--painted nuclear apocalypse so vividly. Artists of all sorts reveal crimes and outrages, caution about social trends.

Scientists speak of these things as well, but they're often ignored. Artists set the goals; scientists help drive us toward those goals. Historians? meh. Looking forward isn't our forte. We aren't trained in it. Indeed, everything about our training mitigates against projection because the future has no documentation. There's nothing for us to study. We can speculate, but at that point we're the same as any other guy in the pub.
 

DannMcGrew

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I have The Second Sleep by Robert Harris on my 'to read' pile. I'm trying to quickly finish another book so that I can start it. It sounds excellent. Begins in 1469 with a monk riding to Devon to bury another monk. People began to write to Harris after they had only read the second page to complain about his historical inaccuracies. Spoiler: it isn't set in the past but in the future.
The New York Times review: It’s 1468. Why Does the Village Priest Have an iPhone?
OUCH!
 

Dave

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I was going to edit that and put a spoiler tag around it, but it is Robert Harris who is doing this. He's on the radio and in newspapers spoiling his own book. So, if @dannymcg has a problem he'll need to speak with him.
 

Robert Zwilling

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Brunner has a trilogy of sorts, more like ideas overlapping than feeding into each other. Stand On Zanzibar, Shockwave Rider, and The Sheep Look Up. We can stumble into "Dark Ages" just as easily by over reliance on science as we can denying it's existence. Abuse of science and denial of science go hand in hand. Like a bell curve. We have designed our world so moderation in the middle of the curve has steep slopes that make it a hard position to maintain.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Scientists speak of these things as well, but they're often ignored. Artists set the goals; scientists help drive us toward those goals. Historians? meh. Looking forward isn't our forte. We aren't trained in it. Indeed, everything about our training mitigates against projection because the future has no documentation. There's nothing for us to study. We can speculate, but at that point we're the same as any other guy in the pub.
Not the same. Never the same. The key to preparing for the future lies in understanding the way things are now--and the key to understanding the way things are now, will always lie in history. Where else do we ever get the grounding material for stories, but our own experiences of reality? And where else does our experience of reality lie, but in the past?

What's the equivalent of a month's memories, in the general experiences of humanity? Thirty, fifty years? Ignoring history's influence on the present and the future would be like forgetting your entire childhood and imagining you were born an adult. Personally, I'd be terrified if that ever happened to me. I would have to relearn practically everything--and if collective humanity doesn't remember its past, then our future will consist of endlessly making the same mistakes and learning the same lessons, over and over again. Typically in brutal and bloody wars.

Come to think of it, that's kind of the way it is already. You can almost sympathize with the Eastern cyclical view of time.

Learning history is amazingly important. Especially for artists, since they have so much influence over the way popular culture see things.
 
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sknox

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To argue that learning history is a way to understand the present or predict the future means first to assume that there is one and only one history, and that a proper study of it will lead everyone to the same conclusions. That's not how humans work.

I taught European history for 35 years. Almost from the start I had this message: history does not have a use. It does not have utility; it has value. In this, history is more like literature than like chemistry or mathematics. People do learn from history. They learn thousands of lessons and all of them different. And some of them are deeply pernicious. To paraphrase the old wisdom, some people say they are learning from history when they are merely reconfirming their prejudices.

Since it's demonstrably true that history has an infinity of "lessons" to teach, it's hard to argue that a study of history is going to lead to much of anything, save for unending discussions in bars and online forums. And universities. <g>

I'll say it again so no one misses it: the study of history has great value. It broadens and deepens and enriches life, at least when approached with the values that have been painfully developed by the discipline. But history is not a science, and the lessons it teaches me will not be the lessons it teaches you. And that's ok.
 

sknox

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Ooh, and I loved Stand on Zanzibar. I thought the approach was wildly original ... until I read John Dos Passos' USA trilogy (a brilliant work). Even so, I've never forgotten one of the central lessons of Brunner's book--that societies can labor on under the worst of circumstances, crushing individuals while somehow persevering as a culture.

John Brunner deserves far more recognition as one of the truly great SF writers of the century. Shockwave Rider was a revelation when I read it in the mid-90s. The Sheep Look Up is chilling. And we haven't even brought up The Crystal World or The Drowned World. I still nominate SF writers as one of the key People to Have in the Room when considering the future. Us historians? Give us a free meal and a drink, and we'll sit quietly in the back, whispering among ourselves. <g>
 

olive

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Questions like this remind me of the famous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Chomsky and Herman which was published in 1988. 1988. I feel highly depressed for a moment and then go on what I was doing previously.
 

olive

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@sknox What do you think about the idea that history as a field is having a huge crisis similar to the one it did have in the 17th century, long before the discipline was established in the 19th century? From the point of the new age literal mindedness, symbolism and allegory, perception and perspective of history in the age of science.
 

Dave

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@sknox is totally correct, and I'm surprised people really want to argue with an actual historian over this ;) That's like people on Twitter who argue with J K Rowling about the character of Snipe (that she invented.)

The other big point about recorded history not mentioned yet, is that what got recorded was about the rich and famous, the royalty and the generals, and mostly from the victors viewpoint. There was little, if anything at all, about very ordinary people. In fact, as someone did mention earlier in the thread, vast numbers of rural poor went totally undocumented as if they just never existed at all. It is only recently that we have had history research from a ordinary soldier's perspective, or a woman's perspective, or a feminist perspective. Those are only possible where the records exist i.e. you can't read their letters if people weren't educated to write. To look for these people in history requires a lot more digging around in records to find. It is only very recently that we have began keeping every piece of data electronically - before that there was neither the desire nor the space to do so and so all "unimportant" records got burnt. What is important, and what is unimportant is dependent upon the person making that decision.

@olive if this is what you mean then that isn't really a crisis, just some more for historians to argue over. There have always been arguments between historians and about the way history should be written or taught. A long time has passed since History (with a capital H) was taught as a straight line from the past to the present. Then it was thought that it could all be boiled down to a history of the progress of Marxism - from a history of the powerful to a history of the proletariat working-classes instead. I believe that what we have now is a much more balanced history, with room for every view, but there will always be passionate arguments over history. When I did my local history course, one of the other students came up with a great analogy for this: He said that when people watch Football on TV and there is a goal scored from inside the box, even though it is recorded on TV for all to see and re-watch, then you will still get different views about the match - the referee was blind, the ref is biased or incompetent, the goalkeeper was asleep or incompetent, the striker was on form, the striker was lucky, the manager is at fault - all depending on which team you support. This is just how humans are.
 

Dave

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As regards to The Second Sleep, I have read arguments that our world falling back to a 1468 tech-level and remaining at that level, is not feasible and they give a list of reasons why not. However, (and I can't explain without spoilers) but Harris does provide...
a reason and methodology for that in the book. It is the central theme of the book, and it explains the ending which many, many people don't like, and even the book's title.
 

olive

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@Dave Why wouldn't people want to 'argue' about history with a historian? Arguing about something is not necessarily having a debate with an ignorant claim or trolling. I'm asking a question. History is very important. How is that remotely close to someone discussing a fictional character with its creator via twitter? For a proud pedant that is not a good example.

Why would I dismiss what historians are/have been arguing/writing about? And after having said that, all you give me is what historians have been arguing for a long time anyway. You didn't have that historical perspective through divine visions, did you?

I have asked that to @sknox, because the book I am translating right now is a study on historical consciousness in early modern Europe. Historical context, cultural context, context in context...etc. How context and historical context evolved. And most of the material I work on different books is about the records you mention. About not being able to 'read' the letters of the illiterate, you are incorrect. That's the kind of 'literal mindedness' I was referring to.

But I need to say that I find this dismissive attitude towards history; historical disciplines, humanities in general, esp. in this grand histoire theme, nonsensical. It reminds me of the way physics was taken as a field in the 19th century after Newton. Today reading/talking about history is more important than ever was in history itself.
 
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Elckerlyc

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It's about the interpretation of historical facts. Interpretation and facts are constantly argued and debated over. New insights can change all that thought you understood. It's not science you can apply with mathematical accuracy.
Politicians are no historians. Society wants bread and be entertained. And those 2 forces are mainly what drives our road to the future.
Even if they have historical insight, the decisions they take for the future are usually formed by totally different agendas. Their views are more aimed at tomorrow than next year.
Prejudices and dreams are very stubborn traits. Dreams brings us forwards, prejudices colors the decisions despite history.
Reading Jan Buisman's Thousand Years Weather, Wind and Water has learned me that society will persevere no matter the (un)natural disasters it endures. But in what type of Age we may find ourselves next century? It could be anything, but we will be there.

Just the 2c of an un-expert. :D
 

Nozzle Velocity

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To argue that learning history is a way to understand the present or predict the future means first to assume that there is one and only one history, and that a proper study of it will lead everyone to the same conclusions. That's not how humans work.
It doesn't mattter if that's how humans work. Humans have differing viewpoints over many things, including science. Huge ideological and powerful turf wars have been fought among scientists, sometimes for decades, all based on the idea that the mechanics of a natural phenomenon can be knowable. It should be the job of the historian, much like the scientist, to explore, reveal, and make linear, causal sense of the chaotic patterns in human history. I'm well aware this contradicts the "value" of history you espouse. I don't suppose there's anything wrong with the joy of simply collecting data points. I've heard many historians say this is the only kind of history they enjoy reading. Fair enough. But I'm utterly unconvinced that the study and teaching of history has no "utility". The endeavor doesn't have to serve as propaganda. I believe the search for a narrative synthesis is vital. Claiming there are many truths, all lost to chaos theory, is to shy away from that search.

This matters because, if you don't know where you've been, then you don't know where you are. If you don't know where you are, then someone powerful will come along and tell you. Or to paraphrase Trotsky: You may not be interested in history, but history is interested in you.

...and I'm surprised people really want to argue with an actual historian over this.
Hold my beer. :D
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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But history is not a science, and the lessons it teaches me will not be the lessons it teaches you. And that's ok.
Absolutely! --As long as all the lessons are true, though. I think it's entirely possible to learn wrong lessons from something. Even a single little novel can teach a hundred different people a hundred different things about reality. And history is better than even lots of novels--it's three-dimensional.

Yes, there are practically infinite amount of lessons to learn from history. I want to learn my lessons, and your lessons, and everybody else's if I can (which I simply don't have the capacity to). If they're all true lessons, they won't be contradictory. They will merely be fantastically complex.

Anyway, I'm sorry if it sounded like I was trying to debate history with a historian. It struck me more as debating philosophy with a historian. :) More like arguing with Rowling over the character of Gandalf.
 

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@olive I'm afraid that not everything is always about you, and in this case I was commenting on @Margaret Note Spelling 's post and you have misinterpreted what I said. There is a huge difference between arguing about historical events (little h), and arguing about the discipline of History (capital H). Of course there are arguments within history, that is what history is all about. but you cannot argue this:
To argue that learning history is a way to understand the present or predict the future means first to assume that there is one and only one history, and that a proper study of it will lead everyone to the same conclusions.
I simply wondered what your "crisis" was. Now, I wish I hadn't. On your other points, yes, I was aware that people can use other methods to uncover and 'read' those who don't have a historical voice. Thanks. That is what I meant by "a lot more digging around in records to find." It is harder. It requires interpretation. Historians can argue, not only over that interpretation, but additionally, over the methods employed. However, I still don't understand where the "crisis" is.

@Nozzle Velocity There is a difference between History and Science though. In Science, the use of the scientific method can produce a proven hypothesis which scientists can at least agree upon until that hypothesis is disproved by further experimentation. Historians can never "prove" something is correct. There is no "great truth" to be uncovered if a historian can just uncover that missing piece of evidence, for the reasons I thought I had already given earlier. 'Truth' is wholly in the eyes of the beholder. That certainly is about how humans work. There will always be differences of opinion in history and so there will always be historical arguments.

Just like science and history, real life is mostly grey rather than black and white. Unfortunately, newspapers and courts of justice require there to be a definitive black and white answers. Newspaper headlines don't really work if they say "ALIENS MAY HAVE LANDED IN WOKING" and courts need to find the defendant guilty or not guilty. This is why there is a problem with the use of scientists and historians as "expert witnesses." And history itself was put on trial in 2000 Court 73 - where history is on trial
 

olive

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@olive I'm afraid that not everything is always about you, and in this case I was commenting on @Margaret Note Spelling 's post and you have misinterpreted what I said. There is a huge difference between arguing about historical events (little h), and arguing about the discipline of History (capital H). Of course there are arguments within history, that is what history is all about. but you cannot argue this:
Then you should have quoted her post. Because if you make a broad comment like that, without making a specific quote, just after I asked a question to the pointed member, it's very natural that you get that response from me. I don't believe I've misinterpreted it. This is not me, thinking everything is about me, but about you making a deliberate statement with a pushed lecture in between, but then getting annoyed when it is not welcome.

People can argue about anything. Anything. We don't have an academic responsibility here, this is supposed to be a simple exchange.
 

sknox

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@sknox What do you think about the idea that history as a field is having a huge crisis similar to the one it did have in the 17th century, long before the discipline was established in the 19th century? From the point of the new age literal mindedness, symbolism and allegory, perception and perspective of history in the age of science.
A crisis in the 17thc? Not sure what you mean. There were few historians in the 17thc. There was the literary squabble known as the Ancients vs the Moderns. That's about as close as I can come up with.
 
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