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Having Fun with History

January 19, 2013

How will the future see us?  I find this an interesting philosophical question to try and answer.  It’s a philosophical question in the sense that it doesn’t have a right answer.  We have to speculate, approximate, sometimes straight up guess at an answer.  So there’s an element of play involved.  No matter what answer we come up with it won’t be right; but on the other hand, who could say that we’re wrong?  Ahh, but the challenge is to come up with an answer that’s persuasive.  That’s where it can get interesting.


People who write about history for a living love to divide things up into units.  There’s a classical age; low middle ages; high middle ages; modern age; some say there’s a post-modern age…  Names get given to geographical areas too, which helps to keep things tidy.  Ancient Greece; Roman empire; Persian Empire; British Empire; Ottoman Empire; United States of America (no matter how disunited they’ve sometimes been)…  The people who actually lived in Ancient Greece would have been very surprised to learn that they lived in Ancient Greece.  It’s hard to guess how they saw themselves really: maybe as citizens of city-states within Greece — Athenians, Corinthians, and like that.  Or did most of them feel allegiance to a particular group, more so than a particular area — a member of the Corinthian people, say, as opposed to a member of the city of Corinth?  But in any case, clearly calling them “Ancient Greeks” has more to do with how we’ve chosen to depict history than it has to do with the people being depicted.


Similar to what’s happened with ‘the Ancient Greeks,’ I suspect that Canada and the United States and England and Germany and France, and so on, will at some point become just “The Europeans”.  I imagine it would make sense to study the age of European expansionism, ranging from about 1492 to 2000.  (But the numbers would be different if a different calendar was being used.  And why shouldn’t a different calendar be used, since choosing the birth of Christ as an approximate starting point would be odd to non-christians.)


The history of the last 500 years would look pretty odd if you ignored the idea that France and England were different countries, and called them all Europeans.  But in a way it would also make sense.  You could summarize it all so quickly.  This is what happened.


The Europeans wanted spices, and the trade route to the princely states of the Indian subcontinent had become impassible because of politico-religious wars.  So the Europeans sent out some ships looking for a water route to the princely states, and hit the Americas.  The Europeans then set up colonies in the Americas.


How the next bit gets portrayed could depend a lot on what message the student is supposed to take away from learning about the Europeans.  Maybe the history is being written in a country where setting up colonies isn’t a policy the government wants to pursue.  If it’s a Chinese historian, and the Chinese government has decided that colonies are more trouble than they’re worth in the long-run, then the student could learn all about how the colonies fought wars against each other and even against their parent countries, and eventually brought the period of European dominance to an end.  I think that’s a really easily supportable thesis.


But there could be other ways to write our history, to advance other theses.  You could say that trade with the colonies made the Europeans very rich, but they became greedy because of their individualistic culture.  The Europeans in the center of Europe wanted to make colonies, but the coastal Europeans had already claimed the whole world for themselves, and finally Europe self-destructed over that issue.  (Germany, in central Europe; and what we call the World Wars, but what might be called the wars for the world — or even the War for the World, since dividing them into two separate wars is a little unnecessary.)  That should work too.


Again supposing that it’s Chinese historians writing about the European age, I wonder if they’ll give the Europeans credit for inventing things like television.  Likely not.  Television is practically obsolete already anyway.  Some Chinese company can invent a machine that shows holographic images, or all out virtual reality, and then nobody would care that there was some intermediate machine called a television that the Europeans used to use.  If it did have to be mentioned, say in a history of technology, then it could be shown that a Chinese person came up with the theory of television first, but maybe European companies were the first to build it.


Surely the planet is going to run out of oil at some point, which will require vast technological changes.  If everybody rides on some sort of ultra-efficient public transportation, there won’t be any point remembering that there were once cars.  It could even be socially detrimental to remember it, as tending towards the anti-social individualism that ultimately makes the Europeans so wasteful.


So that’s how I play Historians of the Future.  I figure it’s a good time to play it because I think the European age really has hit a wall.  It seems like time to figure out which bits of European/American culture are worth preserving, and how they could be framed to make people from a different culture take the trouble to do it.


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