Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Forgetting the Past or Not Even Caring Enough to Remember
Numerous individuals have recited various versions of a simple truth over the years, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” However, despite the gravity and accuracy of these words it appears that few individuals are interested in heeding them. This behavior raises an interesting question: is this lack of consideration for the past driven by individuals themselves or the means in which history is documented?
The digital age has given rise to a new medium for recording history that brings its own advantages and disadvantages. The principal advantage of the widespread digitalization of culture and its associated events is the ease at which information can be recorded and stored both from an opportunity and direct resource cost. Most individuals can type faster than they can write, especially over long periods of time, increasing the efficiency at which information is recorded; also electronic formats eliminate the need to acquire and use vast reams of paper or an even more cumbersome recording medium.
Unfortunately the advantage in storage capacity and speed has also brought forth disadvantages. One important problem for the long-term documentation of history is the speed at which technology changes. For example various paper and other physical medium (stone, rock, etc.) records have lasted thousands of years, imparting valuable information about past human culture and society, whereas electronic resources are more unstable be it from simple data corruption/errors due to a misclick to the potential of an EMP or large solar flare. While there are strategies to enhance longevity like etched nickel sealed in argon, these options are far too expensive to justify for most data. Even natural deterioration is accelerated in digital storage mediums both direct, a flash drive or CD physically falling apart, or indirect, a particular medium falling out of fashion with public use and becoming obsolete. One thing paper will never be is obscure no matter the “predictive” musing of certain technophiles.
The problem of social viability is further complicated due to the number of different formats for various files. While it can be argued that competition in the marketplace is good, the field of information storage is not a field suited for widespread competition, especially when so many of the options offer no significant advantages from their “competitors”; i.e. what really is the difference between .jpeg or .png or .tiff in actual application terms? Even if a medium remains socially viable, data retrieval and acquisition can become difficult if the only authorized personnel to access the information dies and no one else has the necessary information to takeover access. Certainly hackers and various security services can be utilized to correct this problem, but such action takes time and money and may not always be available or successful.
Fortunately these problems are probably the easiest of the disadvantages associated with digital recording to manage. Simple standardization of video and picture formats reducing the myriad of options to one or two should address orphan formatting concerns though it is unclear when such a step will actually be executed. Proper diligence in updating and converting existing formats by consumers should address conversion issues. Software companies can also better manage conversion issues by adding backwards compatibility even if it costs a little extra to develop. Some believe that all of these problems are moot due to cloud storage, but these types of storage mediums are dubious solely because they do not have a track record for being reliable over even decades let alone centuries just look at all of the online data storage services that have gone out of business over the last decade.
A more imposing problem is that the ease and reduced workload involved in producing and recording information has marred the process of identifying what information is actually important versus simple fact-less/baseless opinion. In the past only individuals who were intelligent or incredibly passionate produced significant information on a topic because of the work involved. Of course information produced in the past was not immune from error or bias, but due to the effort required to produce the information for mass consumption it was not difficult to identify bias born from excess passion. However, now because it is easier to produce information for public consumption there is reason to suspect, largely because it is already happening, less diligent individuals will produce more error-prone information in addition to more information being produced in general. In fact in 2011 Digital Universe estimated that humanity had created 1.8 zeta-bytes of new data and that amount was expected to grow exponentially over the next decade.
Unfortunately while individuals marvel at the sheer storage capacity of digital systems the time humans have available to sort through this information remains ever fleeting. With the ever- present human ego and frequent inability to accept being wrong a vast majority of this produced information and “historical” record is significantly biased towards a particular viewpoint without care for accuracy. Too often humans in general accept knowledge found online as accurate, especially if it supports their personal viewpoint, so the increased propagation of information will make weeding out the accurate information from the inaccurate information even more difficult.
The ability to determine truth from desire to outright lie is further complicated by the action and position of formal education. Sadly while the amount of history continues to grow with every passing second most modern educational requirements for high school students in history rarely surpass the Vietnam War leaving most of the 1970s to the present not studied or even discussed. This oversight creates an inherent negative, for at best the history teachers, those who should be better equipped than students to instruct and deduce information accuracy about historical events, are not able to help students understand the truth and at worse the exclusion of this information may lead some students to deem that it is not important. Clearly such a conclusion is not correct for there have been many important historical events, both in the United States and globally, between 1975 and 2015.
The lack of importance assigned to modern history sends the message to society at large, especially those in power, to ignore the concerns of the public with regards to their actions and decision-making for once those events fade into the past the public and history itself will not be able to judge inappropriate action harshly because people will not regard remembering it as important. Sadly those who do remember may simply be labeled as “over-emotional” bias actors depending on their viewpoint. Overall such a ramification is troublesome solely because any increase in hubris by those in power will typically produce negative results for the masses for most people in power tend to believe that helping society hurts their short-term capitalization potential, thus there is little incentive to help society.
Some may raise the concern that there is not sufficient time to teach all of the existing history; there are more “important” things to do like administering aptitude tests. The best way to address this problem is to eliminate the instruction of overlapping material, which is typical of history education in school, where elementary, middle/junior and high school history frequently discusses the same events over and over again through “review” sessions. One possible strategy for eliminating this overlap would be to divide U.S. history in sections of schooling as discussed below.
Grade = Material
5th = Colonial Period (1600s)
6th-7th = Revolutionary and Constitutional Period (1700s)
8th = Early Nation Development, Civil War and Reconstruction (1800s)
9th-10th = World War I, Great Depression, World War II and Early Cold War (1900-1950s)
11th-12th = Korean War, Vietnam War and Modern History (1950s-Present)
For some high schools the above schedule may involve expanding U.S. history from a single semester to two semesters, which should not be a problem due to the importance of history. Also the way history is taught needs to change for in the digital era gone are the days of memorizing dates and names. Instead students should be instructed on the motivations and rationalities (and how justified they were) that drove the “decision-makers” of a given time to make the choices they made. Knowing that D-Day occurred on June 6th, 1944 is far less important than knowing what type of planning went into its execution and why such a strategy was viewed as necessary.
Overall history has been a somewhat difficult sell to the general public in large part under the criticism of “how does this help me in my life”, which has created a motivation to not even bother remembering. Such an exclamation is puzzling for history is rife with incredibly meaningful “what ifs” that not only enhance thought, but also provide opportunities to learn how to better judge a given situation increasing understanding of potential ramifications. While changes can be made to the methods of recording history, how history is taught and how the public perceives the importance of history, in the end each individual must do a better job of understanding the importance of history as well as learning from its examples otherwise history will truly repeat itself until the repetitive bad decisions of society finally results in a hastened end to human society itself.
1. “Extracting Value from Chaos.” IDC iView. June 2011.