We often want to know how something happened – what was the story behind it?
This approach to looking the world is powerful because it takes everything that happened and puts it into a sequence.
Most storytellers, as a result, follow a linear format – like unrolling a carpet.
First, this happened. Then that. And so, this happened in the end.
Even if you don’t know the ending, it’s going to happen one thing at a time. History is what happens, tomorrow.
This kind of thinking is also dangerous.
It leads us to think that things can only happen in the way they happened.
The extreme version of this is a complete belief in fatalism – the belief that all events are predetermined and inevitable.
This is almost never the case.
It is tempting to think that success for some people was inevitable. For every Zuckerberg and Facebook, however, there are people with similar ambitions, resources and opportunities who didn’t make it.
With hindsight, all the moves that he made were obvious. Anyone could have done it. Except they didn’t.
Taking an issue that has had a much greater impact for longer, the economist reports on a dispute between historians and economists, where there is disagreement how to look at slavery in the American economy and its impact on the industrial revolution.
A historic view might say slavery was important in the industrial revolution – it clearly happened, and therefore had an impact.
An economist might argue that because slavery happened, it does not mean it needed to happen. The industrial revolution would probably have happened anyway, just with different methods – for example with more mechanisation.
History describes what happened – it’s a story.
Just because it happened the way it did, however, it doesn’t mean it was the best way for it to happen, or that alternatives at the time were more expensive or unlikely.
To really understand something, it’s not enough to look at what happened.
We also need to look at the counterfactual – what did not happen, or what was not the case.