How Do We Learn From History?

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Sunday, 9.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

History is a vast early warning system. – Norman Cousins

We visited Ironbridge recently, a place that is saturated with industrial archaeology, a relatively modern discipline. I learned about industrial archaeology from a book I found in a charity shop – Writing for antiquity – the essays of Glyn Daniels, the editor of the journal Antiquity.

I also learned about a previous editor, O.G.S Crawford, whose autobiography is available on the Internet Archive and which is very readable indeed. Daniels talks about the field – archaeology, history, with their differences and similarities – and points out that perhaps the only thing that you can tell between pre-history and history is that one has writing and the other doesn’t. If you look back from now you will find people writing about their lives and then at some point the writing runs out and you have to figure out what is going on from the material things they left behind.

Crawford describes a time when he met an old family retainer, someone born around 1788 and who left France during the revolution. He talked about meeting her as a living link, one spanning 165 years. Living links bring us closer to the now – reminding us to have conversations with grandparents while they are still around.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a Twitter feed that seems odd at times – but he also writes fiercely intelligent stuff. Perhaps it seems intelligent to me because it’s new. But what he says sticks in the mind. For example societies that look like no one agrees and that have lots of disagreement and debate are in reality much freer and better off than ones where everything looks fine on the surface because it’s all controlled. He writes about how the mistake of the last century was thinking that technology would bring a utopia while the mistake this century is thinking that the utopia is going to come with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Maybe it will. But the thing we need to understand is how people are going to work with this changing world – we need to have a way to make sense of the problems in the world without looking for a quick fix. Solutions take time. And in this day and age it can seem like no one has enough time to do what needs to be done. History has a big part to play in helping us understand what’s going on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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