I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but am only now writing it down. I love history, I went to school to study it. In the lower level history courses, the levels populated by disinterested freshman who rather be back in bed, a common question was “how is this still relevant?” By the time you get up in to the higher level history courses you stop hearing this question. It’s always taken for granted that history is relevant. People are people and things never change, right? Well this is what I’ve been wondering about because as I’ve watched the first decade of the 21st century unfold, I’m no longer sure this is true. Come to think of it, the 20th century was the real game changer, the 21st century just sealed it.
So what changed in the 20th century? Well, before that time everything was pretty much the same. Armies fought wars with swords, then muskets, then rifles and cannon. Regardless of the weapons and uniforms being used the most basic principles of moving and feeding large groups of people remained the same. Communication was also relatively unchanged. Yes the time between when a message was sent and when it was delivered slowly decreased, especially after the invention of the train, but none the less there was still a substantial lag. The printing press was a huge leap forward, but until the 20th century lots of people still couldn’t read. Printing made books and news papers more available, but they still didn’t reach a universal audience. Before the 20th century, governments had a monopoly on information and the way discourse was framed.
So what changed with the 20th century? Well, everything. In the first 66 years we went from the first powered flight to walking on the moon. We went from horse drawn carriages to the atomic age. Within the that century we went from mail cars on trains to e-mail. From cash to credit. Mass media, the automobile, intercontinental flights, satellites, computers, the internet, GPS, cell phones, rock and roll, the entire world changed.
Throughout history the fundamentals of things stay the same, except the technology changes. Technology is exponential. It starts off slow and builds on itself. For most of our history technology has advanced so slowly the line would look arithmetic. However, there comes a point where the exponential rate of change starts to become visible. It’s at this point the advances become striking. The 20th century was that breaking point.
In the 20th century technology reached a point where it began to change the fundamentals that had dictated human events for centuries. The first decade of the 21st century was a one-two punch that finalized the change the 20th century started. What were those two punches?
The first was 9/11. Religious terrorism managed to harness the power of scientific advances to wreak mass death. This shifted the political landscape forever. It introduced us to terms like preemptive strike, indefinite detention, secret prisons, sleeper cells, improvised explosive device, water-boarding, The Patriot act, warrantless wiretaps, among others. The power of government to violently intervine, even against its own citizens, drastically expanded.
The second punch was economic. The world economy crashed and we were introduced to the bailouts. Tax payers had to foot the bill for bank’s risky behaviors, all while millions of people lost their jobs and the banking executives took multi-million dollar bonuses home to the Cayman islands. Then we find out that the banks are foreclosing on people’s homes, even if they have made all their payments (Florida is especially bad, where they have so many foreclosures they’ve set up a “rocket docket.” Often judges will see 200 cases a day and will never bother to look at the documents, trusting the banks are telling the truth when it turns out they’ve been lying. *surprise*) The way banks operate now, you can never be sure your money will be there, or that the government won’t show up to do the banks bidding and throw you out of your own home, regardless if you’ve made payments.
At the same time technology has had a drastic impact on how politics operates. The 24 hour news cycle has really helped to kill journalism and government is increasingly in control again of how issues are framed:
On the other hand, the spread of information has been democratized. The internet, alternative news outlets, twitter, reddit, facebook, these are all extremely powerful tools that have never been used before in history. With the advent of cell phones and smart phones people have the entire wealth of human knowledge (the internet) in the palm of their hand. With cameras in those phones they can record any event in front of them and upload it to the internet within minutes. Just recently The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created a challenge, hiding 10 red balloons in secret locations across the entire US and offered $40,000 to the first team to find all of them. Using social networking, it took a team from MIT 9 hours to locate all 10 balloons.
These leaps in technology have put levels of power and information in common people’s hands that were previously unthinkable. What scares me are the steps ever increasingly authoritarian governments are taking to limit this power or to at least spy and keep track of it. These governments also benefit from the increased technology. Never before have they been able to keep tabs on their citizens the way they can now. It makes me wonder how resistance groups would be able to operate if the government became too authoritarian. I imagine the old models developed in occupied countries during WWII would not work given what current technology can do.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the world will never be the same because of climate change.
(I don’t think I need to tell you how bad things will get once climates shift, people are unable to grow food like they used to, sea levels rise submerging coastal cities, and storms intensify.) The data points to increased human activity, primarily starting in the 20th century.
In essence, things are changing at a pace and speed never before seen in history. Technology has reached a level where it changes the fundamentals of how we live our lives, how governments relate to their citizens (and vise versa). The economic situation has changed drastically as a result of the risky practices of the late 20th century. And finally, our planet itself is changing immensely as we destroy our ecosystem with ever increasing speed.
Is history still applicable today? I’m honestly not sure. In specific instances it can prove a useful guide, and we still need to be ever vigilant so as not to allow old crimes to be reperpetrated, but overall I think it has lost some relevance ever since the 20th century.