You might say that as a former historian, I’m always looking backward. I would disagree.
One of my favourite historians, Marc Bloch, told a story of how his colleague once took him on a tour of a new urban district in Sweden. When Bloch asked why his friend wouldn’t give him a tour of the historical quarters, the latter replied: “As a historian, I am most concerned with the present.”
For the most part, that’s always how I felt as a historian: The past is interesting, but only insofar as it reveals something important about the where we are right here, right now. Whether that ‘something important’ is a lesson, a grain of truth about the human condition, or a trivial fact that reminds us that despite our short lifespans, we have access to the cumulative experiences of thousands of years of human existence.
We live in a world that is changing at an incredible rate. The last ten years have seen advances in communications technology to a degree that the globe we inhabit can often seem overwhelmingly interconnected – a staggering pace of change.
It’s easy to forget that many eras have seen this degree of change before. Ian K Steele’s landmark study, The English Atlantic World, made the convincing argument that the decades that surrounded the turn of the 18th century saw vast improvements in communications technology (i.e. – faster, more reliable shipping). It was taking less and less time to get from England to the Caribbean, and back to England.
Why does this matter right here, right now?
Because for the millions of people who lived along the Atlantic Seaboard, their world was getting visibly smaller, and they made a number of social and economic decisions based on that shrinking world that have had long lasting effects. Increasingly reliable shipping affected trade policy, it affected the political culture of the British Empire, changed both the scope and scale of previously provincial European wars and was one of the factors that led to the American Revolution.
The lesson can be expressed simply: the way we react to our changing world has an effect on this generation, the next, and so on.
Confession: Just 12 years ago, I didn’t even own a computer. I did most of my communicating in person, by landline and by snail mail. Now I have a PC, an iPad, and an iPhone and I use a range of social platforms to communicate with my friends and colleagues. These changes have resulted in increased access to information and economic opportunity, much in the same way that increasingly regular shipping traffic some 300 years ago opened up a whole new world of possibilities to my predecessors.
About a year and a half ago, I saw Senator Romeo Dallaire speak in St. John’s, Newfoundland. At that talk, he expressed his concerns about the lack of a federal strategy to deal with the broad changes brought about by the Internet. I understand his concerns. Just as in our personal lives, the long term is shaped by how we handle change right now.
This is what historians refer to as “historical time.” Whether by action or inaction, what you decide today will shape your story for years to come.
History, for me, is not about looking backwards. It’s about a love of the present, the human condition, and a deep appreciation for the fact that actions have consequences. It is an academic discipline rooted in humility, compassion and personal accountability.
The Arab Spring was just one of the flashpoints facilitated by social media. In the year since that wave of revolution, social media is taken a lot more seriously by leaders around the world.
Our world is changing, as it always has. What will we do next?