This is a text version of my audio podcast, ‘Professor Andy Miah Faces the Future’. You. can access the audio version below.
How does the concept of history change as a result of technological transformations? And how should we think about history, when we endlessly record our lived experience? This episode gets into the complexity of time, history, and the future, to consider how we might reorientate ourselves into a healthier way of thinking about the present.
One of my earliest influences was the political theorist Francis Fukuyama, whose phenomenal essay on the ‘end of history’ nudged me into thinking about my own sense of history, the passing of time and how I situate myself in some broader historical trajectory.
Such thoughts are always profound and mind blowing exercises, which lead me to come to terms with my own existential peculiarity and the bizarre and unlikely chance of my own existence and the remarkable fact that there is anything at all out there in the world for us to perceive, appreciate, and experience. How is it that all of these things around us and the species who share our biological heritage have all settled into some kind of organized form, rather than exist in a constant state of chaos and instability?
Never have I thought that there was some grand design that may explain my presence as a thinking, living being, but I have marvelled at the randomness that led to my existence.
Now, just to be clear, Fukyuama was not saying that anything that comes after the end of history is, somehow, not history at all. It’s of course, self-evident that time continues and so phenomena move from future to present and from present to past. History continues. Instead, what he meant was that the way in which societies evolve around political ideas, essentially, the process towards order and organization that they go through reaches a pinnacle with the discovery of liberal democracy, that there is no political system that is more capable of accommodating the interests of the many citizens whose intellectual enlightenment has enabled the assertion of interests and self-determination.
With all its flaws, Fukyuama considered that this was the end point of a process where people tried for centuries to work out the best system of governance that could be derived. He also predicted that the escalation of such systems would lead to the success of such entities as the European Union, which seeks to bring consent to wider principles of governance that can apply to all nations, rather like the way in which we have developed fundamental principles to underpin human rights.
The variations in systems across the world are attributable to the fact that many nations have yet to complete their journey towards liberal democracy and, while we may cloak these differences in some form of cultural variation that is worthy of respect, there is still a tendency in the West to champion those values that secure or maximise self-determination, freedom from discrimination, and those values that describe the sorts of things that competent, adult humans seek to enjoy within their lives.
At times, it can feel like we have some of this wrong; for instance, the consequent excessive individualism that has followed, or the excessive consumerism that manifests as the exercise of our freedom, may often seem to be working against our interests. It’s hard also to look at what’s happening in the world today — especially with Europe — and conclude that humanity is on a path to achieving global consensus over what values we should seek to uphold through political systems.
Yet, these blips in human variation are considered — at best — matters to guard against through democractic processes, rather than evidence of a failed system. If people still support capital punishment, then we must seek to continue arguing against the barbarism that this requires us to embrace. If people still feel entitled to restrict a woman’s freedom to choose an abortion, we must redouble our efforts to show why such feelings are misplaced and that they betray deeper, more fundamental beliefs in human values that should take priority.
The point at which I discovered Fukyuama’s work was in 2000, when he updated his thesis to claim that the end of history will not yet occur until science and technology have reached their end point, or what he characterised as Our Posthuman Future’. The predicament he encounters is the likelihood that radical technologies will disrupt human societies in critical ways leading them to pursue different aspirations and different forms of social order. The kind of world that he imagines may be nicely characterised by the movie ‘Her’ in which the lead character pursues a romantic relationship with an artificially intelligent computer system.
This ‘transhuman’ future that Fukuyama describes as the world’s most dangerous idea is a game changer. How do we construct political systems in a way that accommodates the emergence of artificial life, synthetic biology, or digital people? Life forms which may claim interests we have yet to even imagine. Or, how should we respect the patient who has become emotionally entwined with the AI healthcare professional who cares for them, especially when the personality of that AI worker has evolved through the interactions with that person, creating common and shared histories?
These questions are unresolved presently, but speak to the idea that those political ideals that Fukuyama identified back in 1999 may change around the technological system in which we live.
So, when I think about the future of history, I am mindful of these things. I, too, wonder what to make of the times in which we live, when we are too close to events to put them in their historical context. Yes, the pandemic is bad, but it’s not worse than many other periods in human history. Just because we are experiencing it now and we have countless platforms on which to articulate our suffering, it doesn’t mean that the suffering is greater than things we have experienced before. And I think many people know this.
But neither can we diminish the significance of the events that occur in our life time. It is possible that technology from the last 20 years has created a discontinuity in the evolution of life on earth. Yes, the internet has been the biggest driver of worldwide literacy since the invention of the printing press or the emergence of a public school system. These are big things that have changed the course of human history.
And yet, the consequence of these phenomena is also transforming the way we think about the making of history. Consider the photographs and videos you take with your mobile phones. I can quite believe that most of us who have enjoyed smart phones for over a decade are now at a point where we rarely have time to look back over the images we’ve taken. We tend not to print them out anymore, put them into albums and the expansion of the volume of content we generate is approaching a kind of vortex, the end point of which is the persistent recording of all aspects of our lives. And we’re already halfway there. We track our steps, we continually chat with each other and can only see content on social media from the last 5 minutes. Everything that is too far in the past, ceases to have value. You’ll know about this if you’re, like me, too old to be on TikTok, where anyone over 20 is often treated as irrelevant.
In fact, if you take a look at social media, we see this even more, with the elevation of ‘live’ experiences dominating the architecture of the most successful platforms. Even the old new media like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are getting in on the ‘live’ action, modifying their platforms accordingly.
These environments are crying out to secure your real-time experience. They don’t want your past or your future, they want your present and they’ll keep distracting you from those other two, to keep you focused on creating more content, an endless stream of the real-time experience until you start to forget that the past exists at all.
And this is a crucial component of how we need to think about the future of history. Whereas the historical record was once a composition of past events told through stories that constructed our sense of the past, the act of telling those stories is becoming eroded by the nearing of the event horizon into our daily lives.
Where once we might look back on historical events and say ‘this was our history’, we are gradually losing the perspective that enables this assertion; not the absence of history, but the expansion of historical claims that make the construction of stories impossible, because they have no structure, no beginning, no middle, and no end.
But then, that point at which we stand and look back at our past has always only ever been a fraction of our history. The loss of our ability to tell stories about history is also a kind of enlightenment, a realisation that any attempts to describe collective histories are only ever fragments of the past of particular people. This is why moments like the COVID-19 pandemic are so remarkable — as they re-establish a sense of collective history that otherwise has been torn into fragments with the emergence of diverse, multi-channel storytelling platforms. While our experiences of the pandemic are all different, the pandemic itself is a collective presence in all of our lives.
So, while Fukuyama ties history to the development of science and technology, I want to tie it more closely to the acts of storytelling that surround our lives. The radio presenters who narrate the events of the day, the news casters, the bloggers, even the TikTokers, are all the storytellers whose own content establishes what we regard to be history. And it is this media culture that defines the parameters of what historians encounter in their recording of historical events.
It’s a view that’s not a world away from Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote ‘the medium is the message’, an idea that determines the meaning of ideas less in what is expressed and more by the platform in which it is articulated. He writes how the medium — rather than the content — is what ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’.
It’s not hard to think of examples of how this plays out in our lives. Take music. The radio industries and the musical economy around what gets played, created a typical song duration that we still see broadly applied today. Radio stations rarely play songs that go beyond 3 minutes and this is because, when radio music really got going, they couldn’t.
3 mins of recorded material is all you could fit onto a 10 inch shellac record. Shellac was the material used to create records before vinyl came along.
So, our sense of musical history from the 20th century popular music scene is conditioned by the technology that underpinned its growth. The artists who make music today are still, mostly, constrained by technology from nearly 100 years ago, which set the parameters of the stories they could tell. There are exceptions of course. Prince, Bob Dylan and a number of other pioneering musicians ignored these limitations, sometimes to their determinant in terms of popular success,a s they wanted to realise songs that didn’t fit the mould.
But the point here is that our history is established by these conditions. And there are countless other examples that describe the process of inscribing history as being a product of technological limits, which determine the scope of our historical record.
Today, those limits are boundless. The real-time, perpetually live experience means that there’s no curation, editor, or end point in the determination of history. And this changes our sense of the historical record, not just the content we recognise as history, but also our attribution of importance to history. When all you can see on TikTok or Twitter is the last 30 minutes of history, then we don’t even have occasion to encounter anything further in the past. It slips out of our frame of reference and we become obsessed with the present. What are people doing now and how can we engage with them? How can we make ourselves part of that history? We see this in the form of the ‘reaction’ video or the ‘duet’ in TikTok. These are performances designed to locate ourselves within the historic record.
So, the danger we face is that history becomes increasingly devalued as we prioritize the present more and more. We lose all sense of a common past and an inability to engage people with stories about this past.
I’ve mixed feelings about this situation, as I think a society’s sense of its own history can often be used as a vehicle for destructive nationalism. In the UK, the recent discourse around cancelling culture, made apparent by the removal of statues whose public presence can no longer be morally justified, is one example of this.
Writing history has, historically, been an unethical act, devoid of all sense of moral responsibility, born out of values that are later shown to be left wanting. This means that all present day moralities may yet be rearticulated as inadequate and in need of revision, which,of course, is integral to the process of writing history. Re-writing is central to what makes history and it should never be understood as a record that is set in stone.
As well, focusing on the present allows us to more precisely consider the needs of those people who currently exist, rather than get too distracted with what came before us.
Francis Fukuyama’s updated thesis on the end of history describes how humanity’s emerging ability to redefine the limits of its own evolutionary trajectory means that we have yet to see the end of our own journey through political history. The collective consciousness of an artificial neural network, plugged into the entirety of biological consciousness may yet bring about new dimensions to human experience that dramatically transform our sense of direction and our values.
This possibility and, currently, unpredictability means that history is incredibly uncertain still, not because things have yet to happen, but because the mode by which history is written in the future is also beyond our comprehension. And it’s for this reason that we need to cherish our historians, the people who are thinking about history, about how to represent it through stories, and who are attempting to wrestle with the desire to elevate the present to the neglect of the past. In short, we need to all think of the present as a history in the making, rather than just as moments that require us to experience them in order to secure their value.
The falling tree does make a sound, even if we are not there to witness it.