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The Longest Now

The Last Days of History
Monday November 29th 2004, 8:55 am
Filed under: %a la mod

“Most works of contemporary history do not  last long… for the material available to the writer is seldom complete.” — Hugh Trevor-Roper, in his introduction to The Last Days of Hitler

The amount and breadth of material immediately available to the historian is increasing with leaps and bounds.  Soon it will outstrip the single writer’s capacity to process it — once biofeeds and realtime audio and vide of events, from a variety of angles and perspectives, becomes commonplace material for same-day news reports, we will have a very different problem on our hands.

History has traditionally benefitted from the bottleneck Mr. Trevor-Roper acknowledges in the quote above, despite his apparent lament.  The benefit has been, that when only one or two people sit down with a limited quantity of material, they of necessity must fill in the gaps and construct a storyline out of the fabric at hand.  The result puts the story into history, providing a narrative that others can parse, learn from, remember and pass on.  It may not be perfectly true, but it is useful.  Writers from different schools consciously present different versions of what might have happened; students learn that multiple views of history exist, but these differences are presented via a finite number of distinct views, each with well-defined supporters and detractors.

When the bottleneck becomes a firehose, chaos threatens instead — thousands of writers with shared access to 15 hours of live footage and 50 pages of written/spoken testimonials of a 10-minute scene (from the personal recorders of a hundred passers-by).  Each writer extracts a different story and tone from the available material, and passes that on. 

Perhaps more interesting, is that historians will be in a position to write seminal works of history — presumably lasting fixtures of historical analysis — the very year a major event takes place.  Then only lack of perspective will keep works of history from its dustbin..

And in time there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.   — E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops

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