History is in the making

Words by Stephen Davies
8th December 2022
Issue 9

Though we tend to see history as just one political event after another, it’s technology and ideas, not politics, that change our lives the most. History should reflect that.

Culture

Most of us recognize the following dates and years: 4th July 1776, 14th July 1789, 1914, 1933, 1917, 1215, 1815, and 1066.

But I imagine most readers will fail to identify what’s special about this second list of dates: 5th July 1687, 9th March 1776, and 24th November 1859. Or indeed this third list of dates and years: 22nd January 1970, 26th April 1956, 1st October 1908, and 1960.

Why are these first dates so recognizable and memorable? It is because the events in question (the adopting of the US Declaration of Independence, the fall of the Bastille, the start of World War I, Hitler’s coming to power, the Russian Revolution, the drafting of the Magna Carta, the Battle of Waterloo, and the Battle of Hastings) are seen as critical events or markers in a particular story. They are supposedly events that had a profound subsequent impact on the shape and destiny of society and so shaped the way that later generations lived. 

Undoubtedly there is truth in this but what was the nature of the impact that these events had? What, if anything, did they have in common? The clear answer is that these are all political events. As such they are also thought of as being connected, as being key points or landmarks in a particular story that structures the past into a meaningful pattern and makes sense of it. It thus tells us what was important in bringing about both past worlds and the contemporary world and so, by extension, what we should see as important here and now.

This story is of the growth and development of government, the forms it has taken, and in particular the historical evolution of particular states or political entities, such as France, England/Britain, and the USA. Making these dates important and central to our understanding of the past implies that the driving force in history, the thing that shapes and determines the world we are in and that is crucial for our future, is politics and political power. The dates given are all about political power: Who has it, who contests it, and who wins it.

In this political story the important, memorable events are wars, revolutions, elections, the rise of certain kinds of governance and political institutions, and the doings of rulers – kings, emperors, popes, prime ministers, and revolutionaries. The fact that these kinds of dates are memorable and widely known shows us that this is the dominant way of thinking about history and of understanding the past. We can see this in the Wikipedia pages that cover the significant events of specific years, where the main list is always dominated by events of this kind, while the ‘born’ and ‘died’ lists for the year are at least half composed of political, military, and religious figures.

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This predominant understanding of history is incorrect for three reasons: 

  1. It places emphasis on the wrong events.
  2. It judges the relative importance of events incorrectly.
  3. It ultimately misunderstands which events had the most transformative effects on human life.

The political understanding of history leads us to view our situation in a distorted and inaccurate way. It implies that if you want to address social problems or challenges, then politics (whether electoral or revolutionary) is the only way to do it. It implies that the news and events we should pay attention to are political ones, because those are what will have the greatest impact.

But there may be other, better ways of looking at the past. 

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Let us return to our second list of dates: 5th July 1687, 9th March 1776, and 24th November 1859. These dates are associated with the publication of major works of intellectual inquiry that changed the human understanding of how the natural world works.

The first of these, 5th July 1687,  has been rated as the second most significant date of the last millennium, as it saw the publication of the first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The text brought about a revolution in the understanding of the nature and mechanics of the physical world.

The second date, 9th March 1776, was the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, creating not just modern economic thought but also several other intellectual disciplines. It also saw the first systematic exposition of a spontaneous-order analysis of the workings of human society.

The third date, 24th November 1859, saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s great work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This not only wrought a revolution in biology and social thought; it also built on the earlier work of people like Smith to introduce a truly dangerous and revolutionary idea: that complex and elaborate orders in the human and natural world could be the product of blind processes and chance rather than any design or intent. 

We could compile a much longer list of dates of this kind; another possibility would be 28th February 1953, the date when Francis Crick and James Watson revealed their discovery of the structure of DNA at a meeting in a pub in Cambridge.

These are all landmarks in a quite different kind of story, one in which the driving force is not politics but intellectual inquiry and discovery. This story’s main figures are scientists and philosophers and thinkers, not politicians and generals. The story is about the gradual growth and deepening of human knowledge, and with it understanding and mastery over the physical world. 

This story gets less attention but it is not ignored. Those Wikipedia year pages do list major artistic, intellectual, and scientific events of this kind, even if they do not occupy as much space as the political lists. 

However, there are other, even more important dates, if we think of the impact the events associated with them have had on everyday life and the nature of society, that are even less known and considered. Here we have yet another story or way of thinking about history, one that is almost completely ignored.

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Consider our third list of dates and years: 22nd January 1970, 26th April 1956, 1st October 1908, and 1960. Even fewer people would recognize these. However, if you want to understand our world, these are more important than those on the first or second list.

What were they, and why so important? They are when the way we lived changed.

The first, 22nd January 1970, was the first commercial flight of the Boeing 747, the first jumbo jet. This was the outcome of an amazing project, led by figures such as the inspirational head of Pan American Airways, Juan Trippe, and Boeing’s coordinating engineer, Joe Sutter. The project involved the creation of several new technologies and came close to bankrupting Boeing. The jumbo jet transformed air travel from a luxury good to a mass-consumer one. In doing so, tourism, migration, trade, and the exchange of ideas have all been transformed. The world we live in is now far more interconnected and integrated because of this breakthrough. The modern global city is a product of the 747 and the aircraft that followed it. Trippe called the 747 ‘a great weapon for peace, competing with ballistic missiles for the future of humanity’.

The second date, 26th April 1956, marked an even bigger moment in creating the modern world. It was the sailing of the first container ship, the Ideal X, from New Jersey to Texas. This was the brainchild of trucking entrepreneur Malcom McLean and represented a radical breakthrough in transport and logistics. The container ship inaugurated a revolution that reduced the cost of shipping goods by a factor of 30 once the port infrastructure was in place in the 1970s. Containerization transformed the world economy and made possible the massive wave of globalization that reshaped the world. Being able to go to a shop and find cheap products from all over the globe is the product of the container revolution and the revolution in intermodal transport that it brought.

The third date, 1st October 1908, has transformed society and culture in equally radical and arguably more extensive ways. That was the day that saw the production of the first Model T Ford. The age of cheap motoring, available to people of average incomes, transformed everyday experience and the nature of the entire built environment. The whole modern city and the form of urban and rural living all over the world is the way it is because of the revolution in production that Henry Ford and others like him brought about. To some this is a glorious new era of freedom and privacy; to others a horrible dystopia of atomization, noise, and pollution. But either way it is dramatically different to the past. In addition, the process that Ford introduced to make the Model T also brought about the phenomenon of mass production, and mass consumption, so much so that social theorists still speak of Fordism to describe the world that this created. 

The fourth, 1960, is perhaps the most significant of all, certainly if you are a woman. This was the year of the licensing of the first effective oral contraceptive for general use, in the United States and soon followed elsewhere. Developing the pill was the work of a brilliant biochemist called Gregory Pincus and of two remarkable activists, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick. McCormick funded Pincus’s work out of her considerable private means and he did not receive a cent of government support. She did this because, as a committed feminist, she realized the revolutionary importance and implications of a safe and reliable contraceptive that women would use and control. This marked a radical break in the historical experience of women. For the first time in history, they had effective and safe control over their own fertility. This gave them a range of options and an independence that no previous women had enjoyed, even among the highest elites. We are still to this day working out the effects and implications of this and the way it has changed practices and institutions, not least marriage.

Why should we count these events as more important and significant than the iconic events in the political understanding? One reason is that politics is, in a sense, downstream of these technological breakthroughs, as politics is determined and driven by the changes in material circumstances and lived experiences that those events brought.

The forms that events such as wars and revolutions or peaceful politics took were both made possible by the kinds of events we are looking at here but were also limited by them. Certain possibilities were not possible or no longer possible because of the changes brought by these events and the way that they also created systems with limits or unavoidable requirements. For example, after the jumbo jet, containing pandemics with quarantines, as was common in the nineteenth century, has become difficult or impossible. 

In this materialist way of thinking, it is material lived experience that determines consciousness and shapes things like culture and politics, and so things that influence or shape that material lived experience are what we should give more weight and attention to.

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There are many other dates we could list. Another three with a common theme are 16th August 1858, 10th March 1876, and 12th December 1901. 

The first marks the first message sent via the transatlantic telegraph, from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. This was the result of a long and arduous struggle to produce and lay a cable under the ocean capable of transmitting messages by electrical telegraphy, financed by private capital.

It is hard to overstate how much the world changed at that point, and subsequently with the laying of a network of such cables around the globe, many of them still in use. Suddenly the time it took to send messages and information around the world shrank, from what was often weeks or months, even years, to a matter of minutes. The human world had shrunk to a fraction of its previous size. This made possible kinds of empire and government that were truly novel, as well as wars on a far larger scale than before – an example of how politics is derivative from events of this kind.

The second, 10th March 1876, marks something that built on the telegraph. It is the date of the first ever telephone call, between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant. Today, in the age of mobile telephones, we simply take for granted instantaneous personal communication when before Bell everyone had to rely upon the handwritten letter or (for a few years) the compressed telegram message. 

The third, 12th December 1901, marked the movement beyond the limits of the telegram and the telephone, as it was the date of the first successful wireless (radio) message sent across the Atlantic, by Guglielmo Marconi. This in turn led to a change in the nature of leisure, entertainment, and communication with the advent of radio and, subsequently, television. Again, almost every aspect of our lives today is shaped in some way by these three events and what followed from them.

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If the shared element of the first set of dates was the part played by power in human affairs, what unites the latter ones? These are the dates when technological shifts changed our lives. Human beings, through cooperation, exchange, exploration, experiment, and inquiry, can create novel solutions to challenges and problems, with enormous effects. These are cases when those solutions worked, with predominantly good, but also bad, effects.

Certainly, on an initial comparison the fruits of technology seem to have created more good than the battles of history. This would be even clearer if we thought about other events that could be added to this kind of list, such as the discovery of anesthesia and antisepsis, the synthesizing of antibiotics by Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, the fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the biology of infectious disease that were brought by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, or the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process for taking nitrogen from the air to create artificial fertilizer, which reduced the threat of famine and starvation to a historical low. 

An understanding of the past in which not just our intellectual successes but our technological breakthroughs occupy pride of place would be very different from the political one that dominates now. Instead of politics and war, and the growth, rise, and decline of states and empires being the focus, the central story would rather be one of human cooperation and inventiveness, innovation and scientific and technological progress and discovery, and the improvement in human well-being than the deeds (often diabolical) of those with power. 

The important figures would no longer be rulers, generals, prelates, and revolutionaries but scientists, entrepreneurs, and businessmen and -women. It is people like Joe Sutter, Juan Trippe, and Alexander Graham Bell who would be remembered.

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If it is the case that human ingenuity solving problems is the most potent force in history, why do so many still fixate upon politics, wars, and revolutions?

Part of the reason is obvious: Those events are dramatic, as unpleasant things often are. A more cynical explanation is that this flatters the self-importance of the most immediately powerful people in society, and also causes the rest of society to see them as more important than they are. It also legitimizes and justifies the actually existing systems and institutions of political power by making it seem that these are the keys to human well-being and advancement.

If our alternative, technology-focused way of thinking about history became the default mode of understanding the past and how our world came to be, rather than the first, many things may change. We might pay less attention to politics and more to technology, science, and business. We would think more about trade and innovation. We might think of technological solutions to social and environmental problems.

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In our new frame of history, what was important recently?

Three possible dates are 21st June 2004, 5th August 2013, and 9th March 2016. The first of these saw the first flight of SpaceShipOne, when a privately funded spaceship succeeded in taking a human being into Earth orbit before successfully returning. This jump-started a massive influx of private investment in space travel and the development (or revival) of a range of new technologies that look set to make the task of getting into Earth orbit and then beyond far easier, with unforeseeable consequences.

The second marked the start of a revolution that is about to burst upon us and sweep away one of the most fundamental of all human activities since the dawn of civilization – livestock farming. On that date the world’s first entirely synthetic hamburger, made from meat that had come not from an animal but from a culture, was cooked and eaten in London. The burger cost $300,000 but the technology is expected to soon reach the point where cultured meat (and meat substitutes) are as cheap as livestock-produced meat. 

The third is perhaps the most significant of the three, for good or ill. On that day an AI produced by the British company Deepmind (Alphago) defeated the world’s best Go player in the first match of a series (it went on to sweep the series). Unlike earlier AIs designed only to play specific games, Deepmind was able to generalize Alphago’s processes to play – and dominate – other games, including chess. This marked a radical breakthrough in artificial intelligence and we have only started to explore what the implications might be for every aspect of human life (or even existence, if darker forebodings come true).

It is instances like these, of human inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge combined with peaceful trade and exchange and cooperation, that enable us to develop solutions to complex problems. If we are allowed and politics gets out of the way, we can improve the human condition and expand the range and variety of options and experiences that are open to us. 

John F Kennedy memorably captured this sentiment in the peroration to his ‘Moon Speech’ delivered at Rice University in Texas in 1961. As he said:

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. 

The vision of history and the optimism for the future that he expressed that day is something we should recover.

Stephen Davies is a historian. 

Featured image is the Port of Singapore. Unsplash License.