Lest We Forget

Last night I was intermittently reading history on my laptop – something about an earthly conflict that has been raging for hundreds of years – and watching a show I was Chromecasting on investigations of Saturn. And it struck me just how uneven the pace of so-called progress is across different areas of human endeavour. Successive generations are shocked both by how much and how little changes over their lifespans. Our own times have seen faster evolutions in tech than any other. At the same time, improvements in the conditions of the world’s poorest, as well as political tensions between traditional foes, have been very slow.

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British philosopher A.C. Grayling argues that this is the upshot of neglecting history. So single-mindedly do our leaders pursue future wealth and power for their jurisdictions, they don’t stop to find out how their strategies panned out for others, like their ancestors. Neglecting our personal histories can have negative repercussions for our individual futures and focusing on them, great benefits. The idea of sitting with what has already happened to us can seem much less exciting than that of daydreaming about our potential. We also know that in traipsing through the past we will trip over a few things we’d rather forget. But there is so much that is useful, and even joyous, to reflect on too. We should take regular stock of occasions on which we’ve felt most productive or inspired or accepted, say, and then identify the factors they had in common. It helps us hone the options we consider for our lives and the tactics we employ. It makes us less susceptible to whim and outside influence.

It helps us work out what or who we might become. Consciously working out who you want to become will be that much more important as online technologies strive to lock us in to the interests, tastes and beliefs each of us has now. Increasingly, when we look up a topic online, Google and other search engines throw up sources and perspectives they ‘think’ we want to read based on our previous search histories. In giving us ever narrower variety in information they will reinforce for us very specific ways of seeing and navigating the world. Our lack of exposure to different points of view may have the frightening effect of reducing our tolerance of, and even curiosity about, other perspectives.

Businesses like Cambridge Analytica, at the same time, have learnt how to sell us political messages online that are precisely tailored to the particular demographic that we, ourselves, don’t realise we belong to. A.C. Grayling points out that the manipulation is so subtle we have no idea it’s happening. All this also means that if we’re to remain properly informed about the world and empathic towards each other we’ll have to be that much more deliberate in our acquisition of info. We’ll have to work hard to reach and find the other side of the story. And we’ll have to reach way back into the past, and not just towards dazzling speculations about the future, to best understand and protect ourselves and others. (The alternative scenario is that, in 10 years’ time, I’ll be watching a holographic doco in my loungeroom on my newly 3D-printed couch on how several subsub-sub cultures that ostensibly have the same belief are killing each other with laser guns.)

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