The Future of History

Imagine you’re a historian in 2050, trying to make sense of the world of 2018. Your research is, of course, primarily internet-based. While in the days of old, you’d have dozens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of relevant primary sources to sift through, the people of the age of Trump left you a veritable treasure trove: millions and millions.

  • Which of these are worth reading?
  • Who are the millions of people who wrote them?
  • Can they and their writing, videos, or whatever else be trusted, at least in part?
  • How do you reconcile so many different sources giving contradictory accounts of the same events?
  • How do you even find time to actually form a historical narrative when you’re spending all your time dumpster diving through the digital archives?
  • Just who is it that gets to decide what’s worth consideration and what isn’t?

These types of questions are what will drive the study of History in our future, and they are daunting. Even today, in areas of study that only have a few surviving, relevant primary sources, the dominant narrative is constantly changing, not just among academics but society at large. It’s not just Ancient History, either: in more modern historical studies, such as those of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there’s still plenty of competing ideas surrounding the what, how, and why — and often, legitimate disputes remain over whether some events even happened.

That’s not even getting into popular historical memory, which may be more important than the discipline’s formal study. In fact, it’s somewhat rare that what the most up-to-date historians have to say actually becomes a part of society’s collective memory, at least not until much later. We tend to favour the most comfortable narratives that suit the times, selectively forgetting the parts we don’t particularly like. This is almost always helped along by influential government institutions, such as schools and museums. Even still, many competing informal versions of history always remain. The ‘Lost Cause’ narrative of the American Civil War is an excellent example of a deinstitutionalised collective memory that lives on despite its rejection by academic historians and a near complete lack of contemporary promotion by the state.

Problems of the Future

In the near future, historians, governments, everyday people, and mythmakers will all be competing with one another for space in collective memories as they do today. But, for the first time, they’ll primarily be using the exact same resource to form their narratives: the open internet.

If you think conspiracy theories are bad now, just wait until they’re mainstream / Image: ImageCreator

This brings unique benefits and challenges for historians. The ‘official story’ of government institutions, previously the de facto until proven otherwise, will be challenged more than ever before. Everyone with an internet connection has the opportunity to leave a semi-permanent mark on cyberspace, making it much easier to question official histories. On the other hand, the task of forming a narrative that properly considers every side of the story on their own merits will be a mammoth one.

The mythmakers, however, unburdened by the weight of academic rigour, only benefit from this new paradigm. They’ll be able to selectively pick and choose from millions of primary sources, finding those that happen to say exactly what they need to form their chosen version of history. Additionally, the waning power of official stories, as problematic as they may often be, will make it far easier for such narratives to grow their influence.

To top it all off, the internet itself is the perfect means for rapidly disseminating such agenda-driven histories. By contrast, historians must engage with processes such as peer review and other forms of regulation that ensure the quality of their work. Such processes are undoubtedly necessary, but may hinder their influence in a future that promises to be even more digital than our own. In the time it takes one article to be researched, ethics approved and peer reviewed, the mythmaker has written and shared 50. Worse still, academic histories are rarely widely circulated in the first place, usually featuring in paywalled journals or bound tomes only ever read by diehard enthusiasts or other historians.

The Solutions

Memory is already a battlefield. It promises to become a bloodier one in the future, with more of a level playing field than ever before. Historians will need to adapt if they’re to retain even a smidgen of their already questionable mainstream influence. It’s not all doom and gloom, though — there’s measures that could be taken and changes that will no doubt naturally evolve as society does.

The digital archivist

Digital archivists already exist, but they will become increasingly important. While today they primarily digitise and immortalise physical photographs, documents, film, etc, in the future they’ll start to deal more and more with ensuring the survival of digital content itself. This itself is nothing new — the Wayback Machine has been around forever and newer sites like archive.is make it easy for anyone to archive a webpage.

Internet archives such as this one already exist, but their duties could be expanded. / Image: Raimond Spekking @ Wikimedia Commons

But the human archivist has a key advantage: they can be selective in what they choose to preserve, which may prove crucial for the study of history. With training in primary source analysis, the digital archivist of the future could greatly reduce the workload of the historian by offering them a selection of sources with the fluff mostly filtered out; with the aid of scripts and algorithms, of course. The internet is too vast to ever be reviewed in full, so they could instead research primary material as needed, effectively becoming researchers in their own right.

The issue of dissemination

We already live in a world where someone can send a conspiracy theory to the other side of the world in less than half a second, and this isn’t going to be changing anytime soon. The speedy and wide circulation of academic history will need to be encouraged if historians are going to retain any of their influence. This will almost definitely require the welcome death of some of the least pleasant things about academia, such as paywalled journals that demand $89.99 for 24 hours of access to a single article unless you have an institutional subscription. It’s curious that these journals havn’t already been displaced by alternatives with more modern models, such as cheap subscriptions or metered paywalls. In the future, though, they certainly should be; whether it actually happens is another matter.

There’s also academic history books, most of which fail to appeal to a popular audience — apart from some exceptions (generally borderline non-academic attempts at grand narratives). It might be time for more historians to change the way they write and structure their work, ensuring that it tell a more engaging story without compromising its rigour. Additionally, there’s going to be a pressing need to take better advantage of digital mediums and put more into promoting these works if they’re to have any hope of competing with something freely available on the first page of a search engine.

Ever seen anyone with one of these open in a café? Me neither. / Image: M. Imran @ Wikimedia Commons

Whether this would be possible while retaining academic rigour and continuing the sometimes sluggish processes of ethics approval and peer review is up in the air — but something definitely has to change.

The role of government

With official stories rapidly losing their importance, government institutions may decide that further collaboration with the academy is mutually beneficial. Who knows what the result of this would look like — perhaps it’ll simply be increased funding for historical research, or even governments taking history and memory so seriously that they form their own respective ministries. The results could vary considerably: from returning institutional narratives to their former glory, to a compromise between academic history and the official story, or even historians retaining their independence while gaining unprecedented influence over collective memory.

What the future holds

History is stubborn, it refuses to be finished. It’s only going to get more and more headstrong in the future as the internet’s influence over how we remember the past grows. Should anything be done about this, or should we just accept it as it comes? There are valid questions about whether the privileged position often afforded to academic and state-sponsored histories is really something worth preserving — if they can’t maintain their importance on their own merits in a changing world, maybe they’re simply becoming obsolete.

They’ll surely at least try to adapt. But will these adaptations be enough for them to retain some of their waning influence over how society chooses to remember the past?

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