noga_arikha's picture
Associate Fellow, Warburg Insitute (London); Research Associate, Institut Jean Nicod of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris); Author, The Ceiling Outside

I worry about the prospect of collective amnesia. 

While access to information has never been so universal as it is now—thanks to the Internet—the total sum of knowledge of anything beyond the present seems to be dwindling among those people who came of age with the Internet. Anything beyond 1945, if then, is a messy, remote landscape; the centuries melt into each other in an insignificant magma. Famous names are flickers on a screen, their dates irrelevant, their epochs dusty. Everything is equalized.

The stunning historical blankness students from the world over display when they arrive at college can be explained. For one, a confusion has set in with regard to what should be taught at school. The canon—in any country—is now considered by many who are supposed to teach it an obsolete, "imperialist" weapon to be shunned, not an expandable, variable set of works that have passed the test of time, and from where to begin the learning process. Chronology is moot: instead, students can pick general themes, analyse perspectives and interpretations. History certainly needs to remain a thoughtful enterprise—one would not want it to turn back into a list of dates, monarchs and battles. But because the laudable emphasis on questioning has taken the place of teaching questionable facts, temporal continuities have been lost, and students have few guides other than the Internet that has become their reference—their ersatz library.

And so there's the rub of technology. Those who are coming of age today are challenged by the inventions from which their elders reap benefit: Facebook disperses everyone's attention but captures theirs in a particularly intense way. Wikipedia is a useful shortcut that can be used by all as a starting-point for proper research; but students use it as if it constituted all research. Without a background in leafing through books, learning in the old analog way how to gauge relevance, hierarchy, accuracy and cross-references, students arrive at college unable to know where to begin their education and so where to place themselves within the wider world—confused about what constitutes the beginning of knowledge. A few do learn how and what to ask, and may find the guidance to delve into the world's histories, acquiring a sense of perspective and of what it really means to know that one doesn't know. But for a majority, the gaps will persist into maturity, unidentified and unplugged.

Certainly, worries emerge whenever technology changes the mode of cultural transmission. Though there might be a correlation between the acceleration of technological transformations and the speed at which the past recedes, one should not forget that the fear of forgetting—indeed—was strong when printing became common. If forgetfulness has increased, it is not because of new technology per se but despite it: it is because curricular fashions are mimicking Internet entropy rather than providing the centripetal force needed to turn the young into its informed users. As it is, ours is an age of information glut, not deep knowledge.

The very way in which science is practiced, for instance, rewards short-term memory combined with a sense that the present exists for the sake of the future. Ten-year-old scientific papers are now ancient—after all, over a million new papers are published each year. As a result, some groundbreaking work from the 1920s in, say, zoology, lies forgotten, and produced in new labs as if it had never been done before. Almost everything is archived; but nothing can be found unless one knows to look for it. Many may be reinventing the wheel, unaware that the historical permafrost is full of treasures.

The same applies to the longer history of science, the history of art, the history of philosophy, and political and economic history (some of our present woes arguably arise out of the historical myopia of economists). References to early modernity have become a highly specialized affair, hard to place in chronology. For many, and not only for students, history is of the modern, not of what precedes the modern, when science was magic, all art was the same and all politics autocratic: history is not so much simplified as disappeared. There are pockets of awareness, pre-modern eras considered fascinating by a "general public" and picked up by Hollywood—for the West, these would include, say, ancient Egypt, Greco-Roman antiquity, the "Middle Ages", the Renaissance, the Moghuls in India, the American Civil War, the French Revolution. But each is viewed as a self-contained epoch—easily skippable episodes in the potentially entertaining soap opera or costume drama that is the history of the world. And so, deeper questions of historiography cannot even begin to be addressed.

Of course, history is still researched, written, read by enough individuals that the discipline as such survives. The sum of historical knowledge has always been held by a small number of educated people, at any given time; and this has not changed. But our world is geared at keeping up with a furiously paced present with no time for the complex past; and the fact that a very large number of literate people with unprecedented access to advanced education and scanned sources has no sense of what the world was like only yesterday does point to the possibility of eventually arriving at a state of collective amnesia. We risk remaining stuck within a culture where everyone ignores the sundry causal connections that make the present what it is, happy to focus on today's increasing complexity—as if a blank slate favored creativity and innovation.

There is a way out: by integrating the teaching of history within the curricula of all subjects—using whatever digital or other means we have to redirect attention to slow reading and old sources. Otherwise we will be condemned to living without perspective, robbed of the wisdom and experience with which to build for the future, confined by the arrogance of our presentism to repeating history without noticing it.