Big History, Agency and EmpowermentIn 2014 I wrote an essay called Is History Harmful? I still stand by it with some corrections. However, I do have another metaphor to make similar point.
I do believe that there is this notion of Big History. Some countries claim that they have big history and this allows them to justify either some action, or inaction. Similar to tobacco, pharma and tech the idea of history looks benevolent initially. History is presented to be rather part of culture. And because it’s culture and culture is good we loose our guards. And we forget that history is not only a tool to promote culture. It’s a political instrument, an instrument of propaganda(in the Goebbels’ or even Edward Bernays’ sense). It’s a tool to promote some narratives. And this is where it gets scary. And that is where the word Big should be attached to the History in the same way as it was attached to Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Tech.
Many people I know don’t like the concept of old money. Because it’s boring and not very just. Do you remember this story that says that most of the people who are still rich now in Florence came from the families that were rich in XV century? Well, this is really not just and it’s boring. It makes societies rigid, stuck in past. Big History is like that. It removes livelihood from the country, desire to improve, develop. It sucks all the vitality, creativity and entrepreneurship out of the air. Last year I visited Italy which is obviously famous for it art. Few months after that trip, in New York, I’ve met Italian woman who said that it’s almost impossible to be an artist in Italy now. You suffocate, you don’t know how to create something new, because all prior art is imposed onto you. You don’t know how to claim your own space. You don’t get empowerment by observing prior art, you surrender to it.
Can history be useful? Of course yes. It can be highly useful. Unfortunately because of our ignorance we don’t use it as a tool to learn things, to obtain some knowledge and insight. The whole notion of history is used currently as a pathological tool, it’s used as a propaganda to justify some action (see Russian wars in past 20 years, or Serbian in 1990s) or justify inaction (see German or French political response to the Russian war in Ukraine). Something went very wrong with our relationships with history.
After Feb 24, 2022 I look at some countries with fresh eyes. I already knew for many years that I would never live in Russia. But now some other countries joined this list (at least temporary for now, after all I am an optimist and I do believe that things change). I realized that if things stay the same they are now I wouldn’t want to live in Germany or France. What are the common things between Russia, Germany and France? Well, all of them have Big History. At least according to people from those same countries. I believe that instead of being masters of history they are the prisoners of it. They created closed minded societies that enabled very outdated policies.
When I was in Germany in April 2022 I’ve heard many times that people didn’t agree with actions of their government but they lacked any agency and desire to change it. In Ukraine (or Chile, or Colombia, or many other places around the world), if you don’t like the government, you protest and ask government to resign. As you should, because we live in the age of direct democracy, expression of peoples’ will and distributed power. We live in the age of empowerment and agency. And if some place doesn’t have it, you know it stuck in the past. That is where I personally see Germany. It might be economically advanced country. But politically and culturally it stuck in XX century. I will be more than happy to be wrong on this one.
Dynamism, vitality. Those are extremely important things. Those things drive human progress. They drive change. If you create morbid or sleepy society that doesn’t believe nothing can be changed, then why dow we even live?
It’s possible to find appropriate event in history to push for any narrative that justifies any action or inaction you want. So history can be used merely as a tool to hide behind from responsibility, not as a tool to seek knowledge.
Adam Grant wrote that pessimism is when the problem is visible but mental attitude doesn’t allow to solve it. This is the most scary part of many outdated societies. It wastes tons of human potential, because the whole societies of people can exist for generations without realization that things can be changed and problems can be solved.
Empowerment and agency. I want to see more of those in the world. We all deserve it.
In April 2022, after Germany I went to Estonia and Finland. Those places have completely different mood comparing to Berlin. The mood of possibility, of human progress, of hope. Estonia went from being Russian colony to highly advanced society in merely 30 years. There are robots driving on the streets delivering goods. Estonian and Finnish Prime Ministers are modern, empowered and outspoken leaders who are able to standup to the modern challenges. Nordics and Baltics set the example for the rest of us of what is possible. I’ve read book on Estonian history, and when you compare it to countries like France and Russia Estonia has very little of what we perceive like history! It’s a very young country. And at the end of the day I would rather live in Estonia or Finland than France. What matters is present and what you believe the future should be. Past does’t matter that much. Past can always be retold, it exists in the virtual space, through the stories (it’s not that real). However, present exists in the real and physical world. And the future has potential to materialize into the reality (the thing that past cannot do).
It took us 50 years to understand the issues with tobaccos industry. It took us 20 years to see problems in pharmaceutical industry and 10 years in tech. History is not an industry. It was used as a propaganda tool by the old empirical powers. I will be honest, I thought that we finished with empirical/colonial narratives and narratives of old big powers in the XX century. But it seems I was wrong. Only now, in the Age of the Internet, we are actually creating the new world order. The one that is more distributed, decentralized and ultimately more just. Places like Paris and Berlin will be less and less relevant politically. And places like Tallinn, Santiago, Abuja will play more important roles - either in their respective regions, or hopefully even globally. We live in the world that is more flat and less hierarchical (still long way to go), and in this world past doesn’t matter much. What matters is the present and your values and your attitude. Do you want to work? Do you want to make things betters? You can do that now. Welcome to the Brave New World.
P.S. As a reminder, at the age of the Internet we don’t need to ask anymore anyone for permission for anything. See Alexis Ohanian's book. It’s different now. Many things are possible. Starting your own company is possible, starting political party is possible, making sure old politicians resign is possible. To some extent you are limited by your imagination.