Learning from History Might Be the Best Tool for Overcoming Today’s Challenges
Credit: Connecticut College
Before the Trump Administration came into power, data scientists were all the rage.
Everyone around me, it seemed, wanted to become Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — the next high-profile data scientist and entrepreneur.
But, now, we don’t seek guidance from innovators and entrepreneurs on the world’s most pressing problems as much as we used to.
We look to historians instead.
The books’ author, Yuval Noah Harari, capitalized on a timely and important issue: In times of extreme change — in which we undoubtedly exist — human beings need a source of stabilization.
They need reassurance, just like a baby needs their parents when a noisy storm hits.
Today, when the very concept of democracy is being challenged by people with great power, history becomes a handy tool.
It allows human beings to ask: “Has anything like this ever happened, and how exactly did we solve similar problems?”
While seeking answers to these important questions, people tend to look at moments in history when totalitarianism failed and democracy rose.
The Second World War is the greatest of such examples. And, perhaps scaringly, Yale-based historian, Timothy Snyder, makes the case, in his popular On Tyranny, that many similarities between the rise of the Third Reich and today can be made.
For example, the scare tactics the Nazi power used to persuade the German population of so-called emergencies can be analogized to the executive branch’s narrative about America’s southern border.
These kinds of historical insights set important precedents for what could be and what should be.
Indeed, one of Snyder’s overarching arguments is that now, just like in the middle of the 20th century, people are strongly mistaken if they take their institutions, political system, and social norms for granted.
On so many occasions, and across the globe, entities that seemed bulletproof — including Germany’s Constitution, before the Nazi Party’s complete dismissal of it, and the several communist regimes across Europe — were, in fact, quite the opposite.
They were frail and subject to demolishment.
What strikes me as interesting, as historians continue to hit the mainstream, is the way technological progress interacts with this new-found thirst for historical knowledge.
The first thing that comes to mind, in relation to this point, is the relatively uncontroversial idea that human beings now have the tools to create truly intelligent machines.
Not the machines that help you order your favorite protein bars by voice command. Nor the machines that show you what directions are most efficient to reach your final destination.
But the type of machine with whom one could have a full-fledged relationship. Something that could work, talk, cry, laugh, and feel. Something that could display empathy, while having the computational power far superior to the planet’s smartest person alive.
If we assume that, one day, such machines will exist, I think it rational to look back in the past for solutions to unthinkable problems.
Dealing with the Trump Administration’s political tactics to ignite and impress its base is one thing.
But learning how to approach the future — with the moments of political turbulence that happen along the way, like Brexit and the Trump Administration, for instance — requires unique and deep foresight.
It demands of people to not only acknowledge the political shifts that extreme progress and change can engender, but also to get ready for the truly unthinkable: the creation of a human-like machine.
History becomes perhaps the only platform upon which human beings can stand for its future survival.
We debatably face, today, the most difficult problem in humankind — global warming and the effects of climate change. We have also seen, in the matter of a few years, many political events that contradict intuitions about our establishments and governmental order.
Additionally, and most notably, we possess an extremely powerful set of technologies that, if carefully deployed, could help counter these many nefarious phenomena, while promoting welfare.
In light of these matters, we very well might be shell-shocked. Confused by our current predicament and in search of solutions.
History, in these times of great uncertainty, may be our greatest teacher.
All signs point to it.