What is the optimal distance from the past to have a satisfying knowledge of it?

It is easy to develop a better understanding of Renaissance Venice or Florence by simply visiting the cities, as much of their past remains to be seen.  Ancient Greece of course is much tougher, though still there are shards of significance.  I am pleased that I can read Shakespeare without a translation, although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now.

To maximize the total joy from understanding and consuming the past, how close to that past do you wish to be?  One thousand years from now, assuming things are still up and running, you will have another thousand years of history to consume, enjoy, and perhaps grieve over.  But many important eras will seem strange or incomprehensible to you, beyond your intellectual grasp.  You might not know what “colonial America” really was, whereas today I know actual people who live in colonial homes, for instance in Alexandria, Virginia.

Is having a longer past to look back upon always more rewarding?  Or would you rather have a shorter past to ponder, but be closer in time and sympathy to some of the most foundational developments?

Would you prefer to see them inaugurate those space colonies, or instead have some partial grasp of what “The Enlightenment” really was about?

Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors?  One of the advantages of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good and internally coherent narrative for what has happened from the ancient Greeks (or earlier?) up through the current day.

For this post I am indebted to a lunchtime conversation with S.

Comments

I think it's likely that people of the far future will have a highly coherent narrative of the entire past, including our time. Or at least it will seem highly coherent to them.

Will they? I think that young people have the technical ability to understand a very detailed picture of the past, if they want. But they do not understand it. The sources are outstanding. There are plenty of commentaries. But works like Anna Karenina are dead to them. They do not live in that world, or anything like it, and so they do not understand it. Why would someone have to step down as King just because his wife was married before? Why would someone else have to step down because they lied? This is a foreign language they no longer speak.

Entire topics, mainly dealing with race and gender, are now so alien to their worldview that they may as well be written in Sanskrit.

Looking back at 2018 from 2158 will be much different than looking back at 1878 from 2018, though (assuming society doesn't completely collapse and lose technology like computers).

140 years from now, you will be able to walk the streets of 2018 using archives of image data such as Google Street View. You will be able to see anyone of any significance for yourself through extensive video. You will be able to see history happening through news archives. Thousands of movies, both fiction and non-fiction, will help you get the feel for the era.

And that is just what is possible using current technology. If technology continues to progress, current data plus future technology will likely create immersive virtual reality experiences of the past that we can't even conceive of.

"140 years from now, you will be able to walk the streets of 2018 using archives of image data such as Google Street View."

Sure, you will be *able* to do that. But who will do that? I could learn a lot about the world now by doing that. But I don't, and likewise with most other people. It will always be the same.

If *everyone* or even specific individuals choose to do that or not is beside the point. History students and those with an interest in the topic will assimilate from what ever sources they can. In any period only those with interest in history will take the time to learn and understand the past.

The point Dan was making is simply that the amount of data on record not only of ourselves but also of our collective knowledge of the past Is staggering. And so long as our civilization continues so too will our collective knowledge and as we advance further into our own future our knowledge grows and our records of the keeping gets better and better.

It's this reason why I would much rather have my vantage point of history in whatever the present date happens to be.

Learning about 1878 is an academic, intellectual exercise, which only a small segment of the population will pursue.

It's possible that 140 years from now, people will be playing "2018: the video game" a popular VR thriller set in a historically-accurate recreation of the year 2018 based on contemporary data.

Of course we don't know who will learn what. And the sheer volume of information guarantees that a whole lot of it will be ignored. But my point is, it's hard to reason from present day historical knowledge to what is going to be happening in the future.

It's already true that we have a truer image of photographed times and places than we do of eras for which we must rely on paintings and verbal accounts, which often failed to record a lot of trivial or unpleasant detail.

The race and gender exclusion may vanish again with the passing of time: fashions change.

The desire for victimhood, or for the existence of groups on whose behalf one can agitate, will not abate. Race relations may change as more and more people become mixed, but gender relations will continue to be a flashpoint ... as they’ve always been. It will be interesting to see what flows out of the campuses into the greater world.

"Entire topics, mainly dealing with race and gender, are now so alien to their worldview that they may as well be written in Sanskrit."

Tyler and his fellow thought police may have banished certain topics from public discourse, but they certainly remain within human consciousness and private conversation. Do you think young white women don't comment to each other privately how unpleasant it is to pass a group of black men on the street? Just as, in the medieval and early modern world, church and state banished lewd blasphemy from public discourse, but, as you can learn from the trial of Christopher Marlowe, the banned thoughts certainly survived and were expressed privately.

He didn’t express them privately very well! He couldn’t shut up.

Oh, I never said it will necessarily be highly detailed, or recognizable to anyone from the 21st century. Just that they'll come up with a good, plausible sounding story of how history happened, ignoring any details which seem too irrelevant, confusing, or contradictory.

To claim to have a good understanding of the past, how much detail do you need? Do I need to understand exactly why 20th century England was less friendly to divorce than modern England is? I think it's part of a more or less coherent trend of increasing personal liberty. Sure, a conservative Englishman of 1938 would consider my viewpoint oversimplified and morally wrong, but I'm looking down on him from the superior future, so I don't care about the details of what he thinks. I expect people in another century or two to have similar condescending views about me, whether those views are actually right or wrong.

If I need to understand Anna Karenina, why don't I also need to understand Sanskrit? If I need to understand Shakespeare without a translation, then why not Beowulf without a translation? What about the bible? Eventually, Americans may not even understand the Constitution without a translation. And after enough time, they probably won't even consider it a problem that they don't.

(My point, by the way, actually isn't so much that people of the future will have a coherent understanding of history. My point is that most people of the current era think we have a coherent understanding, but perhaps we don't.)

Richard Feynman had an interesting comment about how the standard of what's deemed to be important about a given time period can shift dramatically if enough time passes:

“From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

If I had to guess what the "big story" of our lifetime will be, taking Feynman's very long view, I'd wager that the destruction and collapse of life in the oceans will probably come to be considered a lot more important than anything else happening right now, even if we're barely noticing it while it happens.

But back to Tyler's question: the answer could also depend on WHERE you are. If you want to understand Dickensian London, for example, this is probably not the optimal point in history if you happen to be in London itself. But if you're in Beijing, this is probably the perfect time. And arguably you could learn more about Dickens' London in China right now than anywhere else, in a certain sense anyway.

Is it truly getting that dire for ocean life? Honestly asking.

The worlds fishery harvest are at record levels:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_fisheries_production

Wild catches have been relatively static for 30 years, but have not declined. Aquaculture is on a steady, steep curve upward.

Also, this article states that the Official stats understate the real catch:
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/official-statistics-understate-global-fish-catch-new-estimate-concludes

The evidence doesn't indicate any collapse of the oceans.

I think it's worse than a lot of stuff that actually grabs our attention, but perhaps there is hope. Intuitively, it is perhaps the premier tragedy of the commons / collective action problem that any student of economics should grok. Also, out of sight, out of mind. I think there's a lot we still don't understand about the oceans.

There's a lot of doom and gloom. But it's hard to make the case that the oceans are collapsing when we're getting such extremely large output. The objective evidence indicates that the doom and gloom brigade are mostly wrong. We are collecting vastly more data about the worlds oceans than we ever have in the past. Hundreds of times the data we were collecting in the 1960's.

http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/

Thanks to both of you. Brian's right, it doesn't get much attention (compared to other ecological stuff like climate change and carbon), and it's fundamentally important to the survival of humanity. So I am glad to hear from JWatts it may not be so bad.

+1 There have even been reports in the past couple years that coral reefs, the 'canary in the coalmine' of the oceans, are more resilient/less affected by warming than thought of before.

Yeah, the coral reef one is a better statistic. Maybe coral reefs just go through natural cycles of death and revival all the time.

Is this really the right measure?
I mean, maybe people are just getting better and better at catching every last fish.

Well we've tapped out the wild fish market. It's been at a static high for two decades. However raising fish is a growing industry. But surely if the oceans were suffering it would effect the size of the fish catch.

Oil production is also at record highs. There is obviously more oil in the ground than ever before. (sigh)

There are 2 things wrong with your post. First, fish naturally replenish themselves. Secondly, I didn't say there were an endless supply of fish. Just that the catch has been at a steady.

“From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

I know this quote I always thought Feynmann was dead wrong. People still know about the Peloponnese war - the Feynmann view more along the lines that one day people will value scientific knowledge more highly and in some enlightened future all the stuff about war and politics will recede into the background. He was just affected by his own personal bubble in this regard.

'People still know about the Peloponnese war'

People still read Thucydides for insight, not to learn about the history of the Peloponnesian War. It is true that in our decadent age, very few people learn classical Greek so as to enjoy Thucydides without requiring a translation.

give a basic account of the war of the league of
Cambrai, no googling.

People alive at the time couldn't do that, the sides flipped too often. I think Venice started the war hopelessly outnumbered and then somehow flipped to the winning side at the end.

The insights of Thucydides are profound ... except as we’ve seen with that US vs. China book about rivalries between riding and established powers, it’s hard to apply them.

His Greek was dense and turgid though.

'it’s hard to apply them'

The insights are not about application. As a matter of fact, one could even say that is one of the insights to be gained from reading Thucydides.

I think most school age children know triangles and they may even remember the Pythagorean theorem. It's so basic and general that Pythagoras is a question on PISA tests.

Peloponnese war? I remember it's the name of a peninsula in Greece. So, it must have been a war over there but no idea about who against who, interesting facts, relevant outcomes or anything. So, when you tell "People" still know about this war. Which people? Perhaps your bubble is even smaller than Feynmann's.

Don't be obtuse. Yeah Pythagoras' theorem is an important piece of knowledge that came from that time period, and certainly Maxwell's equations are fundamental to any kind of electronics or electrical power systems. That's not the point, he ends his quote with "The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade." Well for historians of Ancient Greece the Peloponnese War still hasn't faded into insignificance and the ACW won't either.

"For historians of Ancient Greece" is quite a qualifier.

Yeah, Pythagoras has done pretty well, but I would guess that more people are familiar with Maxwell's silver hammer than Maxwell's equations. Unlike Feynman, I can't see 10000 years into the future.

So tht is what we become...

Yep, we've have become a vastly educated society, whereby billions of people are passingly familiar with an esoteric scientific equation.

So that is our future. A silver hammer crushing a human mind - forever.

You may know it as the war between Sparta and Athens. (I’m not joking. What I mean to say is: Sparta and Athens are still interesting to people; the “war of the Peloponnesus” is not.)

For people who wish to learn from history (and I mean more than just history professors, I mean people who wish to avoid being Santayana's people who are doomed to repeat it), Thucydides is as important and fundamental as Pythagoras is to people who want to learn geometry.

Which means that sure most people can go their entire lives without knowing who Thucydides was or even using the Pythagorean Theorem. And there are modern-day substitutes, one can learn Thucydides' lessons by reading other books, and one car learn geometry without learning the Pythag Theorem. But anyone who is thoughtful about politics, international relations, or military policy is re-treading in Thucydides' steps even if they don't realize it.

That doesn't mean Thucydides was always correct or that he's the last word in history. More like the first word (or second, after Herodotus). We've learned a lot in the 2,400 years since then. But he's still the guy who showed us what history can be and how we might learn from it. E.g. the US Constitution was written by people who were acutely aware of the dangers of pure democracy and demagoguery, and made sure to put checks and balances in place. They didn't have to read Thucydides to have known those lessons -- but I'll willing to bet that they did read him.

Surely more people spend more time remembering the Mayflower, the execution of Charles I, and the Sun King than spend time remembering their contemporary, Isaac Newton.

Depends - in most of the world, a 'newton' is the SI measurement for force. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton_%28unit%29

Well, yes, people keep chattering along about the American Civil War, well Americans do, but few even realize that we are just approaching the bicentennial of the discovery of the interaction of electricity and magnetism and the subsequent invention of the electric motor. Or that we just had the 70th anniversary of the invention of the semiconductor transistor. And yet, both of these events made the modern world possible.

I would argue that the rise of a global deposit of information connecting millions of people around the world will be seen as our era-defining moment. The internet fundamentally changed the way the world was run and there's no going back. There will always be some version if the world wide web so long as our civilization continues.

"there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics": of course there can be doubt. Someone else might say that, on the contrary, it was sorting out the first and second laws of thermodynamics that was the biggest deal. Or the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. But I'll grant that any picture of history that rates the American Civil War above any of those three would be absurdly superficial.

You'd be granting wrong, my poor little insular friend. After billions of years where either (a) there were no men whatsoever or (b) the men who existed never did much for men of different races, one group of men died in their tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands because they were told to - nothing new there - but also because a reason they were told to do it was to help people of a different race, people with whom they had no natural affinity. Sort of a game-changer, that, no matter what you in your insular ignorance think.

Stop writing dumb things with such confidence. Be as dumb as you want but cut out the "absurdly superficial" level of confidence.

S.Carter AKA Jigga!

This is a slight variation to the response, but the greatest distance you go from an event, the more commonplace and ubiquitous one might find what was new and exciting at the time. I am not sure this really impacts the 'understanding' of such a time, but it can diminish the perception of the radicality of such a transformation. Perhaps the greater distance leads to greater understanding but a false(r) sense of linearity and orderliness?

What sort of historical knowledge are we seeking? If we want to know what it was like say to be a grunt during WW II, then probably 30-50 years after the war is optimal, when we can still talk with people who experienced it firsthand, but who are also now at a far enough remove to give a deep evaluation.

If we want to see how WW II affected human history, we'll need to go probably at least a couple of centuries, maybe more like 500 years, to see what eventually happens to countries such as the USA, UK, Germany, Soviet Union, Japan, China, etc.

Well I'm not sure you need to go a couple of centuries to see what eventually happens to the Soviet Union.

On a side note, I finally watched the new BladeRunner sequel. For the most part a mediocre film, but there were some interesting visuals. I was amused by the giant ballerina hologram with the CCCP label. I suspect that went over the head of 99% of the viewers. But apparently in the BladeRunner mythos, the Soviet Union persisted. Maybe that's why the environment is so crappy.

My wife the other day talked about another universe "where World War 1 happened".

She is clearly a time traveller from a more advanced epoch spared the destructive horrors of the 20th century. I am playing it cool, until I can figure out why she has been sent here.

"I am playing it cool, until I can figure out why she has been sent here."

That sounds like a good plan.

Maybe we are lucky and she is counting backwards from 3 and we are not in that world where the Great War was 3 and the Hitler/Hirohito War was 2 and then there was 1..

Living in an old house does not really give you much insight into the past.

I live in Prague where some houses in the centre are easily 500 years old. But only the most sturdy and luxurious houses (if not palaces) of the bygone eras have survived, anything less valuable was torn down generations ago to give way for future development. So if you really inhabit a Renaissance apartment, your headquarters are those of nobility, not of an average Prague citizen of the 16th century.

Then there are all the amenities such as indoor plumbing and electricity. Even the nobles of the Renaissance had to ford ankle-deep pools of raw sewage in the winding streets of the old town. A visitor of Prague in the early 1600s commented that the smell of the streets is strong enough to stop the Turkish invasion by itself.

Now add various plagues, sky-high child mortality, almost total absence of what we consider health-care...

No, you do not really connect with the past while lodging in a five-times-since-rebuilt medieval building. You may fancy so, though. Long live collective coolness illusion of the chattering class.

'whereas today I know actual people who live in colonial homes, for instance in Alexandria, Virginia'

Protected by extremely strict preservation laws, as can be read here - https://www.alexandriava.gov/Preservation

'There are two historic districts and thirty-five, 100 Year Old Buildings locally designated and regulated in Alexandria. Two, separate Boards of Architectural Review (BAR) oversee the protection of the Old and Historic Alexandria District, the 100 Year Old Buildings and the Parker-Gray District. The Boards must approve a Certificate of Appropriateness for all new construction and exterior alterations for structures designated which are visible from a public way. In addition, the Boards must approve a Permit to Demolish for proposed demolition of more than 25 square feet of material on a structure, regardless of the visibility from a public way.'

I don't think there is a direct relationship. We know more about ancient Egyptians than anyone for the past millennia (probably even longer) and people 100 years from now are likely to know more. Right now it seems like we will be better at preserving knowledge but it's not clear how well our knowledge will be preserved for another millennia. It is easy to imagine that 1000 years from now, much of the knowledge about ancient Egypt will be forgotten.

I wonder if there is anything that 19th Century archaeologists discovered about Egypt that has since been forgotten and is no longer under the ground waiting to be discovered.

"It is easy to imagine that 1000 years from now, much of the knowledge about ancient Egypt will be forgotten."

Knowledge has become so widespread that it seems unlikely that much will be lost. There could be something that wipes out a lot of electronic records, but DVD's etc are fairly resilient. Even the cheap ones. It's trendy to think that the shelf life of such media is short (and you do need electronics to read them) but in reality most testing indicates that an average disc is good for 50-200 years. If a disc isn't used during that time period and it's stored in a reasonably dry place out of the sun, it should last a really long time.

"Following the test procedures of the International Standards Organization (ISO) quality media manufacturers have been able to document data life-spans ranging from 50-200 years. "

For knowledge to be lost, we'd have to go through a period of centuries without anyone restoring the data in a different format. It's possible, but it would take something worse than the Dark Ages (a European event) that affected the entire human race.

'For knowledge to be lost'

Like films? 'During most of the 20th century, U.S. copyright law required at least one copy of every American film to be deposited at the Library of Congress, at the time of copyright registration, but the Librarian of Congress was not required to retain those copies: "Under the provisions of the act of March 4, 1909, authority is granted for the return to the claimant of copyright of such copyright deposits as are not required by the Library." Of American silent films, far more have been lost than have survived, and of American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_film

And from a 27 year old article, you are welcome to discover what was already beyond reach at that time - http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-13/news/mn-232_1_national-archives-computer-records-government-computer

If we were talking about archive.org or the use of the GPL to ensure that we can continue to access data in a generation, good enough. But preservation takes time and effort, and that is not something notably important in our ever braver commercial new worlds.

'although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now'

One generation, tops. One could argue that very few educated Americans born in 2000 can read Shakespeare without a 'translation' now. However, an echo effect exists, as an older generation fades from the scene, one that prided itself on reading the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions in high school. Then delving deeper, reading First Folio facsimiles - http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/facsimile/overview/book/F1.html

But don't worry, in a century, English speakers will still likely be using most of Shakespeares's cliches.

Aw shucks, methinks you protest too much Prior. No, really, you protest way too much.

I had no education so tried to read Milton as an adult, but it was a bit of a slog for me and turned into a game of bagging the familiar phrases.

One hundred years of from now Americans will be lucky if they could burn the last copy of Shakespeare to keep warm.

As far as the past goes, people like the bits where they did well. As can be seen with the more military-oriented British being obsessed with the 18th century and everyone talking about World War Two. They tend to ignore the bits where they did not do well.

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.

Probably over time this evens out with most people having good periods and bad.

"As far as the past goes, people like the bits where they did well. "

Sure. That's why nobody in the South ever talks about the US Civil War.

"military-oriented British": but they aren't. They tend to be navy-oriented.

My words were not that unclear. I did not say the British were military-oriented. I said that among those (small number) of British people who were very interested in the Army, the 18th century is grossly over-represented.

There are what? 200 extant copies of Shakespeare’s Folio (1st ed.). That’s not a lot of heat.

Conversely there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of paperback copies of individual Shakespeare plays. There is a lot of heat value there!

One thousand years from now, assuming things are still up and running, you will have another thousand years of history to consume, enjoy, and perhaps grieve over. Someone might but it won't be any of us.

And, yes, it will depend greatly on where you're at. In whatever dystopian nightmare exists in that unpredictable future, it's unlikely that somebody living in the current location of Istanbul will have much interest in the US War Between the States of the mid-nineteenth century.

One thousand years from now, it will be illegal to study the sexist, racist, homophobic, cis-genedering, islamophobic, patriarchal, ecocidal, pre-civilisation before the dawn of the Enlightened Snowflake Socialist Republic of Eternal Virtue....even asking about the past will probably require a trigger warning and a special dispensation for HateThought from the Central Committee.

That’s funny, and yet my laugh is a hollow one, because I have colleagues who are very devoted to policing knowledge in order to ensure that their version of history will prevail. They would never put it so many words, but there’s no doubt that if there was a collision, so to speak, between certain facts and their virtuous world view, the former would suffer.

What are the things that are under threat? Well at least in the Arts Faculty corner of my little world: teaching free speech history without asterisks and qualifying comments, teaching free enterprise economics (it may be different in actual Econ depts), and teaching that homo sapiens basically divide into two biological categories with a smattering of “others”.

I suppose it would also be tricky to offer a course on why there isn’t white privilege.

There's a public radio show in my area that I catch fragments of when I run errands sometimes. I'm exaggerating only a little when I say that it could easily be called "The Daily Shame." At least a couple days a week, earnest voices sift ever more obscure sins of the past.

We study the ancient Greeks because of the ancient Greek philosophers, who so influenced the founders. We study the ancient Mediterranean civilization and the Roman Empire because of the Messiah Jesus, who so influenced the West. Only now do we study the ancient Chinese civilization because of China's rise to economic dominance. Of course, no matter how much we study a particular time and place, our knowledge is often more myth than reality; indeed, our knowledge of our own history is filled with myths. The reason is that the past is unknowable to us; instead, what we know is history, which is someone's account of the past, not the past itself. And what we know is that accounts of the past are often unreliable because they are written by humans, humans with their own myths, humans with an ax to grind. How many attended Trump's inauguration? And that was only a year ago. This blog is an account of the past, and may one day be a source for the study of the history of our time and place. Is this blog an accurate account of the past? Indeed, is this blog an accurate account of the present?

Jesus said that he didn't really understand the crucifixion for three days. So I'd say at least 72 hours is necessary to gather your thoughts and have a satisfying knowledge of the past.

Thanks, Paul. Any more epiphanies to share with us?

Or epistles.

Tyler writes: "One of the advantages of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good and internally coherent narrative for what has happened from the ancient Greeks (or earlier?) up through the current day."

Are you talking about Western history or all of world history? If you mean just Western history, I suppose that's right. You can take a series of undergraduate courses, and learn the rough sweep of European and North American developments. I think a minor in history would be enough to develop a "coherent narrative," as you call it.

World history is a different matter. It's too complicated and messy to try to develop a single narrative. At least, I find it too complicated.

Prof. William McNeill gave a good integrated summary of the development of what he called the "ecumene," the zone of civilization that stretched from the Mediterranean through the Mideast and India to China, with Britain and Japan at its furthest extremities.

Now, that summary, despite being mostly correct, might not find favor in the university today, because it doesn't focus its primary attention on how the white male inhabitants of the ecumene oppressed all the other people throughout all of human history. But if what you want is true understanding, as opposed to fitting in with academics, it's a good start.

More than the distance, I think the rate at which change happens is more pertinent. I live in a small town in South India which hasn't changed much in my life time. The temple I go to is a thousand years old and except for electrification and paintwork hasn't changed in that time. The priest chants the same prayers and performs the same rituals everyday as it was done the past thousand years. Oh, he carries a smart phone.

"The priest chants the same prayers and performs the same rituals everyday as it was done the past thousand years." How do you know?

dearieme, I am not a devout Hindu and I don't go to temples or observe rituals at home. Nor do believe in claims that computers and aircraft were known to ancient Hindus. . But even western scholars do confirm that the most ancient Hindu scriptures, called the vedas, and some of the rituals, especially involving an altar of fire, have been passed on almost intact over two millennia. Michael Witzel a Harvard sanskrit scholar says:

"The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted, without the use of
script, in an unbroken line of transmission from teacher to student that was formalized
early on. This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to
the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording
of ca. 1500–500 bce. Not just the actual words, but even the long-lost musical (tonal) accent (as in old Greek or in Japanese) has been preserved up to the present." ( In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism edited by Gavin Flood, page 79

And Venkataraman is right: these priests who preserve these ancient rituals and chants carry smart phones, and can even be seen going around on motorcycles!

This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures

No sane academic worth a bowl of warm spit would say that. If he did, he is a discredit to Harvard. By definition oral transmission of anything is unreliable. Nothing compared to actual texts.

Well, it all depends if you consider history linear or cyclical.

Marxists and Christians believe in linear history. Buddhists and many others believe in cycles.

If it's linear, very old events become irrelevant or incomprehensible. If it's cyclical, a thing from 3000 years ago may be quite relatable and rewarding to read about.

>Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors? One of the advantages of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good and internally coherent narrative for what has happened from the ancient Greeks (or earlier?) up through the current day.

Even though the latter sentence is true, we are already in the era described by the former. Sure, you can have a narrative about the Greeks. But you are ignoring the thousands of years of Egyptian and Chinese and other history that happened before them, and as mentioned by WB you are also mostly paying attention to the history of a few countries (I would say that it is not even all of Europe). In 500 years, your counterpart will say that the advantage of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good narrative about the events starting from the great migration of peoples.

I can't locate it and will have to paraphrase, but I'm sure it was in a Daniel Boorstin book (though he's quoting somebody else...a Brit, not doubt). In any event, the sense was that "Americans travel to Europe for all of the history; Europeans travel to America because there isn't any."

That's cute but dumb. There is 400 years worth of history in North America. In Europe, there might be 1,100 years worth in countries not bordering the Mediterranean. "Ere that, no history, just archaeology.

The UK traces it's historical record to the Roman conquest. 2000 years ago.

There are about 4 centuries there where the historical record consists of Gildas and the Venerable Bede.

Yeah, records are scant for those 400 years, but there's a few more sources than those :) But even one source makes a history!

@Art Deco, it's not about time or events. It's about the density (and acknowledgement) of physical remains.

It's not uncommon to find in Europe an historical landmark for Roman remains. Is there any historical landmark in Las Vegas or L.A. referring to things built 2000+ years ago? Indeed, that may be the difference: Europeans have no trouble marking Roman ruins. Even Art Deco has issues acknowledging something existed before 1620 in NA.

> Is there any historical landmark in Las Vegas or L.A. referring to things built 2000+ years ago?
Not actually right "in" Las Vegas, so far as I know, but not very far away.

2000+ years ago? I'm not aware of any in that part of North America, or actually in any part of North America. North American ruins pretty much date from about 1000 AD and later

Teotihuacan in Mexico is older than a millennia, and some Olmec stuff is even earlier.

Again, if you want to learn something of Sweden in 600 ad or North America in 1500 ad, you are going to use similar methods: looking at artifacts, not documents.

I tend to agree that it's "cute but dumb" now, and I wish I had the original quote. The quote is not contemporary. At least 75 years old at best guess, and our understanding of history 75 years ago, and ability to see it, was different.

Which brings us back to Tyler's point in a way. Is there now so much history here that it becomes more of an impediment. It's not living to us, and in the process of becoming ossified, gets politicized by those who not only weren't present, but have never spoken to anybody who was.

I suggest you look at The British History Podcast. It's been going for years and is just in 900 CE. It will slow from here as the records improve and thus more detail.

The Dark Ages were dark, not due to the setback in urban development by the fall of Rome, but because the records are sparse and the Victorian historians were lazy. We have modern historical methods that are filling in via archeology, etc.

Again, you're neglecting the distinction between history and archaeology.

I had a conversation with a British medievalist named J.C. Holt many moons ago. He tells me they have an unusually verbose trove of documents from the reign of King Ine of Wessex. The trove is two pages long.

This is complete nonsense. Technology in Britain fell to pre-iron age levels after Rome's fall. In the 5th century the pottery wheel disappeared and wasn't seen there for another 300 years.

Pre-iron Age levels? Um, no. Iron continued to be used in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Better to say it fell to pre-Roman levels.

Over the long term the technologies of search and collective wisdom are likely to continue to accelerate. Why remember details when there's Google and Wikipedia? Humans have outsourced wisdom and memory to specialists, then through literacy to books, and now the internet. Although I am a skeptic of the full cyborg path in the short run I do find it plausible in the long enough run that there will be regular surgeries to embed electronics into nervous systems. If it is true that high cognitive ability persons are better able to coordinate and leverage their mental abilities using the resources of the internet, and if the genetics revolution combined with gene engineering leads to reiterated embryo-selection technologies for better developing beyond-Feynman-level IQ's, then as IQ's rise what will be the trajectory of diminishing cognitive returns to the interaction with advancing information technology? Perhaps the first comment on this blog got it right Pipsterate - "I think it’s likely that people of the far future will have a highly coherent narrative of the entire past, including our time. Or at least it will seem highly coherent to them."

Internet, robotics, AI, nanotech, biotech, etc. The future will be unrecognizable at this rate. People then, assuming there are recognizable people, will think of this as the distant past, before AI or human genome editing, or whatever. Perhaps mine our libraries for kitsch, perhaps just think of us as deranged neanderthals.

"Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors?"

Ha, well put! I have thoughts like that when I see the movie review section of the paper week after week after week. My god, I think, they just keep making these things. Who cares anymore? Haven't we had enough movies already? Who can keep up?

New people growing up, they think of these new movies the way you though of Star Wars and Titanic, exciting and epic and new. They think of Star Wars and Titanic the way you think of Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, old timey classics they may watch some day.

I'm more interested in accuracy than the "joy" of history. In many areas, we'll know far more in the future. For example, a better understanding of genetics will answer a great number of historical questions. The optimal distance is the time it takes to solve the puzzles. It could be one hour or one million years.

How far away from the introduction of the risk-weighted capital requirements, that which assures that when the worst happens to a bank system, namely something perceived as very safe turns out very risky, banks stand there naked with especially little capital… do we have to be, in order to know it is kind of dumb ☹

http://perkurowski.blogspot.com/2016/04/here-are-17-reasons-for-why-i-believe.html

"I am pleased that I can read Shakespeare without a translation, although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now."

Perhaps, but if so, I would expect it to be because of changes in emphasis in education rather than changes in language. As with fashion, design, and musical styles, aren't changes to the English language slowing (possibly because of our easy access both to past speakers and to distant speakers around the globe)? The differences between the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare (~200 years) are vast. The differences between Shakespeare and Jane Austen (another 200 years) are smaller, but still substantial. The differences between Austen and now (200 years more) seem much smaller.
Also -- in a reversal of old patterns, information about the past is becoming more readily accessible rather than less so. As public domain literature, newspaper archives, and films from 100 years ago and more are all there for the searching. A century ago, you didn't watch and hear actors from 100 years earlier. Now we do (well, almost -- we have a few more years before 'talkies' turn 100).

In any case, I'd much rather have access to information about the past than space colonies. Space colonies? For me, the right time is 'never'. Rather than domes on Mars or the Moon, people would be better off in domes in Antarctica. At least there, the air is breathable and a decent climate is only hours away. After the novelty wore off, who in their right mind would want to live on Mars? Bleech.

"Rather than domes on Mars or the Moon, people would be better off in domes in Antarctica. At least there, the air is breathable and a decent climate is only hours away. After the novelty wore off, who in their right mind would want to live on Mars? Bleech."

If the human race keeps on it's current path, we'll terraform Mars before the millennium is done. It won't be as nice as Earth, but it won't be much worse than Antarctica.

I suspect plenty of our descendants will live in a nice, safe cozy artificial environment and would never want to live like a savage/native on the wilderness of a planets surface. The thought will be similar to a died-in-the-wool native urbanite's reaction to moving to rural Mississippi.

"If the human race keeps on it’s current path, we’ll terraform Mars before the millennium is done. It won’t be as nice as Earth, but it won’t be much worse than Antarctica."

Within 1000 years, if everything goes well (e.g. humans figure out how to reestablish a magnetic field and a thin atmosphere on Mars), living on Mars won't suck much more than Antarctica? But why would anybody want to live there other than a few scientists (as is the case in Antarctica now)?

"The thought will be similar to a died-in-the-wool native urbanite’s reaction to moving to rural Mississippi."

Committed urbanites may not want to live in rural Mississippi, but they sure seem to value living where there are views of Central Park and having weekend houses in the Hamptons and taking vacations on the beach or in the mountains, etc. I don't see any evidence that wealthy people are increasingly going to want spend their lives entirely indoors in a single locale.

Shakespeare may be readable without translation but not without elucidation. Thirteen year olds learn about codpieces and other elements of the time in order to have some comprehension of what they are reading.

I was surprised the first time someone pointed out to me that we are as close to Shakespeare as the amount of time Rome ruled Briton in the Common Era, which ended over 1500 years ago.

“Or the past. Sometimes Jackson thought that the past wasn’t just another country, it was a lost continent somewhere at the bottom of an unknown ocean.”

Excerpt From: Atkinson, Kate. “Started Early, Took My Dog.” Little, Brown and Company, 2011-10-06. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

You don't get to choose when you are born, so how many years of history is out of your hands. There will be people born every year.

But how comprehensible the past is depends, in part, on how fast we change things. The more old cities we flatten, the harder it is for the next generation to imagine the physical past. The more new words and new grammatical quirks we use in our speech, the sooner the day when they cannot read Shakespeare. The faster we change what an acceptable family unit looks like, the less they will understand the families of the past.

There are different time periods where the view of historical events are defined. First is within living memory. WW2 has seen that. First the immediate aftermath where lives and structures are established in the new reality. Then the participants come to the time in their lives where they write their stories, and stories are written about them.

Knowing people who were in the boats in the North Atlantic, who flew the Spitfires, who marched back barely alive from the Eastern Front, experienced the firebombing of German cities from the ground. All telling these stories from a different place, different time, from comfort and ease.

I think that is the best time. Now these people are gone, the stories are second hand. The historians are on their third round, as interesting and enlightening as the first two, but historians have a different view. When historians write about the human element the stories and framing seem contrived. Nothing like hearing a woman describe how safe she felt after Hitler cleaned up the streets from the rabble. Or the ME-262 mechanic who was sent to the eastern front after making fun of Hitler, then brought back when the planes started crashing. Or the description of the lives of people between the Wiemar and Nazi eras, the notice of employment that arrived shortly after the Nazis took over. Or seeing your exhausted friend decapitated by a Spitfire propeller between missions. Or barely surviving a rogue wave on patrol in the cold Atlantic. Or the fellow who cleaned up the aircraft after their missions over Europe. No answers to why, a little bit about the how, but mostly people living through a time, describing their experiences, getting a glimpse how it smelled and felt.

Much of the coherent narrative that even educated people have of the European middle ages differs considerably from the actual culture of the middle ages, as the late Professor Norm Cantor (NYU) pointed out in his books on the period. Being closer to the era wasn't better, as renaissance and early modern writers (e. g. Petrarch) were eager to cast the middle ages as negatively as possible, in contrast to their own eras. A positive depiction of the middle ages didn't return until the Romantic movement, but this just misrepresented the middle ages in a different way.

It would seem there is no optimal distance from the middle ages in order to have a satisfying knowledge of it that is accurate.

A friend here in Delaware lives in a house that was not built in the USA. It is eye opening. Particularlt the various upgrades, changes and repairs.

How about within the next 1,000 years?

Before the great interstellar dispersion sunders humanity and its stories, never to be re-united?

"Before the great interstellar dispersion sunders humanity and its stories" Lol wut? Do you know how big and empty space is? We're going nowhere my friend.

I don't regard any bet on technology at T > t+ 100 years as safe.

Most folks will not bother learning things unless the benefits of learning outweigh the costs of learning. In the very old pre-literate days, you could only really access external knowledge if it was handwritten. So you had a ton of memorization. That trend continued to the current day although it is decreasing.

Now we're clearly moving towards a society in which almost any data will be instantly available on command. In a few decades (at most) we'll have earpieces w/ voice and Internet command, outstanding search, and near-perfect voice recognition. I don't know how long it'll be until we have that for visuals--this century, though, I'm sure. And within this millennium we'll probably have direct brain-computer interfaces, if we want them.

At that happens, the value of knowledge will shift dramatically. The instant provision of data will mean that the costs of relying on an external source will go way down, which will mean that more and more people "offload" their knowledge into external things. The only people who will still bother knowing a lot are those who need that specific knowledge in order to synthesize complex arguments, or who need to be able to address knowledge-based issues without the delay inherent to external recall.

You'll have far few people who actually know anything about history, but you'll have far more people who are capable of finding out anything they want to know.

A past culture is maximally interesting when it is different enough from the present to be interesting yet not so different as to be nearly incomprehensible.

To a contemporary English speaker/reader, Chaucer remains mostly accessible although significantly more difficult than Shakespeare, but anything much older remains mostly incomprehensible.

In European history, Europe of the high and late middle ages falls in that "different enough but not too different" category, in that much of the roots of contemporary culture can be seen (e.g., Crusaders having a parlay to decide what to do next) while others are different enough to be startling (e.g., religious justifications for those Crusades). Whereas antiquity mostly remains just ... foreign.

Technology mostly becomes familiar with the Second Industrial Revolution, the one that brought in commercial electricity and the internal combustion engine (and allied technologies, such as telephones, electric lights, movies, cars, buses, airplanes etc.). Although I suppose some would regard any time before smartphones as impossibly and unrecognizably different than the present.

We've had a much greater separation from the past over the 20th century, especially for those without any experience prior to 1980, than in other times in history. The reason is the separation from the basic methods of living in prior history.

Consider the horse and buggy culture that prevailed prior to 1900 that few can appreciate more the superficially:

"The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage Iife were part of the universal American experience: he c!op-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of he brake being applied to ease the horse on the downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of  carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special maIe ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing  horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornful glance."
--'The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950' (1952), Frederick Allen Lewis

Even more separating is that many of today have no experience with tools and manual methods. They've had not requirement to make/repair things themselves.

Consider this assessment of America in 1800 and how someone from the 9th century would not have been so disoriented in that world:

"The man who in the year 1800 ventured to hope for a new era in the coming century, could lay his hand on no statistics that silenced doubt. The machinery of production showed no radical difference from that familiar to ages long past. The Saxon farmer of the eighth century enjoyed most of the comforts known to Saxon farmers in the eighteenth. THe eorls and ceorls of Offa and Ecgbert could not read or write, and did not receive a weekly newspaper with such information as newspapers in that age could supply; yet neither their houses, their clothing, their food and drink, their agricultural tools and methods, their stock, nor their habits were so greatly altered or improved by time that they would have found much difficulty in accommodating their lives to that of their descendants in the eighteenth century. In this respect America was backward. Fifty or a hundred miles inland more than half the houses were log-cabins, which might or might not enjoy the luxury of a glass window. Throughout the South and West houses shoed little attempt at luxury; but even in New England the ordinary farmhouse was hardly so well built, so spacious, or so warm as that of a well-to-do contemporary of Charlemagne. The cloth which the farmer's family wore was still homespun. The hats were manufactured by the village hatter; the clothes were cut and made at home; the shirts, socks, and nearly every other article of dress were also home-made. Hence came a marked air of rusticity which distinguished country from town,—awkward shapes of hat, coat, and trousers, which gave to the Yankee caricature those typical traits that soon disappeared almost as completely as coats of mail and steel head-pieces. The plough was rude and clumsy; the sickle as old as Tubal Cain, and even the cradle not in general use; the flail was unchanged since the Aryan exodus; in Virginia, grain was still commonly trodden out by horses. Enterprising gentlemen-farmers introduced threshing-machines and invented scientific ploughs; but these were novelties. Stock was as a rule not only unimproved, but ill cared for. The swine ran loose; the cattle were left to feed on what pasture they could find, and even in New England were not housed until the severest frosts, on the excuse that exposure hardened them. Near half a century afterward a competent judge asserted that the general treatment of cows in New England was fair matter of presentment by a grand jury. Except among the best farmers, drainage, manures, and rotation of crops were uncommon. The ordinary cultivator planted his corn as his father had planted it, sowing as much rye to the acre, using the same number of oxen to plough, and getting in his crops on the same day. He was even known to remove his barn on account of the manure accumulated round it, although the New England soil was never so rich as to warrant neglect to enrich it. The money for which he sold his wheat and chickens was of the Old World; he reckoned in shillings or pistareens, and rarely handled an American coin more valuable than a large copper cent."
--History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, (1889), Henry Adams

There were events in history but the underlying day to day life was not that alien compared to the last couple centuries.

>human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care

I think it is already like this. I am not a historian, but the best example I can think of is Zoroastrianism. It used to be the largest religion in the world, how many people today know anything about it? Less than 1% of all people on earth.

Personally I think it's okay that only the diehards care. If the knowledge is already preserved for the future then how widespread that knowledge should be is a question of economic utility.

With regard to 'optimal distance for most accurate picture of the past'-my guess is ten to seventy years. It takes some time for humans to learn of different aspects of the past (e.g. the soldier returns from the war, secrets are revealed, many different perspectives are synthesized), but over time people care less and the knowledge is not preserved as much and is produced less.

"I am pleased that I can read Shakespeare without a translation, although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now."

A century? I never have been able to read Shakespeare. I suspect most people who think they can are simply comfortable not understanding a significant portion of the vocabulary and many of the references, just as long as they can still follow the plot.

After visiting the NoFearShakespeare site and reading the side-by-side translations, I didn't feel quite so bad about my own frustration and lack of understanding. It convinced me that there's no way most college educated people grasp it either.

What is more surprising are the number of passages that I thought I understood clearly, but missed the mark completely.

The prose in Shakespeare is no trouble. It's the stylized language of the metered portions which are the problem.

My answer: You want to minimize the kind of political and emotional stakes that contemporary adults have in the period in question, so it hasv to be far enough in the past that nobody really cares about those issues anymore. But you also want it to be close enough that there are people still alive who can give accurate eye-witness accounts of events.
Thus, as a rule of thumb, I would target 65 years or so in the past - there will still be numerous eyewitnesses who were adults at the time, capable of understanding what was happening, but contemporary people would have much less at stake.
Right now is probably a good time to get written accounts of what led us into the Korean war, for example.

I'd say you want enough distance to where the issues of the period aren't hot-button anymore, but not so long that they've been forgotten outright.

We're just starting to reach that point with the 1950s, but I don't think we've gotten there with the 1960s yet.

s having a longer past to look back upon always more rewarding? Or would you rather have a shorter past to ponder, but be closer in time and sympathy to some of the most foundational developments?

Would you prefer to see them inaugurate those space colonies, or instead have some partial grasp of what “The Enlightenment” really was about?

Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors?

I'm not sure that proximity implies sympathy in the way that you mean. I think that a thousand years from now, people will still get a lot out of contemplating the faceoff between Cicero and Catiline, or Caesar and the Opimates.

In 500 years, people will finally know something about all the great dinosaur civilizations that existed. Right now we still only know about the dumber species of dinosaurs and nothing about the short-lived advanced civilizations from millions of years ago.

So Much For Subtlety, Wetzel is not an apologist for Hindu faith. In fact Hindu fundamentalists are not comfortable with his work. Moreover he is a scholar of world renown in sanskrit and ancient Hindu scriptures. And what he says is widely endorsed. The reason why the vedic scriptures were transmitted almost intact is that these scriptures were deemed too holy to be even heard by any group other than the priests. The devout say the priests were given the divine duty to preserve these holy works through oral transmission. The critics and scholars with a leftist ideology say they were transmitted orally, words and intonation, to keep them a monopoly of priests for their own benefit so their preservation does not speak well of the kind of society India was .

But they too accept the view that they were well preserved orally for a long time. Romila Thapar, an Indian historian who is thought of generally as a left-leaning scholar and hated by the right-wing, also endorses this view ( Penguin History of Early India : From the Origins to 1300, 2002 edition, page 111) Accepting that the vedas were transmitted impeccably does not entail accepting their divine origin.
Even to this day in the Hindu version of seminaries boys ( sadly, not girls ...yet) are taught these works orally and are expected to learn the content by heart. The other Hindu scriptures were committed to writing and were not expected to be memorised.

So, a related topic I've been known to comment on is "old," as in "How old is an 'old building'?" You will get strikingly different answers to this depending on where the person is from:
Eastern US: 175+ years - the "colonial" you mentioned
Western Europe: 5-600 years - basically before/after the Renaissance/Reformation
California: 75 years (When I did Penn alumni interviews, I had to explain that Penn was founded before Spanish settlers arrived in California!)
Middle East: 1500 years, but often 2000 years. It depends on the religion.
China: 3000 years.
etc.

The concept of "old" ties directly to your questions of:
Is having a longer past to look back upon always more rewarding? Or would you rather have a shorter past to ponder, but be closer in time and sympathy to some of the most foundational developments?
Specifically, it seems people adapt the timeframe - the "longer" and the "shorter" - to their surroundings.

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