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A Knowledge of History Keeps Us Open to Surprise

We should be cautious about assuming that we know the shape of the future.

Historians would scold us for thinking that the past is a reliable predictor of the future, and it’s not.  What I think we get out of it instead is an analysis, a worldview, a way to look at things. 

Just the idea that change can be so momentous and then what do you about that?  Do you regulate?  Do you try to constrict it?  It’s what we see happening today.  Look around us right now.  There are efforts to regulate the net on behalf of piracy, privacy, pedophilia, security, decency, civility.  Why?  The internet is not broken.  It’s pretty much the same as it has been operating for awhile.  Why, because it’s becoming more disruptive and more powerful.  

John Naughton, who is a columnist on the Observer in London asked people to stand—imagine standing on a bridge in the year 1472, which is about as far away from the printing press as we are today from the commercial web—and he says ask people on that bridge whether they think Gutenberg’s invention will cause the disruption of the Catholic Church, fuel the Reformation, spark the scientific revolution, change our view of education and thus childhood, and then I would add change our notion of nations. 

Nah, not going to happen. 

So I think the pattern there isn’t verifiable.  There is no way to predict.  We should be cautious about assuming that we know the shape of the future.  This shape could be much bigger than we think and so what we get out of looking at the past in this case is just enough discipline to say let’s hold off on our assumptions.  So actually I’m looking for kind of anti-patterns.  Let’s not presume where the world goes.  Let’s be open to surprise.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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