01 April 2010

The Difficulty of Predicting History

Apparently it is as hard to predict history as it is to predict the future. History is a story we tell about the past to make sense of it to our own lives.

Westminster Abbey is a burial place for some of the greats of England, and some who are by now, completely inconsequential. I was struck by how arbitrary is the inclusion and exclusion of certain figures of history. As near as I can tell, Jethro Tull is not there - the man whose agricultural inventions helped fight hunger and increase wealth. Yet mere servants to royalty are included there - people whose only contribution to history was to please or befriend the most powerful person in England at the time. But most curiously, Westminster Abbey captures history in real time, revealing how little we understand how lives today will be made important or rendered trivial by subsequent events.

Part of this is a matter of popularity. It seems probable that Vint Cerf will be considered more important to history than, say, Mussolini, and Robert Beyster will be more important to business history than Larry Ellison or Jack Welch, but of course Cerf and Beyster are far less known than the others. Current popularity matters.

But the bigger problem may be the problem of knowing what immediate history will make things different tomorrow. We know that GM was laying off lots of people in the late 1990s but were unaware that Brin and Page were starting Google. Sometimes years later – sometimes decades later – we finally realize the importance of certain events. History is as hard to predict as the future in part because history depends on a prediction of the future.

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