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The Consolations of History

I’m on a history reading jag and with good reason. History is can be really reassuring. Maybe not so much consolation knowing dates and whatever you had to rote learn, but in knowing people’s responses, directions, and attitudes.

This kicked off last year when I read The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick and Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson. Both were excellent, and both overlapped in some key points about responses to technology. For example, Thompson mentions Socrates’ frightfully cold feet on the matter of writing, fearful that the emergence of writing as the dominant means of communication would result in the decline of the art of conversation and debate. This argument has more or less surfaced with every technological advance we’ve seen since then, and each time, humanity hasn’t imploded, disappeared up its own arse or let its children turn into neglected feral gangs.

The patterns of resistance get even more interesting when you look at cycles of the feminist movement: suffragettes, as one of the earliest forces of modern feminism, copped almost exactly the same flak as contemporary feminists do. They were accused of being too militant, too masculine (with jeers directed at their husbands’ assumed lack of virility and the women’s inability to perform typically feminine roles), too emotional, too shrill, and too in-your-face. If you’ve been paying attention to feminists over the past twenty years or so, you’ll recognise a lot of these arguments, creakily wheeled out whenever another pesky batch of feminists pops up. And yet countries that have advanced women’s rights haven’t dissolved into lust-fuelled depravity, nor have they been smited by the just but harsh repercussions of a Mr God. It’s almost as if these arguments are not accurate predictions or balanced responses to the cycles of the feminist movement but less-than-perfectly-rational blurts that insist the status quo is adequate.

The reading jag has continued this year, as I began my education on Australian history (side note: Australian history in schools was under intense debate when I was going through high school. The Reconciliation movement was gaining traction and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not Australians should be teaching the version of Australia that basically omitted Indigenous peoples altogether or the version that included them but in vaguely apologetic, don’t-let’s-talk-about-it way. The end result was that the version of history we got was along the lines of “Well, the First Fleet happened…and then in 2000 Sydney got the Olympics. Also Harold Holt, LOL.”). I kicked off with Girt: The Unauthorised Biography of Australia (by David Hunt, published by Black Inc.), which I’d been hearing so much about. It was a corker! A great book, with a voice somewhere between Kaz Cooke and Bill Bryson. One is left with the sense that most of Australia’s colonial past was puzzled, irritated toffs shouting at poor people, but somehow it came together.

Currently, I’m into Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians, shortly to be followed by his The Eighties: The Decade that Changed Australia (both also Black Inc.). If you ever want to feel linked to another point in history, read about its attitudes to sex. You’re almost certainly going to find a parallel in the modern world. Porn? Partners? Positions? Legal noseyparkerism? All the time, back through time.

So where does this thirst for the past come from? From the consolation to be found that humans are remarkable for progressing so far and yet revisit old responses. Technofear, neophobia, and resentment of any change to the status quo are things we see again and again (see also: “Twitter? Why would anybody want that?”). They’re not well-reasoned and objective responses to threats, they’re simply very human fears. Fears that the world is changing and all the skills they have to survive in their social group will soon be outdated and they’ll risk exclusion. If you find yourself scowling at whatever tech the kids are using and suggesting that it’s morally inferior to whatever you use — guess what’s really what’s going on.

But history, as well as suggesting humans remain the same, also suggests we change. We have been changing for thousands of years, and we’ll keep changing as we move forward. We have fears, loves, and comforts that remain the same across class, gender and history, but we learn more about our world, about each other, and our attitudes change. Little by little, the very human fears that give rise to kneejerk responses to change and novelty became used to the new world and learn to play along with it. We learn to expect women will vote and wouldn’t dream of taking the vote off them. We learn to expect that a business transaction will take place online and see the risks inherent in conducting business face-to-face or by mail. We adapt to the changes in the world, and we’ll keep adapting.

(And then along comes Snapchat and everyone loses their shit again.)

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