“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” said Abraham Lincoln.
The future is hard to predict. Yet, that's not for lack of trying. A thriving trends industry says forecasts are in high demand. Futurists work outward from data and evidence, seeking to identify highly probable events.
While unpredictable in scope, pandemics are undesirable parts of our past and highly probable events. But proceed with caution. Labeling an observation about what's going on “insight” doesn't make it so. Further, insights are not as useful to understanding changing habits, behaviors and attitudes and what will stick as you'd like to think.
It takes time for events to run their course, and the present is squishy. Knowing how things will end, and which end of a developing trend we're going to end up on is very difficult. Hence why sociologists, anthropologists and journalists examine one small aspect of what's happening. Best when from differing perspectives.
It's counter-intuitive, but it's valuable to look at the question: are we living at a moment when significant change is possible? As a historian would. To figure out what could happen, looking at it as a horizon of sorts, is more useful than trying to keep up with the speed of developing events.
1970s: battles are a serious thing
Military history used to be a collection of names and dates with a sprinkling of technical details. That's because it was written by tacticians and military professionals. It was an example of what regular people didn't want to know.
Then in the early 1970s, historians discovered that battles where a serious thing. They found that when a society was engaged in battle, it invested all its energies. Rather than being just an unfortunate event to know about, war revealed ways of thinking and doing of the time.
By studying what happened around a battle you could start to peel back people's mindset and infer how things worked. When you have an event significant enough that everyone or most people need to do something about it, the wheels of change set in motion.
Many have compared the current pandemic to a war. This is not like other recessions, they say: we have constrained supply and higher moral demands. Thus, leaders with principles should forego profits for the greater good. At least for a while.
Since we're comparing the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 to a war, let's take a look at how we entered the last major war that was quasi-global in scope: World War II. In Strange Defeat: a Statement of Evidence written in 1940, leading up to the war, historian Marc Bloch says:
The generation to which I belong has a bad conscience. It is true that we emerged from the last war desperately tired, and that after four years not only of fighting but of mental laziness, we were only too anxious to get back to our proper employments… That is our excuse. But I have long ceased to believe that it can wash us clean of guilt.
Bloch taught medieval history at the University of Strasbourg (1920 to 1936), the University of Paris (1936 to 1939), and the University of Montpellier (1941 to 1944). His remarkable life was cut short: shot by the retreating Nazis in June 1944. But his contribution to history endures.
Strange Defeat was a sort of autopsy of the France between wars outlining failures in the French mindset. The loss of morale of the soldiers and a failed education of the officers was manifest in both character and intelligence. Focus on testing drained entire generations of originality and initiative or thirst for knowledge, and created an “appreciation only of successful cheating and sheer luck.”
Could we have a similar failure in mindset leading up to the pandemic? Could the last economic recession that impacted the world as we know it not be also leading up to a humanitarian crisis? Saving lives comes first, but should we not question expending energy to preserve our previous ways of life?
Let's start with a simple assumption.
Is it useful to track speed?
This “war” we're fighting is revealing a lot about mindset and how things worked up to this point. Speed is often an obvious, because desirable, element of trends. But is it useful to tracking what will stick? It's complicated, but the short answer is likely, no.
A new narrative and way of doing things
emerges from events, but is also the product of energy accumulated over time. Occurrences happen within the deep flow of history. Things that change slowly tend to influence people more than we think or suppose. Because they have more staying power.
Take technology, for example. The narrative seems to suggest that technology has changed everything. Yet, the pace of human change has not really picked up much. Look for example at movies from the 1980s/90s on.
Forget hair styles and clothing, look at themes, the fundamental behaviors, attitudes and habits. They've remained pretty predictable. Where demand goes, that's where attention goes. Investments went to the quick buck, not the sustainable safety nets.
What's changed in tangible ways from the 1970s on has been much slower. We hardly saw it happen. But now you have more freedom in the little decisions—what color mask and material do I pick?—and minor things—should I cut the grass every day because I'm bored?—not in important things—every region of the world supports proven strategies to contain the pandemic with policy and collaboration.
The value of the changes brought about in the '60s rippled through society in the 1970s. Then things sort of hovered. The past becomes value in the present. Yet, that value started getting diluted over time.
People channeled the energy that created the initial wave of change into commerce. Prosperity followed investment in infrastructure, which in turn created constraints and constancy. Governance brought about a new social contract, change got slower in the big things as it stayed fast in the small ones—the ones you can affect directly.
Speed is interesting, but itself not as useful to understand how change happens. Further, change is a spontaneous part of how the universe works. However, when people talk about future change, they mean the immediate things that they'd want in the here and now to extend a little farther out.
1300s: a period of great progress
History is everything that ever happened to humanity. The difficulty is that there's nothing insignificant, because a small habit or detail like what farmers had for breakfast at the time could help us understand something unexpected.
Take for example the Middle Ages. It was a period of great progress. People were very active. Commerce was flourishing. Technology was making new things possible: the ships that took Christopher Columbus in his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the compass, our first GPS, the printing press. It was a formidable civilization.
What else happened in that great period of time? A great crisis that extended for more than 100 years. Famine, plague, and wars were constantly succeeding each other in waves. It's hard to fathom how people got anything done. Never mind brewing the Renaissance.
What innovation could possibly happen as witches were put at the stake, entire crops were lost across Europe due to climate change, half the population emerged from the succession of super contagious plagues (1348 – 1399) and France and England were at war (1337 – 1453)?
Consider that at the time, nobody measured anything. Yet, we know so much about what was going on because of the accurate tax and deed records of Italian city state functionaries and diary entries made by contemporary chroniclers about the steep increase in the cost of bread. Everyday things were recorded because it was possible—paper was invented in the '200s, paving the way for the printing press.
The plague of 1348 happened on top of years of poor harvest. People were dying of hunger starting with the catastrophic harvests between 1315-1317. For years the climate had been stable and warm seasons guaranteed a plentiful harvest. Suddenly, the climate went crazy with torrential rains and floods across Europe.
People were starving. It was a weird crisis—the Pope and the King of France clashed violently. France was the richest, most populated and powerful country in the Christian world. The Pope moved to Avignon and would stay for 70 years. Meanwhile, the vacuum left in Rome created low morale.
It was a century of farmers revolts. Yet people continued to trade and grow commerce. In Florence, while artists like Donatello and Masaccio were born and created amazing works, the Ciompi wool workers organized an uprising. It was one of the first protests organized for economic-political purposes in European history.
The quality of products continued to improve. A thriving construction industry started building churches and palaces of increasing splendor. Many things also were interrupted and never completed.
Siena was a super wealthy city that was projecting an exponential population growth. Its unfinished Cathedral is a clue—a marble wall that leads nowhere on the side was the prelude to a bigger central nave. When the plague came, the work was left unfinished. Today, the Cathedral would still fit everyone in the city. That's how big they were thinking and projecting!
Creating the future
Each of the crisis factors in 1300s also provoked a positive backlash. Those who knew how things were going figured out how to use it to thrive. For example, while famine and plague were tragedies, they didn't reduce buildings to rubble or dissipate estates. Survivors could rest during the worst of the plague, then redirect funds and uses, kick-starting a new chain of innovation.
Needs and uses oriented production. Those who stayed with the old ways didn't do well, those who changed with the times made money. Fewer wool workers could charge more for their skills. More money then meant drinking wine at the Osteria—wine making a flourishing profession. Hence more fruit trees and wine cultivation. Extra cash also meant families could afford meat. Butchers become a powerful trade.
Animal breeding meant more pasture land and irrigation investment. In the big Po Valley in Emilia-Romagna, milk turned into Parmigiano Reggiano and other fabulous cheeses the region still exports today. Savings created demand for clothing not made out of wool at home. Along the luxury brocades, the cotton industry developed to cater to the needs of farmers and laborers.
Even war created business. Mercenaries needed horses, saddles, armor, swords, etc. To tax, the state needed records. Hence functionaries, administrators and other intermediaries who became the new middle class. Italy was quite literate in the 1300s. The Italian communes and commercial republics enjoyed relative political freedom conducive to academic and artistic advancement.
The facts themselves about the prolonged period of crisis of the 1300s didn't change. What changed in the 1970s is that historians refused to look just at dates and battles, Popes and Emperors. They started looking at events with a higher attention to details.
If the conversation is to favor the important, then the war of 1oo years is more important than meal times and buying clothes. But if your question is to understand why people started doing something else entirely after the war, anything can give you a better sense of how the past impacts the present.
The first to talk about history as the actions of human beings over time, Bloch believed in a multidisciplinary engagement towards history, blending research with geography, sociology, and economics.
Creating the future is the best way to predict it. But if history is to teach us anything at all, it is that knowing human beings is essential to sorting through the catalogue of everything people do. You never know what event will define an age, nor what detail will be relevant.
- Just because many small and simple things people start doing may not stick, as is, doesn't mean it's not going to impact change longer term.
- All human actions are part of a larger effort or journey through life.
Studying only the things that seem to be loudest or biggest cuts you off opportunity. Small details can give you a better sense of what's going on. What's in the background is also likely going to have fewer competitors.
The real work is not in sifting data, topics, problems and questions, though that is important. Writing and documenting is a responsibility. But a greater one rests on the decisions you make about what's written and said.
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