By Daniel Hubbard | August 23, 2009
One of the most important things to realize when thinking about the past is that there is not only much to learn but also much to forget. What we know blinds us to what we could know. We understand that this or that was different yet fail to see how the world itself was different. We take things for granted and in the process make mistakes as we hunt for our ancestors.
An excellent way to begin to change the way you look at the past is to gather up a few objects like a dial telephone and a vinyl record. Now find some early grade school age children and ask them what the objects are. If they don’t know, feel free to tell them that they are a telephone and a music disc. My own kids recognize what a dial telephone is and can answer it when it rings but need lessons in order to place a call. Even the sight of a phone that is physically connected to the wall puzzles them. I’m sure a vinyl record would be a mystery to them as well. Whoever you find to be your experimental subjects, remember that the look of surprise in their eyes is over objects from your own earlier years. They simply do not understand them. They already know too much about what things are like now.
Next show your experimental subjects some new gadget and the look of surprise will probably be much less. That new thing they accept. To understand it only requires learning something new, probably based on something you already understand. To grasp the old requires not just learning the old but forgetting what has come after it, all that mundane understanding we use every day, all those things that now prevents us from seeing the past for what it was.
Remember that look of surprise at the rotary phone. It has another lesson to teach. Besides showing us that the past is difficult to grasp, the lack of surprise in our own eyes when we are dealing with times far more remote is probably a sign that we are taking far too much for granted, that we are subconsciously glossing over the differences.
Long ago people died in the same world into which they had been born. Young men might break new land but the plow that broke it looked the same as the plow that opened a field for their grandfathers. When the industrial revolution occurred, the world’s rate of change became fast enough that change became apparent in a single lifetime. That was a momentous shift. Suddenly, the world of our old age was different from the world of our birth and it was expected to be so. Time mattered in a way it had never mattered before when people began to believe that even if they didn’t themselves know what it might be, that something new was probably just around the corner. It was at that moment that the future as we know it was born.
The old future was a place where the crown prince would be king, a drought might occur or the cow would eventually die. The new future became a place of dreams. Given the telegraph some dreamed of sending not just clicks but sounds over wires. Or why not do away with the wires, or send pictures? Such thoughts would have been largely foreign to people of the earlier age, people who expected to die in the world that they learned in childhood. For those people, the new was new because it was previously unknown to them personally. The new existed “out there” in space more often than it lay in the future of mankind. Innovation occurred sporadically and spread slowly, arriving from some foreign place as something already well aged. It came from elsewhere. For example, the concept of zero and the possibility it gave for basing a numbering system on the position of the digits, revolutionized Western finance and mathematics. We call these imports “Arabic numerals.” They arrived from elsewhere and they were so slow in coming that their origins in India were already forgotten. Even as earthshaking as something like the discovery of the New World was, it was only new to Old World people, not to the Cherokee or the Choctaw. It brought the arrival of knowledge of and from a different place across the threshold of the Atlantic, not over the threshold of tomorrow.
In order to put ourselves into the minds of our forebears we need to forget, if only for a moment, those things that they did not know, and prevent our knowledge of today from clouding our judgment. We must even forget that the future is a time when things will be radically different. If we go deep enough into the past, the people who lived there would not understand the thought of such a future any more than our young experimental subjects would understand a world that stood nearly still.Twitter It!