Monday, February 13, 2012

History is Bunk

One idea that jumped out at me this week from McLuhan is something I've thought about before, and that is the notion that our society is becoming less and less concerned with the past. On page 340, he writes that "the new book of the people, the newspaper, created a one-day world utterly indifferent to the past..." and I think this is even more applicable with our instantaneous news. Two previous readings come to mind...

The first is fiction, from "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. The narrator is a 90- or 93-year-old man (he isn't sure which) who is describing visits from his family. "My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik–that's all ancient history now."

What I found interesting is that these and other events which happened only a few decades ago do, in fact, seem like ancient history, and might be exponentially increasing as the rate of technological advancements do. Maybe it's me, but I find it difficult to imagine the times of World War II or a time before the advent of the car. This translates to media technology as well - I also have difficulty picturing a world before television, phones and even the internet, though it emerged for mass use in my childhood.

In "Brave New World" (my second example), Huxley's characters know little about history because it is banned by the government, but also because it simply ceases to matter in their daily pursuit of happiness. Though happiness does seem to be a key driver in our culture, I think history is largely being eclipse by the massive amount of constantly updating news and information. We are intently focused on gathering as much information as possible about the present while chasing after the "future"–newer, faster and better methods and materials. I'm not saying that we choose to forget history, but is history becoming, as Huxley wrote, "bunk"? Are we only interested in learning the facts needed to get through our history requirements and then moving on with our lives? Will historical events matter less and less to each subsequent generation?

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