MJD 59,459

This entry is part 19 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

In 2018, historian Michael McCormick nominated 536 AD as the worst year to be alive. There was a bit of fun coverage of the claim. This sort of thing is what I think of as “little history.” It’s the opposite of Big History.

Big History is stuff like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, or David Graeber’s Debt. I was a fan of that kind of sweeping, interpretive history when I was younger, but frankly, I really dislike it now. Historiographic constructs get really dubious and sketchy when stretched out across the scaffolding of millennia of raw events. Questions that are “too big to succeed” in a sense, like “why did Europe pull ahead of China,” tend to produce ideologies rather than histories. It’s good for spitballing and first-pass sense-making (and I’ve done my share of it on this blog) but not good as a foundation for any deeper thinking. Even if you want to stay close to the raw events, you get sucked into is-ought historicist conceits, and dangerously reified notions like “progress.” Yes, I’m also a big skeptic of notions like Progress Studies. To the extent that the arc of the moral universe has any coherent shape at all, to proceed on the assumption that it has an intelligible shape (whether desired or undesired), is to systematically blind yourself to the strong possibility that the geometry of history is, if not random, at least fundamentally amoral.

About the only Big History notion I have any affection for is Francis Fukuyama’s notion that in an important sense, Big History has ended (and I’m apparently the last holdout, given that Fukuyama himself has sort of walked back the idea).

Little histories though, are another matter. Truly little histories are little in both space and time, and much of history is intrinsically little in that sense, and fundamentally limited in the amount of inductive or abductive generalization it supports once you let go of overly ambitious historicist conceits and too-big-to-succeed notions like “Progress.” But some little histories are, to borrow a phrase from Laura Spinney’s book about the Spanish Flu, Pale Rider, “broad in space, shallow in time.” They allow you to enjoy most of the pleasures afforded by Big Histories, without the pitfalls.

Whether or not the specific year 536 was in fact the worst year, and whether or not the question of a “worst year” is well-posed, the year was definitely “broad in space, shallow in time” due to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano that created extreme weather world-wide. The list of phenomena capable of creating that kind of globalized entanglement of local histories is extremely short: pandemics, correlated extreme weather, and the creation or destruction of important technological couplings.

The subset of little histories that are “broad in space, shallow in time” — call them BISSIT years (or weeks, or days) — serve as synchronization points for the collective human experience. Most historical eras feature both “good” and “bad” from a million perspectives. Sampling perspectives from around the world at a random time, and adjusting for things like class and wealth, you would probably get a mixed bag of gloomy and cheery perspectives that are not all gloomy or cheery in the same way. But it is reasonable to suppose that at these synchronization points, systematic deviations from the pattern would emerge. Notions of good and bad align. Many of us would probably agree that 2020 sucked more than most years, and would even agree on the cause (the pandemic), and key features of the suckage (limitations on travel and socialization). Even if there were positive aspects to it, and much needed systemic changes ensue in future years, for those of us alive today, who are living through this little history, the actual experience of it kinda sucks.

The general question of whether the human condition is progressing or declining to me is both ill-posed and uninteresting. You get into tedious and sophomoric debates about material prosperity versus perceived relative deprivation. You have people aiming gotchas at each other (“aha, the Great Depression was actually more materially prosperous than optimistic Gilded Age 1890s!” or “there was a lot of progress during the Dark Ages!”).

The specific question of whether a single BISSIT year should be tagged with positive or negative valence though, is much more interesting, since the normal variety of “good” and “bad” perspectives temporarily narrows sharply. Certainly, BISSIT years have a sharply defined character given by their systematic deviations, and sharp boundaries in time. They are “things” in the sense of being ontologically well-posed historiographic primitives that are larger than raw events, but aren’t reified and suspect constructs like “Progress” or “Enlightenment.” There is a certain humility to asking whether these specific temporal things are good or bad, as opposed to the entire arc of history. Two such things need not be good or bad in the same way. History viewed as a string of such BISSIT beads need not have a single character. Perhaps there are red, green, and blue beads punctuating substrings of grey beads, and in your view, red and green beads are good, while blue beads are bad, and so on. We don’t have to have a futile debate about Big History that’s really about ideological tastes. But we can argue about whether specific beads are red or blue. You can ask about the colors of historical things. We can take note of the relative frequencies of colored versus grey beads. And if you’re inclined to think about Big History at all, you can approach it as the narrative of a string of beads that need not have an overall morally significant character. Perhaps, like space, time can be locally “flat” (good or bad as experienced by the people within BISSIT epochs) but have no moral valence globally. Perhaps we live in curved historical event-time, with no consistent “up” everywhere.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Can you recommend any history texts that take this kind of cross-section approach?

    • I guess some essays labeled as microhistory could also qualify as “broad in space, shallow in time”.

      In The Great Cat Massacre (Darnton) the essay about fairy tales would be both, but the one that gives that book its name would be just microhistory (that is “asking large questions in small places”, but not BISSIT).

  2. What are your view on future behaivor around how we live and work? How will homes and offices interact in the future? And the digital and intuitive life co-create? How do we deal with spaces and environments in a health-promoting way in the future? Neuroscience?

    Can you recommend any texts/blogs around this?

  3. Ravi Daithankar says

    This is something I have been thinking about a lot as well, but from a different angle of approach. It is interesting that you put a spotlight on the BISSIT idea, because I’ve actually been getting the feeling that history as a construct is itself on its last legs. Put another way, from here on out, all of history is going to look Shallow in Space and Shallow in Time and increasingly so. While I agree that 2020 was the first BISSIT in a long time, I also think it will be the last BISSIT. Looking at how rapidly we have managed to normalize it, in a couple of years, it will become a barely-BISSIT. There’s going to be no more Big History, only Little History, and even that is rapidly going to turn into littler history. We’re going to have a ton of SISSITs and nothing more. And while this seems like a scandalous cold take, it really is not, if you think about it in terms of temporal mass as a neo-physical quantity. Past, present, and future are really just pieces of time packaged with different labels. And collectively as well as individually, not only can we only process a certain amount of this temporal mass, we can only process it at a finite rate.

    So it is kind of a classic product mix problem: What quantities of Past, Present, and Future can you optimally process concurrently given some very real constraints, like attention spans, interestingness, fatigue, relevance, cognitive effort, etc. And for almost everyone, the Present takes a disproportionately higher priority than the Past, and even the Future. It always has; we are genetically biased towards the Present. But the difference now is that with the staggering amount of Present we are exposed to, we barely have any resources left to contemplate about the Future, and almost nothing to spare for the Past. In 2021, who even remembers anything about 2014, for example? We are barely able to stay on top of all the Present that is being made today, while we’re consciously trying to ration some imagination to think about, say, what climate change is going to bring in the immediate Future! With all that, who has the time to think about yesterday, even if a lot happened yesterday?!

    And all this, without even going into the relatively contemporary challenges that seek to constantly undermine history…like crises of confidence, disinformation, etc. which are pandemics in and of themselves and infect history far worse than they infect the Present. All of this coming together makes it look like the idea of History as we have known it is looking increasingly dead. We will continue to chronicle everything of course, probably better than we ever have. But nobody is going to care about it, which means it will essentially not exist for all intents and purposes.

    We are extremely close to History becoming to mankind what the Marvel multiverse is to non-nerds. Somewhat amusing, obviously not true, and with no bearing on reality.

  4. Cullen T McGough says

    It’s worse than you imagine. You’re probably a simulation based on surviving data records of your social media accounts, credit card purchases, highway tolls, and google searches.

  5. Paul M. Pitcher, DVM, MS says

    I might be so bold as to suggest that the “BISSET 2020” is not going to have “sharp boundaries in time” at least at the back end. Describing and dealing with ‘how life has changed’ will (has?) become a dominant theme in reportage and philosophizing. Are you ready for the Omega variant, yet?

    I also doubt that Krakatoa had a sharp boundary in time at the back end. So maybe, these examples (sometimes/often) simply demarcate a point when life is rapidly transformed, never to revert, irrespective of Traders’ desire to ‘come back’ and take a cruise.

    Massively enjoy spending time here.

  6. You can see parts of it in how History channel (assuming it somewhat represents the western understanding of history as a linear set of events) projects wars of today as history. We have likely run out of big events for future history or the big events over time (like the pandemic) have become recency events and we discuss it as history as it is unfolding in the present.
    Ravi, I really like how you laid out the last para in your comment.

  7. Alan Grinnell Jones says

    “Questions that are “too big to succeed” in a sense, like “why did Europe pull ahead of China,” tend to produce ideologies rather than histories. It’s good for spitballing and first-pass sense-making (and I’ve done my share of it on this blog) but not good as a foundation for any deeper thinking.”

    What about a Big History that looks to understand changes in the social and physical environments that constrain or promote (through cultural and epigenetic effects) various thinking styles? (More flexible thinking styles tend reduce, and even to set aside, ideological thinking.) Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” comes to mind.

  8. OK you got me back. I’d forgotten about your blog for the last year but I still like what I see. While I get that the basis is a discussion of ideas there is some space for doing. And there is plenty of doing that needs to be done, to speak neutrally. Those ribbon farms had to transport that water a long distance…

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