Nostalgia Isn’t What It Once Was

There is no going back

We don’t even know what going back means. We often hear people talk about how easy things were in the past. Idyllic even. These people mistake the past as a place in time that can be created in a new time. Not so.

Education uses the past to teach

History is the study of previous events. Their nature, the decisions and the outcomes.  The idea is that we can learn from others and that saves us much pain and effort. Learning from others seems to be harder today. 

We cannot relate the past to our present in a useful way.

Are historic events relevant now?

If we accept the idea that historic events matter, then we must also accept the idea that their context is the key to our understanding. At one time context was easy enough to assume because it was much like the present. The world did not change very quickly. What was true about context and philosophy and morality and the ability to understand our culture in 1750 was very nearly the same in 1850.

In terms of change the past was linear.  Small changes over long times. Today it is exponential and we don’t understand exponential at an intuitive level.

We cannot assume constant context any more and because of that we cannot assume the messages in history matter to us.

How often does knowledge double?

There is little to find about this. Some argue the knowledge doubled between year 0 and 1200. By 1900 it is doubling about once a century with another double by 1940.  By the 50’s doubling every 25 years. By the late 80s every 30 months.

It begins to breakdown around there because what we mean by knowledge becomes less clear. The argument today is knowledge doubles every 12 months and as the internet of things matures it will double every 12 hours. I don’t think using a smartphone to know the temperature in my kitchen is knowledge in the same sense as the discovery of the elements and the nature of our bodies. We don’t have a clear idea about what knowledge is.

We confuse it with information.

Nonetheless there is little doubt that human knowledge is growing at a great rate compared to its historic antecedents. It happens because new knowledge makes the acquisition of even newer knowledge easy. Tools, technique and previously unseen relationships abound. And we can communicate them instantly. 

Why should we care?

When I was 20, I knew everything. The best time to get a good job. But, knowing everything is impossible now. Even for teenagers. If I never forgot anything, and if knowledge doubled every five years until 1988 and every 30 months since, my vast knowledge at 20 is now about .002% of what there is to know. I am reasonably sure I have not learned all I should have in the intervening period and I may have forgotten a few things. So I likely know near nothing now.

Nostalgia doesn’t work

Longing for the past is a mistake. We cannot relate easily to that much change. Let’s artificially decide that a change cycle is the time it takes to double the knowledge.  We know that people don’t deal with change very well and and so there is only a small number of cycles that can be accommodated.

From year 0 to year 1900 there are maybe 8 doubles. The world was quite different by 1900, but people could assimilate the changes. For us, 8 doubles ago is about 20 years. Like calculating net present value, some things are far enough away that their practical value is zero.  How many change cycles until the information is useless?

How useful is history from 1762?

Not very.  We cannot assess the context crucial to the meaning of events in 1762.

We might be better watching reruns of Seinfeld. Their context is near enough to ours that we can understand. Did Jerry have a smart phone or a laptop? No Uber. No Amazon. No telecommuting. No mp3 players. Same story for Friends, Frasier and NYPD Blue. Maybe we could relate to that history to understand our lives.

Keep an open mind

Our old ways of thinking harm us:

  • Technology and what it can do changed,
  • Politics and how they are influenced by information changed,
  • Morality and the changes required to accommodate new technological possibilities and access to information changed. A hundred years ago, people never had to decide how to tell if a person was dead.
  • Religion and its relevance to an advanced society is different

We should be surprised by nothing. Well, maybe if something doesn’t change we should be surprised.

Culture is changing

If you think you understand what is happening, you are probably wrong.

Culture is the set of rules that allow us to understand our group and get along within it. The group and the rules are changing very quickly. New groups appear every month.

Try to keep up.

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  866-285-7772

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