Old oak tree

Beginning of history illusion

I’ve noticed a tendency among many people (myself included) to believe history mainly consists of our own observed experiences. That is, we believe much of history STARTS when WE first observe it*.

We are most aware of what’s happened and what’s changed during our adult years. And keenly aware of what’s happened over the last few years. We view the present in high resolution and the past through heavy fog and tinted glasses. So, we often conclude that our time is different. And that things are changing faster today than they did in the past.

We always seem to be living in unprecedented times, according to conventional wisdom, mostly because we don’t spend enough time studying history.
– Ed Yardeni

I’m not suggesting the past and present are the same. They are not. But the past is more like the present than we think. And, for many things, the rate of change is more important than the direction of travel. That’s hard to develop a view on without understanding the past.

I see this when someone starts researching a sector or a company that has recently captured the spotlight or risen to prominence. They conclude, “wow, [X] will forever change the world.” In many cases they would have come to the same conclusion if they’d done their research 10 or 20 years earlier. But history, for them, begins when they first observe it.

We observe the recent trend but neglect the longer historical context. Consider gaming or the internet. There’s no question there are new developments in these fields, and they will likely have far reaching effects. But that’s the continuation of trends that stretch back decades. The first popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game launched in 1997. Netscape went public in 1995. Technological innovation didn’t start in 2010 or 2011.

I get it; we are familiar with our own experiences. But we each experience such a small slice of reality**. And, for many of us, that slice is not that representative of the present, much less the past. Understanding the past takes effort but it is worth the investment.


*Or we believe our experiences represent a larger share of history than they really do.

**Our memories of our own experiences are often fallible but that’s for another day.

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