Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The weight of (recent) history

Ryan Avent quantifies a thought that's been kicking around in my head in one form or another for decades:
If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. [There's more, and a great chart.]

Some version of this reality first struck me when as a teen I read this dictum from Arthur C. Clarke: "Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."  My response (as I remember it, anyway): is that all?  After all these millennia? It jibed with some museum display of human population growth expoding in the last few centuries.

Where this came home to me is in education.  The sheer volume of discovery, thinking and writing produced in the last two hundred years -- always accelerating across even that span -- justifies because it necessitates the thinning out of students' exposure to the literature and history of the west from ancient times to the near present.
On one side of the ledger: it's important to know where we came from. No one loves The Odyssey more than I do (okay, some classicists probably do).  And centuries-old works have withstood a winnowing process that's less complete the more recent a work is (though in only one dimension: the 'horizontal' winnowing process must be orders of magnitude more rigorous now than when in eras when only a small percentage of a small population was literate).  "Thinning out" does not mean vaporizing.

But the volume and scope of available knowledge, and of artistic processing of human experience, has exploded as surely as the population -- more so, as the percentage of people with the education and leisure to contribute keeps rising too.   Moreover, the rate of cultural change is probably proportionate in some sense with the quantity of lives lived in a given era. So the past becomes more remote more quickly.

I'm reminded of a remarkable poem, David Berman's "Self Portrait at 28," posted on the Dish some weeks ago:
There are things I've given up on
like recording funny answering machine messages.
It's part of growing older
and the human race as a group
has matured along the same lines.
It seems our comedy dates the quickest.
If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes
I hope you won't be insulted
if I say you're trying too hard.
Even sketches from the original Saturday Night Live
seem slow-witted and obvious now.  read the rest....

1 comment:

  1. Cowen's just playing devil's advocate and challenging assumptions with 'the great stagnation,' yes?