On Historical Thinking; Thinking about Technology


Three facts:

  1. I am teaching Native American history as a standalone course for the first time.
  2. According to many, history (or the humanities more broadly) is not especially relevant today or for the future.
  3. Technologies are rearranging our daily lives in fundamental ways

I want to connect these points.

Start at the end. I’ve bitten into Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of

Adam Greenfield (By Javier Candeira from Madrid, Spain – CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6244618)

Everyday Life to learn more about various technologies (e.g., smartphone, augmented technology, machine learning) and how they are influencing daily life. One minor point he stresses is how certain design choices by engineers or certain consumer choices by individuals set us down specific paths. Along that trail, other choices no longer become possible or require significant investment to extract from the new circumstances. (This does not even address questions about how corporations or governments require access to services via networked technologies.)

It seems futuristic. It would appear that history offers few clues to a world barely imaginable two decades ago, much less centuries. With a future that will differ so much from the past, few clues can help us think through the implications of such technological decisions and consequences. Or so some might have us think.

But I’ve been reading and teaching about Indigenous people on the Great Plains in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries, particularly when they chose to enter the gun and horse trade. First lesson is: engaging in this trade was not inevitable; it constituted a choice. And like any momentous choice, those making it thought benefits would accrue to them. And the benefits came. Horses and guns furnished advantages economically and militarily. They generated new sources of wealth. Cultural flourishing followed. For a century and more, positive signs may have reigned.

Alfred Jacob Miller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vulnerabilities came, too. Choosing guns meant maintaining trade networks for ammunition. Choosing horses meant finding sufficient grasses for herds. For those tribes who adopted more bison hunting–a strategy that promised greater wealth–they gave up or reduced horticultural practices, a consequence that weakened women’s power and made entire groups more vulnerable with their subsistence practices. Finally, of course, the networks that brought guns and horses to the Great Plains brought diseases and traders and settlers who planned to stay. Death and violence trod down the pathways.

The transformations today with artificial intelligence and smartphones and those on the Plains with horses and rifles are not identical conditions. But the past is not meant to be predictive or to provide exact analogs . . . despite naive hopes. However, I can’t help but wonder if thinking about networks and technologies and rapid changes in history might insert humanity into considerations about technology. Perhaps inevitabilities lessen when choice and agency and unintended consequences sit squarely in the center of public discussions of technological design. Those issues are precisely what are at the center of historical investigation. We lose sight of them at our peril.

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