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7 Jul 2016

How Accurate Is History?

When we started making a list of things we wanted to do on our London holiday, we put down 'Museums'. As I dug deeper into the details of the itinerary, I realized that there were scores of those in London city alone. We picked out half a dozen, assuming we could cover those off in a couple of days, three at most. Little did we realize that we'd need a couple of days per museum if we had to do them any justice. Anyway, we ended up doing about 4 museums in all and with a lot left to see, in as many days. We also drove a couple of hours out of London each day, for 3 days, covering places of importance in history. In addition, I spent a couple of days listening to stories of the past at the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, St. Paul's Cathedral, etc. England has so much history and many stories to tell.

The place is abundant in prehistoric monuments, the history ranging from royalty, gory battles to the mysteries of the stones of the Neolithic ancestors. The mummies preserved at the British Museum and the other art and artifacts of times gone by are fascinating, as you listen to the stories that go with each. I couldn't help but wonder how much of that was accurate. No doubt most of us believe, without question, that it is all true for we know not any better. It is like believing that the earth goes around the sun and moon around the earth, without actually seeing it for ourselves. Sure, there are some that have 'proven' it but I haven't and I believe it anyway. With conviction too. 

So, why do I wonder about history? It's because I live in a world of social networking, where something like Facebook is full of "facts" that are highly fabricated. The explanations recorded against these historical monuments or artifacts are assumptions or derivation based on something noted somewhere or probable cause of the current state of the artifact. Imagine if 500 years from now someone where to write history based on things they find from today's world. Would you be able to write an accurate account of my life based on the information on my Facebook account? Would you be able to judge me accurately based on my online friends? Are my friends on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn really my friends? How do you separate the acquaintances from the real friends? Surely not based on the frequency of contact we make online?

In fact, today's life has so much to do with appearances that if you raided my house and tried to write a description of my personality or lifestyle based on the items you find, you would struggle. You would be confused by the range of articles I own and hoard. There's the real me, there is a version of me that lasted for 10 days, there's the me I thought I was (based on something I thought I appreciated), there's the me I hope to be and so on. If you look in my bathroom shelf, you'll find products that will keep my hair in nice round curls and you'll find products that will straighten my hair and keep them that way for longer. So, do I like curly hair or straight? Which do I use more of? Truth is, some of those products have been sitting on the counter for over a year and one of these days I will trash them because I have forgotten what made me buy them. The truth is, I neither have the patience nor the time to make any effort towards my hair other than washing it once every couple of days. Yet, I own a shelf full of hair styling products.

Despite the cynicism, I do find myself thinking that there is a fair bit of truth in what historians claim. How they arrive at it, I do not have the knowledge of but I feel certain that they have their means to make accurate conjectures. They must see things and interpret signs that are not obvious to the normal eye. Like Sherlock Holmes, who can conclude that a man with minute strands of animal hair on the knees of his otherwise immaculate trousers has a dog (maybe he can name the pedigree too), left home in a disturbed state of mind (and not just in a hurry) and intends to engage Holmes in a story made of lies. He is accurate in his deductions and his trained eyes see things in a perspective some of us can only wish to have. In a way, I suppose historians are like detectives with a natural sense for understanding the way things could have been, by merely observing a dusty old object and trailing it's life cycle, based on the marks on it's body. 

What do historians have, to rely on, if they were to write about today in the future? Will they be able to successfully separate the real from the unreal? Will it be too hard or more interesting to work through the overload of information and make out fact from fiction? I used to go on holidays with a 36-photo reel of Kodak film and the studio would print me the 'best' of the lot. I was limited by the number of photos I could take, so I would be careful about recording what struck me as most important. Last I counted, I had over 3000 pictures from my London holiday. There is everything from the coloured skies to green plants, different angles of the mountains, cows and dozens of facial expressions my toddler makes everyday. Trying to produce a photo album for memories is a mountainous task for me. I don't envy the job of historians of the future. 


Maybe the scientists of the future will make devices to automatically cut through the hoard of data. Computers with AI that can choose what is required and trash what isn't, through elaborate data mining algorithms. Or better still, merge hundreds of similar pictures to create one clear view of reality. For all the insights science and history can provide us with, no one knows what the future holds for us. Who can predict what the possibilities are? 

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