History as Crisis and Memory

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper titled “History and Technology” to make the case that the concept “technology” has come to displace the concept “history” as the prime mover of change in human affairs. I sent it off to the Journal of Intellectual History, which rejected it with disdain. The paper has never been published, probably for good reason. But I remain convinced that the basic argument is valid, and I keep trying to find ways to explore it.

A few years ago (fall 2010) I was given an opportunity to do this when asked to give a presentation at an MIT Communications Forum on “Communications in Slow-Moving Crises.” What an intriguing idea, a slow-moving crisis! It is an oxymoron, given that a crisis is supposed to be an abrupt climax to a slow-evolving series of events——but it was not hard to find many references to such crises in the current press.

This talk fed into my participation in the Aftermath Network, organized by Manuel Castells, where we were exploring the concept of “aftermath.” In a slow-moving crisis, what is crisis, and what is aftermath? Is history working differently these days when familiar words begin to lose their familiar meanings? Does this have to do with a new relationship between historical and technological change?

I continued to work through these questions as I completed The Triumph of Human Empire. The last chapter of the book, titled “The Rolling Apocalypse,” proposes that we are struggling to reconcile two very different concepts of history: history as progress (where “technology” slowly but surely leads to better conditions of human life), and history as rolling apocalypse (where “technology” causes crises that slowly but surely turn into spreading centers of disaster, intersecting and reinforcing each other).

These articles show other explorations of these themes. In doing so they raise questions about the phenomenology of history: that is, the shared experience of history by those of us alive today, who experience so much more “change” and who struggle to maintain a sense of coherence and meaning through it. The phenomenology of history is a major theme of Human Empire, which examines the clash between an ideology of historical progress and very different shared human experiences of history, so often dominated by loss and grieving for loss. The account of a trip I took with my brother in 2010, when we retraced a family vacation of 1959, shows how shared memories of family and world help us come to terms with historical change.

Rolling Apocalypse in Contemporary History

Introduction: A case study that did not happen

In 2009 a group of scholars met in Lisbon to reflect on the rampant economic
crisis ushered in by the financial collapse in the fall of 2008. The scholarly mission we undertook was based on a seemingly self-evident model of contemporary history. We would examine its aftermath, with special attention to its cultural dimensions. Crisis and aftermath, cause and effect: it seemed straightforward. To be sure, there were pesky adjectives attached to the key nouns. Was the crisis essentially an economic one, or was it better described as financial, and if so what was the significance of the distinction? Or was it primarily political, as, for example, a “quiet coup” of privileged elites (Johnson, 2009; see also Johnson and Kwak, 2010)? As for an aftermath, what makes it cultural? As Raymond Williams (1958) showed well over a half-century earlier, the word and concept culture has been evolving since the early nineteenth century, along with other key terms such as society and industry.

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Once More to the Mountain
(Published in Technology and Culture Volume 52, Number 3, July 2011)

Rosalind H. Williams and Charles W. McFarland

Home is where one starts from.
As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living….

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).
— T. S. Eliot1

There were frequent showers on the train ride from Zürich Airport to Interlaken, but the sky began to clear as my brother and I approached our destination on the track running along the south shore of Lake Thun. The clouds lifted; a rainbow appeared on the other side of the lake; and then, astonishingly, one end of the arc seemed to leap across the water to our railway car, as if seeking us out. My brother and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. It was too maudlin, too corny for words, but there it was, and we were thinking the same thing: “It’s Mom and Dad!”
Chuck and I had last been in the Bernese Alps on a family vacation in 1959. We were returning in July 2010 in part as an homage to our now-deceased parents, and in part to relive an experience that had been among the most enjoyable and memorable of our lives. It was altogether a personal journey, not a business trip. Yet from the moment it began, I could not avoid some professional musings. What historian of technology could, when modern travel is a vast network of large technological systems? The contrast between those of 1959 and those of today struck me even before leaving Logan Airport in Boston. As the Swissair staff struggled to wedge everyone on the overbooked flight, a frustrated desk clerk muttered, “The loaves and the fishes are nothing compared to this.” I inevitably recalled the smaller, calmer Logan Airport of 1959: no commercial jetliners, true, but also no security checks or jostling for overhead bins.

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