“History is the study and interpretation of the past”.
This quote can be difficult to first grasp, in that it sounds odd that we would choose to “interpret” the past rather than understand it entirely. It isn’t as simple as not having enough information to build a complete set of facts that describe a time period. Even with Facebook and enormous digital archives of today, historians of the future will interpret today, by sifting through a subset of all the facts to build a snapshot of our time period. Its the opposite problem, which is having too much information and needing to selectively choose which facts are important to show to tell the whole story.
The issue, of course, lies in something I hinted at already. Its that historians must choose a set of facts, either because they have too much irrelevant or confusing (read: untranslatable) information. Or, they are unable to gather all the facts to form a complete picture. Instead, given the general knowledge of that time period along with several specific pieces of information, historians document and extrapolate an interpretation of what the facts say. This is a very difficult skill, and one that, if done incorrectly, can damage our understanding of the effects of policies, causes of disasters, natural weather patterns, and our own heritage and culture.
Today, news is being generated, spread, and consumed far faster than before. This isn’t to say that it was never that way, rather this has been a constant increase in all three of those factors over the centuries. The difference is we have started to enter the noticeably exponential portion of that curve where each year more forms of sharing content and creating content cheaply have really driven that growth well beyond what it was just a decade ago.
Which now brings me to the point I want to illuminate. With news spreading so quickly, it would be prudent to take on the lessons and methods of historians in interpreting events. When approaching a highly viral or explosive story, assume that perhaps not all the facts are in place. Assume that, maybe there are aspects to this story that aren’t well known, or that perhaps this story is a larger indicator of some other effect.
But most importantly of all of this, is to not “take a side and dig in” as soon as an event breaks out. It is inevitable that the 24 hour news cycle will get facts wrong, and their own interpretations are likely to be fabricated from an incredibly small and highly unreliable set of sources. Its only after the events have happened and more reports can be corroborated that we can start to remove facts, true or otherwise, from the event to arrive at the actual event. Then we can build the most likely interpretation of the event.
Because even in today’s modern world, you as an observer of your television or avid listener of your radio are not actually present for the event. You are getting snippets and snapshots of the event. You must relate the few facts you do get to their overall context, to the world as you understood it and to interpret those facts for their actual value rather than relying directly on what the facts tell you. Its a kind of puzzle that requires constant teasing of the details to get at the full picture.
As this long article explains quite well, The Toxoplasma Of Rage the media and its consumers are much too eager to build interpretations, too eager to assume their beliefs are under fire. Its OK to be sympathetic to police, but also admit excessive force. Its OK to hate gamergate, but also want a higher standard of games journalism. Its OK to understand the 9/11 report had inconsistencies, but also to understand that doesn’t mean there was some grand conspiracy. Its OK to not romanticize our troops, and also honor them for the work they did. Its OK to like the first three Star Wars movies, but also understand they aren’t as good as four through six.
History has no sides. History and events have no “agendas”, they are merely the culmination of many totally independent actors making independent decisions. This chaotic process requires that the facts are torn apart and slowly digested, and that the event itself is a fluid interpretation of what actually happened.