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The Future of History

Walking on the moon was the future once; now it’s history.

When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from the moon they had to into quarantine where they spent part of their time watching such television recordings as there were in 1969. They showed scenes of childish excitement, wild celebration and earnest studio discussion. moved by it all, Buzz Aldrin pointed to the screen and said: “Hey, look at that Neil; I guess we just missed the whole darn thing.”

Today, the idea that nothing has really happened unless it happened on television, has taken a firm hold of our historical imagination. And that is the opposite of a couple of centuries ago when history was invented as a subject, when the only records were paintings and short runs of a few books exclusively about God, kings, queens, and battles. There were oral histories and records of events written by Tacitus and Bede, but not history in the sense we have come to understand it.
Mohammed Surl heckling flax in 1905

When Rosa Parkes refused to move from her seat in the black section of a racially-segregated Alabama bus there was no camera on hand so the moment went unrecorded. It was not seen as history in 1955 but we are now mostly agreed that it was a “leap [no less] giant” historically than Neil Armstong’s 14 years later which she made by sitting down. There is a sense in which the two events were either side of a tipping point when history was redefined.

This website is about history, popular history. Hopefully it’s not addressing history’s lowest common denominator, or about professors descending from their dreaming spires to slum it on telly, debating which Great Brit should grace the back of a £10 note, nor even which Great Brits should be compulsory parts of the national curriculum. It’s about us, the millions of people who are very unlikely to sit on an equestrian statue and stare down Whitehall or have their portrait above the stairs at No.10. It’s about what we did, why, what we lived through, and the context, and how people have contributed to our modern world.

This is a place to experiment with history, pushing it in new directions. The last twenty years have seen a revolution in the scale and nature of primary sources, creating new, digital archives nearly every day. And the internet has given us a ringside seat on history in the making in high streets, war zones and bedrooms. As many digital photographs have been taken in the last twelve months as were taken in the whole history of photography, and they are instant. Some commentators have dismissed them as amateur and not up to much, a mixture of snobbery and lack of historical awareness equivalent to the Roman soldier’s letter to his mother asking her to send socks to him in York. Imagine we had pictures of his feet, of snow on his sandals and views from his sentry post. Such photographs, and images of much, much more, are available from British soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq and York. Imagine we had digital diaries too, of daily life in the line taken two millennia ago and, as a database of a billion e-mails and a billion photographs taken by ordinary people in 1913. History is about ordinary people, how they lived and what they did. If only we had a few million pieces of personal testimony from 1914 to 1918, the story of the First World War could have been told using eyewitness accounts only, not mediated by historians, writers and broadcasters. In 1983 I worked on a television series for the BBC called Soldiers, a History of Men in Battle. It was presented by Frederick Forsythe and written by two military historians: John Keegan and Richard Holmes. They all did a great job but the stars were the old soldiers who spoke directly to the audience; they were eyewitnesses and spoke well and with all the authority of having been soldiers on a battlefield. History is a constant search for context. For that we need historians, but historians who will work with the grain of the eyewitness’ testimony not impose theories on small amounts of evidence. With billions of new, digital sources and online archives we can break away from the quest to homogenise diverse histories, impose some global norm on national histories and cultures while fragmenting them, and politicising them at the same time same. Computers are already reshaping the way we live, from falling in love to raising “cloud finance”. The future of almost everything we do is digital and history is no exception. Clearly it will build on the way we have done history in the past, but the new sources, the new tools, and the new interpretations that will flow from them, are bound to reshape the context we have inherited by embedding more people’s lives as into broad, human narrative. There has never been a more vibrant time for changing the way we look at history. There have never been so many new primary sources available; there have never been so many people searching those archives for scraps of information about their families. It’s not going academics out of us all, quite the opposite, it’ll be millions of untrained minds browsing millions of census returns, newspaper articles, property transactions, jobs, journeys by sea, previously Top Secret military plans and war diaries, photographs, plans, machines, town centres and local events. This is work that would have taken months, even years, on individual enquiries. Today, it takes a few minutes to find individual emigrants to Australia in the 1850s. Seeing the original documents without making an expensive journeys, even though it is on a screen, means you can interrogate thousands of documents in the same time. Philip Johnson. One of the great changes is the rise in the profile of the individual. Individuals, relatives long forgotten, get a new lease of life from the hard evidence merged into the historical context.