Is History Fake?
What remains is a timeline modified by Procrustes. One increasingly hard to compromise on.
Hello there, today’s essay is an attempt at answering the question in the title: is History fake? But before giving an answer, why am I asking the question in the first place?
Ever since I learnt about memetics and narratives, I have been fascinated by them. They provide for a model to understand how ideas spread and how they influence our behaviour.
And for almost two years now I have been analysing past and current events, as well as my own behaviour.
Understanding that ideas compete against each other with the goal of spreading far and wide, and that ideas “use” us for said goal provides for an explanation of many behaviours that would be difficult to understand otherwise.
What is human conflict, after all, if not a battle of ideas?
While the field of memetics is not exactly scientific (there is no true delimitation of what a meme is, nor is there much replicability), I personally think that it is still interesting to read on and understand.
In this day and age, terms like fake news, misinformation, newspeak, narratives etc. have been popular for a few years now. One of the main reasons is that developments in information technology have led to a decentralization of narratives.
Written before in Too dumb to watch the news, there are no geographical, political nor medium constraints for the flow of information. The fact that ideas and information can spread further and wider than ever before, completely decentralized, has led to a rise of new problems we now face.
Back in the past, the power of writing and spreading information was centralized in a select few. Nowadays anyone can write and spread information for themselves. Top-down narratives pushed by the state, kingdoms, rulers, intelligentsia, etc. lose their position in the hierarchy now that narratives are decentralized and open to anyone.
This decentralization of sources leads to the feeling that nothing seems to be true anymore.
That we cannot compromise on one message or narrative.
And I believe this to be true.
And I wonder, if the news is “fake” due to no centralized narratives, we cannot agree on what is true or not, nor compromise on one narrative, is History fake?
Short answer: yes.
This is not to say that events in the past didn’t happen. I am no historian, and I was not there to experience them myself.
But I do raise the doubt as to how those events happened, the explanations we give for their cause and the relationships between different events.
The reason for this doubt is another idea which has shifted my perspective: the Narrative Fallacy. The narrative fallacy is a tendency that we have of assuming cause and effect relationships between random events that may not even be connected.
The main reason for this is that we remember events and facts better if they are connected in a story-like fashion. Remembering each fact or event as completely independent needs of much more brain processing power, and we are experts at optimization.
This leads us to favouring events that connect well with each other, even if they are completely independent of each other, and ignoring important events which do not “fit” in the aforementioned story-like structure.
Similar to Procrustes “fitting” his guests’ height to the length of the bed.
The narrative fallacy leads us to creating stories and cause-and-effect relationships where there are none. To erasing important information because it does not mix well with an easy storyline. To favour easiness of memory over objectiveness.
It takes a lot of proactive effort to avoid the narrative fallacy.
A lot of self-awareness.
And I honestly do not trust our collective judgement or recollection of events.
I trust people to be people.
And this is just an involuntary fallacy we fall for. I haven’t even mentioned the individual and collective incentives to purposefully ignore certain events, elevate others in importance and twist the facts.
Ever heard of the usual phrase “good always beats evil?”. Well, it is true. And it is true because “the winner writes history”, and nobody ever wrote about themselves as anything but the hero.
If the winner is the one who writes the narrative that will be passed down from generation to generation, what stops a person or state to commit injustice and then spin it as something just?
What stops writers from omitting details that would paint a negative light on them?
Well, for pretty much of all our recorded History, nothing could really stop the traditional gatekeepers of information. Even if the populace knew it to not be true, sufficient iteration of a message makes it true.
A lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth.
When the creation and spread of information is centralized, there is too many incentives for the people responsible to be objective and impartial.
We are all moved by incentives first.
This leads me to conclude that History as we know it is fake. The events that shaped the world did happen, but our interpretation of the causes is most certainly wrong or incomplete.
I just wonder, how many events were truly influential, yet we will never know about them because they were brushed off because they didn’t fit the nice story arch?
What remains is a timeline modified by Procrustes. One that is becoming increasingly hard to compromise on.