The past is a platform from which we launch into the future*

In my dayjob, mobile media, we spend a lot of time talking about platforms. Curiously we like to think of these platforms as eternally new and shiny. “Legacy” is is not a windfall from the preceding generation. It’s a perjorative term. Sometimes we even set our old platforms on fire, which is strange, because, as a historian, the biggest platform of all is the past.

I wanted to use some of my time at Foo Camp to test out a long hunch about the past as a platform: that every one of us comes from somewhere with a past which shapes the innovation that’s possible in its future. It was harder than I thought.

Yes, we captured some great examples of the grand and generous legacies of industrialists who shaped European and North American educational institutions – tour any great campus and you cannot help but wonder at the wealth of history beneath your feet.

Then there were the unintentional cast-offs – the recycling of cheap spaces in marginal locations that bear out Jane Jacobs’ aphorism, “New ideas must use old buildings.” We have no shortage of either in West Yorkshire.

But what struck me most, on asking this question in Northern California, was how many seemed to see history as ballast to be jettisoned, rather than raw material to build foundations. The dominant old world image was of modern-day Rome, littered with the doom-laden ruins of an ancient empire.

In Singapore, so I learned, they erase the historic built environment  but keep the gardens.

At Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, passion for what the place once was impedes the search for a viable future even though the hockey teams have long since upped sticks and gone. New media could help – someone suggested –  by decanting cherished memories from their bricks and mortar body into a digital casket, freeing the building itself to be demolished without guilt.

Technology certainly seems to facilitate such outcomes. From my flip chart notes:

  • Open Plaques
  • History pin
  • Tying archive material to place
  • Geolocated, contextually relevant stories
  • Discovery – phone as augmenting where you are
  • History layer through all location based services
  • Curated paths through a neighbourhood vs random voices passing through

We are, as Ben Cerveny so beautifully put it in another session, busy building a data-based model of the world which we may soon choose to inhabit in preference to the real one. Why should the past be exempt from this dissociative space-hopping?

And there’s a loaded phrase at the back of my head as we shovel our past into the big data sausage machine.

“Since records began.”

I love stuff like the Old Weather project in which citizen scientists transcribe World War I naval data to help improve predictive models of our future climate. I love that Iceland’s genealogy data goes back to the 9th Century, enabling the charting of long-range genetic trajectories.

But I worry that “big data” by definition privileges quantitative insight over the qualititative. So many value judgements are embedded in what we choose to measure and to encode. Before long you have exactly five exabytes and all kinds of other Eskimo snow vocabulary tropes.

People in California told me that they came “from the future”; that their parents moved west in a spirit of optimism where anything was possible. America still thinks of itself as a young country, yet there are roads in upstate New York following paths that people have trod for more than 1500 years.

Maybe this is an inevitable blind spot in an entrepreneurial culture. As Will Davies wrote of Britain’s Big Society cheerleaders:

“Entrepreneurs, by definition, find it plausible that things can be built out of nothing.”

But I reckon Britain’s planners have it right (admittedly in a PDF, sorry):

HE12.1 A documentary record of our past is not as valuable as retaining the heritage asset, and therefore the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether a proposal that would result in a heritage asset’s destruction should be given consent.

When I bemoan the loss of whole swathes of a city’s historic fabric it’s not because it was more picturesque than what comes after: the past can sometimes be ugly. Rather, those old buildings represent a resource from which to tell stories, a platform of accumulated pride and achievement which makes the future less daunting.

Communities robbed of their stories have to reach further, and are readier prey to false, easy narratives: the past can sometimes be inconvenient. Entrpreneurs may appear to benefit, at least in the short term, from the proprietorial control these fairy stories give them, but they’ll soon find out that all that extra lifting and stretching outweighs the work of accommodation to unexpected truths. These are the grains of sand around which pearls will form.

Conversely, looking at Michael Brohm‘s wonderful photos of Leeds, I see a city remarkably rich in history which its people can use and reuse in unexpected ways. It’s the opposite of “Londonostalgia“, a rose-tinted version of a city’s past to boost a conservative agenda that ossifies inequality. Rather it’s a dynamic use of the old as springboard for the new.

The past is the platform from which we leap to the future.*

* Ironically, I have been unable to find the source of this phrase. All suggestions gratefully received.

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