History and the copy machine: the economist’s price of everything

The Economist (and it could only be the Economist) blog makes an astonishing attempt at quantification with the following chart, titled “When history was made”:

The underlying equation is this:

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one.

Up to a point, Lord Copper, but the clue is buried in the word, “history”. History is stories, and stories have value.

Yes, history is made by, and of, people. Those “grand deeds of great men” mask for the most part an appropriation of the untold stories of other women and men who made such heroism possible. And yes, our planet’s soaring human population for all its potential harm, holds out the theoretical possibility of exponentially greater numbers of stories, depositing layers upon layers. Narrative capital is a natural resource that never runs out.

But here’s where I part company with the (small e and big E) economist’s approximation. The chart above assumes that units of history – like gold, coal or currency – are fungible. That’s to say one of a kind can be replaced easily by another. My contention is that stories are not fungible: each has value in its uniqueness.

Further, some of the very mechanisms currently sustaining population and economic growth actively militate against the production of new stories.

The 20th Century was the era of mass production – of any colour as long as it’s black. By its end it became the age of globalisation – of Coca-Cola and golden arches in every city on every continent. You can have everything you want at ever-cheaper prices – so long as what you want is the stuff that the invisible hand deems to produce. The gains have been spectacular. Without this Fordist approach to the production of food, medicines and other essentials the population bars on the chart would likely be back down at the level of all preceding centuries.

And as we entered the 21st Century we did so with the internet, the most insanely efficient copy machine the world has ever seen. We can take any text, picture, song or movie and, in seconds, copy – not transmit but copy – it from one side of the world to another. This too is a cause for celebration. We are better informed, better connected and better documented than ever before.

But all these extra people, their extra stuff, their bits and bytes, do not in themselves constitute new history. Innate human potential to write new stories needs to be nurtured, and in many respects our ancestors had it easier. Each handmade tunic encoded stories, more than a thousand Primark t-shirts. Their oral traditions could be mashed up more readily than a million-hit video on Youtube.

If we’re to realise the true historic potential of our time it will not be through mass consumption but mass creativity, turning everyone into a maker of things. And it’s up to us to make an internet where all are free to follow their own curiosities, not the predetermined paths of mass media. Only then will we reap the historic rewards held out by this hockey-stick growth curve.

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” – John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

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