Monday Musings - Monday Musings (How We Lost History)

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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

I've been working on a professional-grade production studio for the past eight months, and its reached the finishing touches. Next week, I'll host my first guests for interviews on their creative process. The conversations will be like How I Built This, but for writing.

Here's what I want to share this week:

  1. ​Never-Ending Now: The gravity of the Internet pulls us towards things created in the past 24 hours. Prioritizing speed over depth, and urgency over the importance, has taken us away from history's most thoughtful ideas. As a consequence, we're stuck in a Never-Ending Now. Here's my mini-essay and YouTube video.
  2. My Podcast with Tim Urban: When I started writing online, Tim Urban (the author of Wait But Why) was one of my biggest inspirations. I was interviewed with him on the Brains podcast about how we create non-fiction writing that both educates and entertains. (Listen Here: Apple | Spotify)
  3. Founding Director of Product: We’re planning to teach thousands of high schoolers to write online, and we’re looking for a de facto “Product CEO.” You’ll translate Write of Passage ideas into a curriculum for kids, build-out the business model, and develop a word-class student experience. This is as close as you can get to founding a startup without the risk that usually entails. We’re conducting interviews now, but applications are still open. Do yourself a favor and apply soon.

    (If this role isn't the right fit, but you still want to work with us, you can
    find all our open job positions here).

How We Lost History

Where did all the history majors go?

I have three theses: the first originates with the Bauhaus school in the 1920s, the second tracks the shift in public opinion on our ancestors, and the third follows the structure of the Internet.

Though it borders on conjecture, the story of history’s decline begins with a group of German designers in the 1920s. These designers were led by Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school. Seeking a new utopia through architecture, Bauhaus ideals contrasted standard architectural tropes, such as ornamentation, because they symbolized the crowns worn by monarchs. Instead, the Bauhaus wanted designs to be clean, colorless, and as flat as the social hierarchy of their democratic utopia. The Bauhaus movement was so influential it shaped art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography. Through design, the Bauhaus envisioned a more perfect future, free from past dogmas.

Modernism emerged from the Bauhaus movement. Bauhaus inspired parallels such as De Stijl in Rotterdam and The Futurists in Italy. All sought a purist future, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. Through architecture, they each rejected classical virtues along with the filigree that defined so much of European architecture in the 19th century.

Building upon the Bauhaus, modernism saw engineering and mass production as the twin sisters of progress — and it idealized the future at the expense of the past.

When the Past Becomes Tyranny

I’ll never forget my experience in the aboriginal art gallery at the Museum of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

A suited guard in the Aboriginal wing of the museum told me the symbols in the art held ancestral codes. Every so often, people with Aboriginal heritage would visit to honor their ancestors. They'd marvel at both the art and the codes it carried.

Parts of The Bible share a respect for ancestors. Because the Bible was passed down in an oral tradition, I generally assumes everything that remains in it was deemed necessary. When a piece of information feels superfluous, I ask: “Why did generations of people think this piece of information was essential?” Take sections like this one at the beginning of Matthew.

The records of history show that ancestor worship is a common thread.

In multiple primitive civilizations, the word for God means “dead man.” Even today, the English word spirit and the German word geist refer to ghosts and the soul. Scholars like Will Durant have argued that ancestor worship promoted continuity, conservatism, and social authority — all things the Bauhaus movement argued against.

Today, conversations about history emphasize critique. Most of what I read about the past portray it as an unjust squalor of twisted men. This narrative is rooted in the idea of linear progress. Sayings like “the arc of progress bends towards justice” paint the future as inevitably better than the past. This provides the intellectual underpinnings for a future-loving culture, one where change is a near-inevitable good.

As The Scholar's Stage wrote in an excellent piece on the disappearance of history majors: “When the words and works of the past are devalued as inherently blinkered and partial, declining interest in their study should surprise no one.”

If the people in the past were so corrupt, what’s the point of learning from them?

The Never-Ending Now

When I look at the 21st century, it seems like many of the most central social movements picked up steam in the years between 2010-2015. This is the time when smartphones and social media platforms exploded in mass-adoption.

The decline in history majors follows the same tack. The numbers had been unchanged for 20 years, then began to fall precipitously.

Our Internet experience is deeply present-focused. I see the news whenever I open Google. All my social media feeds prioritize content shared in the past 24 hours. Implicitly or not, we’ve structured the Internet to reject history and prioritize what’s happening now instead. I call this “The Never Ending Now.”

As I’ve written: “Like hamsters running on a wheel, we live in an endless cycle of ephemeral content consumption — a merry-go-round that spins faster and faster but barely goes anywhere... Even though on the Internet, we’re just a click away from the greatest authors of all time, from Plato to Tolstoy, we default to novelty instead of timelessness."

The problem applies to aesthetics too.

I recently spoke with a designer who insists today’s up-and-coming designers are distinct from experienced ones in two ways. They benefit from having seen many more designs because Internet platforms like Pinterest and Instagram flood them with images. The drawback is they don’t understand the symbolism and intellectual lineage of what surrounds them. Design schools now focus much less on history.

Consider the difference between the Internet and a bookstore. Most of what you’ll see on the Internet is what’s happening now. The clock exerts an inexorable weight over our minds. This becomes apparent once you step away from the Internet for a few days. The algorithms whisper: “There’s a conversation happening, and you should be a part of it.”

Bookstores are much different. I’m more likely to pick up something written in a bygone century because old books and information about history are so much more visible.

Today, most of our experience on the Internet is sorted by “date added.” There’s an alternative version of the Internet where our experience is sorted by quality. We need more “best of” sections and less “recently published” sections — though we shouldn’t focus so much on the canon that we drown out fringe perspectives.

Though the decline of history majors is one of the loudest indicators we’ve dismissed history, understanding why the Internet is so present-focused begins with Bauhaus philosophy, written more than a century ago.

Photo of the Week

Okay, time to argue against myself!

David: 'If innovation is the goal, there might be a correlation between how much we focus on the past and how successfully we are able to create the future."

A few examples:

  1. European Architecture: Many European cities are so tied to their past they prevent their future from beginning. This blockade against the future happens legally and psychologically. Legally, cities like Paris don't allow any skyscrapers inside the city limits. Psychologically, isn't it harder to invent the future from inside an 800-year-old building?
  2. Humans Have a Present Bias: When people sit down to chat, they are disproportionately likely to talk about what's going on in their lives. Focusing on the past at the expense of the present is the exception, not the rule. Thus, the Internet is a return to the oral culture we lived with for all of history until the Printing Press.
  3. Silicon Valley: The most innovative culture in the world is quite ahistorical. People there are so oriented towards the future they sometimes talk like the past doesn't matter. Though the people there are freakishly intelligent and pride themselves on knowledge, they know surprisingly little about the origins of their own industry. Meanwhile, in other industries, especially slower-changing ones, there’s a reverence for what came before.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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