10 January 2008

What were they thinking?

There’s something about knowledge, or learning, that fascinates me. It’s the fact that once something new is known, or learnt – i.e. once something new becomes old news, or obvious, or standard practice – that new learning becomes the lowest denominator of our knowledge. We no longer rely on the old knowledge. The new knowledge replaces the old and becomes second nature to us… as if we knew it all along. We quickly forget what it was like not to know what we know now.

Does this sound confusing? Well, let me try to explain.

Today, most of us are very familiar and comfortable with mobilephones. The mobilephone is as much a part of our lives as, say, a wristwatch is. We had telephones before this, but they didn’t quite cut it. When we were on the move, we couldn’t use our telephones we had at home or at work. We needed a communication device which was smaller, lighter, wire-free… portable. With advancement in science, technology and telecommunications, the mobilephone solved our problem.

But now that our problem of talking over distances while on the move is solved by a mobilephone, it is difficult for us to think about our old problem in the old way. What was once unknown to us has now become obvious – a fact of life. What had once tested our ingenuity and skill is now known even to a child… thanks to the collaborative efforts of many skills, technologies and disciplines of knowledge.

This phenomenon of knowledge transfer affects not only the immediate past (with reference to mobile telecommunications), but the distant past as well. Today, when historians dig into our past to determine what happened, say, 2000 years ago, they use their current knowledge base and their modern tools. But, couldn’t this be a faulty approach to determine how life was 2000 years ago and how human civilisation progressed over the years?

Shouldn’t history be put into its context – in that specific period in time – when both ideas and civilisation developed from what men and women knew then (and not from what they know now)? Shouldn’t history be focusing on what men and women were thinking then – and what they were doing then to improve their lives? Shouldn’t historians be focusing on what was possible then – on what was imagined, and practiced, by men and women then?

If historians have to invent, to fictionalise, their narratives, they might as well get their contextual framework right. Using modern knowledge and modern technology may not be the right approach.


Saibal Barman said...

A thought provoking article ! It leaves enough space for the readers' valuation !
Best wishes,

runawaysun said...

Thanks Saibal for visiting my blog and commenting on it. Glad you liked the post. Noticed you have your own blog too. Shall go through it sometime.