It is perhaps a little paradoxical to say that, in studying the Internet, I have discovered a new love of history.
Maybe ‘love’ is a little strong; let us go with ‘appreciation’. After years of hating history at school, and not understanding why studying history was important, I have unexpectedly found it to have woven itself back into my academic interests. Bear with me: I promise there are some reflections here that I hope we can all learn from!
Let me start with why I never liked history in the first place. For me, history was always associated with learning the names and dates of Anglo-Saxon battles. I remember learning about the Romans. I know that Henry VIII had six wives, three of which were called Catherine. I have sparse memories of dressing up in a pinafore and a bonnet, and going on a school trip to a place where we made bread. We studied World War I and the Battle of the Somme. These examples do not mean to trivialise the importance of these moments in history; nor to attack the design of the UK’s History curriculum. For whatever reason, History was just not a subject that I saw the point to. And so, when we had to make our subject choices in Year 9, I chose Geography and my days with History were over.
The revival of history in my educational interests first emerged in my undergraduate years. It was while at SOAS that, for the first time, I came across histories I was interested in. I wrote essays on the impact of colonial legacies on democratisation processes in Africa. The contribution of Botswana’s historical pre-colonial institutions in its management of ‘diamond-led’ growth. The importance of the 1951 Geneva Convention in shaping current policy approaches to refugees and forced migration processes. And the representation of South Africa in films such as De Voortrekkers (1916), Jim Goes to Joburg (1949) and Come Back, Africa (1959).
All of a sudden I found myself fascinated, disappointed, enraged and intrigued by these historical narratives.
Again, during my current postgraduate studies, I find myself drawn to history. This wouldn’t be much of a revelation was it not for the fact that I study the Internet – that whizz-bang, techie, supercharged technology that has come to revolutionise, re-define and re-network the world. What has amazed me is that there is space even here, for a consideration of historical narrative. Mark Graham, for example, compares the discourse around the arrival of the British East African railway (which connected Mombasa, Kenya to Victoria, Uganda in 1903) to the discourse around the arrival of undersea fibre-optic cables in East Africa in 2009. The hopes pinned on each period of connectivity transformation for sparking Africa’s growth and development are strikingly similar.
For anyone interested in the media and journalism, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is a powerful read. In this current age of digital journalism, citizen journalism, free press debates, issues of censored journalism, and a multiplicity of other issues currently swirling around in the complex media ecosystem, a look back at the days of the first printing presses in Western Europe is fascinating. The parallels between the tensions of new media then, and the tensions of media change now, are striking. And then there’s Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet (1998), which tells the story of the telegraph and how it transformed the Victorian world in a fashion not dissimilar to the transformative spread of the Internet.
This blog article is not meant to debate the parallels and differences between previous technological revolutions and the revolution of the Internet. Despite the historical parallels the Internet is arguably unprecedented in its potential and impact. Rather, I highlight these examples to frame two key reflections that I think are worth sharing:
History has to be relatable. My hate-love-appreciate relationship with the study of History is testament to how important it is that the subject tells histories you can connect to. For whatever reason, my 11-year-old self never connected with the Anglo-Saxons, or the Romans, or even to World War One. At SOAS, I found a closer connection to historical narratives in my studies – perhaps because my parents, and extended family, are all from South Africa. And while studying my postgraduate degree here in Oxford, I found a connection to the historical work of authors such as Eisenstein and Standage – likely because my work experience is in online and digital journalism.
History is about learning lessons. Finally, I ‘get’ the point of studying History. This might sound a little cliché, but, fundamentally, the study of History allows us to better understand our present, and to better plan for the future.
If we can learn lessons from historical experience then we can make better choices.
For development, the connection here is pretty simple. Relating in some way to historical narratives of development will a) avoid repeating past failures and b) encourage better decision-making and policy choices. For example, how are m-agriculture development approaches learning from the mistakes and challenges faced by more ‘traditional’ development agricultural interventions? How well do development practitioners and policy-makers understand, and take into account, historical context?
Ultimately, I have found that it is important to study historical narratives because it forces us to look backwards. In this age of the Internet – where time and distance are compressed, where the pace of life has sped up, and where the world never ‘switches off’ – it is important to not get swept up by the speed afforded by technology and the excitement of the ‘future’. Rather, in this fast-paced digital age, there is perhaps an ever-greater need to make an unexpected return to history.