This post is inspired by the second chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?
The second chapter of Berkun’s book deals with the myth that we understand the history of innovation. It has given me much to think about.
As writers, we are very connected to history. We research it. We recreate it in our minds and then in our words. We stand in awe of those that went before us. We form our words into articles and stories with the hope that they will transcend time and become part of history itself.
Our view of history is integral to our writing. But is it accurate?
For example, we assume that history is written in stone because, well, most of it literally is…isn’t it?
Using the examples of the Rosetta Stone and Gutenberg, Berkun highlights how our idea of history is coloured by the world we are surrounded by today.
[Gutenberg’s] influence, similar to the impact of the Rosetta Stone, owes as much to circumstances, world politics and chance as to his abilities as a printmaker.
So when we look back at history, are we really seeing with 20/20 vision? Or are there things altering our perceptions?
The Hues That Tint Our History
Whenever we come across a description of history, be it in a museum, book or the world around us, we need to keep the following in mind.
We Only See What Survived
Berkun uses the sample of walking through Rome today. There are various examples of masterful Roman buildings which have been standing for thousands of years.
But what we don’t see during these travels are all the buildings that are no longer standing; those which fell down or were torn down and then built over.
What survives today is a distilled version of history – the relics that stood the test of time.
As Berkun brings out:
History can’t give attention to what’s been lost, hidden or deliberately buried; it is mostly a telling of success, not the partial failures that enabled success.
History is Written by People (with Opinions)
We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘history is written by the victors.’ Or, as Voltaire said:
History is the lie commonly agreed upon.
Even the most careful of historians will still be commentating on the things they have researched, witnessed or discovered. The slant of their words can be influenced by what interests them most about the subject and what connections they are looking to explain.
We cannot help but let our opinions colour how we read things and what we write.
Even our own memories of our personal history can become distorted by emotions, interconnecting events and the passing of time.
History is Usually a Boiled Down Version
The past is complicated – filled with people, events, customs, beliefs, languages and other elements either now long dead or irrevocably altered. It’s also littered with uncomfortable truths and confusing facts.
Think about the effort it takes for you to understand all the complications of just one person in your current life. Now imagine a history populated with billions of such people.
We can’t hold all of this complexity in our head, and so we look to historians to provide us the simplified version.
Our Concept of History is Coloured by Our Present
The Rosetta Stone and Gutenberg’s printing press are prime examples of how the present alters our perception of the past.
The Rosetta Stone has become such an instantly recognised object in our time, not because of what its makers originally intended it for (a message from a pharaoh to his people), but because of what it was used for when discovered in 1789 (as a key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics).
In the same way, today we hold Gutenberg up as the first to succeed with movable type in Europe. However, during his lifetime he wasn’t hailed as a hero, in fact he barely made ends meet.
The world we live in today adds a rose-coloured tint to our view of what came before. Our understanding of what resulted from history gives the past a feeling of inevitability – as if everyone back there recognised the future importance of people, objects and events as they happened.
How Should We View History?
It’s natural to feel wonder when we look back at the relics of a past empire or the first steps of an innovation. But, as Berkun says, we should view them as wonderous:
not because they’re magical, otherworldly things…Instead, we should be inspired because these artifacts connect our personal struggles, glories, fears, and passions with those of the people who made the things we’re so quick to put on a pedestal – that’s the true power of history.
Hold that thought in your mind for a minute. ‘These artifacts connect our personal struggles, glories, fears and passions with those of the people who made the things we’re so quick to put on a pedestal – that’s the true power of history.‘
A Writer’s View of History
How does all this apply to writing?
It’s easy for us to read classic works and be left in awe by great writers of the past. We may even go so far as to idolize them and their accomplishments. However, they dealt with the same fears and struggles, highs and lows, that we do.
Instead of using their words to set them apart from us, we should use them to see the similarities between what they faced back then and what we face today. We are continuing to carry the torch of words that the writers before us once held.
Our understanding of history is flawed, but that doesn’t make it worthless. There is still plenty to be learned, as long as we remember we are seeing the past through tinted lenses.
We ourselves are not divorced from history. In fact, we are making history right now. What are you doing with your piece of history?
Other people and things are also making history. Just think:
- How would you recognise a modern day Gutenberg? What would he be doing now? What technologies would he be using that maybe you aren’t?
- What would the modern day equivalent of the Rosetta Stone be? Is there some writing medium that effectively blends cultures the way this stone did (albeit unwittingly)?
- What are the writing equivalents of ‘Roman artifacts’ lying around today that date from just a hundred years ago?
Have you read the second chapter of The Myths of Innovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read it yet, let us know your thoughts on this post, especially the questions at the end.
P.S. Of course, this is only a very high level overview of what is contained in Scott Berkun’s book. If you found this content interesting, please get your own copy and start reading.