Era of Change Upon Us Again

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I get the headlines from the New York Times emailed to me every day. It saves a lot of money, fuel and paper in the long run. Today, the venerable NYT sent me this headline for the article about Bill Gates stepping down at Microsoft: Gates to Cede Software Reins in Era of Change. At least the editors of the actual paper are smarter than the geniuses who modify the titles for the emailing. An era of change? Is that opposed to all the other eras where nothing changes? This is one of those things that just sets the historian in me to screaming. Thankfully when we are bombarded by bizspeak terminology, after a while it becomes clear that anyone who claims to be thinking outside the box to leverage assets is an idiot and these phrases tend to go away. It seems, however, that the one constant in this business (pick a business) is that somebody is always telling you that the one constant in this business is change, as if that differentiates it from any other business, just as being an era of change differentiates it from any other era. If only I had a dime for every one of the 154,000 web pages saying that this or that era is an era of change or the 116,000 saying that the only constant is change or the 42.9 million pages using some variation or another. So let’s establish a few things:

  • If you’re not Heraclitus, please save us from hearing this again.
  • Every era is an era of change. It’s part of the physical nature of the universe. It is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
  • “The only constant in this business is change” is what wheelwrights used to say all the time, right before they realized that metal wheels and rubber tires had put them out of business.
  • Things simply do not change faster in the modern world, or at least I don’t believe so. I study the sixteenth century, when a religious system that had been stable and unchanged for a thousand years (yes, that’s a joke!) was suddenly and dramatically overthrown by the Reformation. The effect on average people – spiritually, socially (no more praying for the dead, no more confraternities) and economically (no more saving for funeral masses, no more monasteries) – was tremendous. And of course the era saw the spread of new media as printing and paper-making technology advanced dramatically (they weren’t new in the sixteenth century just as the internet wasn’t new in the 1990s, but that’s when those technologies really took off). And during the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries there was significant climate change that threw farmers in high lattitudes and elevations for a loop and caused widespread economic disruption (and, by the way, though the amplitude of change was as great or greater than what we’ve seen recently, the rate of CO2 accumulation was quite slow compared to the rapid change we’re seeing in our own special era of change). Oh and by the way, in the 14th century, one third of the population of Europe died off in the space of a two years. Now that’s an era of change!

Furthermore, as a historian, I have noticed that there are two constants, not just one.

  • People will constantly tell you that change is the only constant, which is demonstrably false because I have discovered a second constant. See below.
  • People will constantly tell you that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Not to get off too much on the second one, but again, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention the complexity of human social interactions, prevent history from repeating itself. While it is true that historians repeat themselves, it is not true that history does. Back before social promotion of grade schoolers, kids who didn’t pay attention in history class were doomed to repeat it. That again is an altogether different phenomenon, but perhaps more instructive to politicians and other leaders who tend to make the mistakes that are structurally similar to mistakes made by their predcessors, which is more akin to grade schoolers repeating history class than it is to history repeating itself. Which is more akin to grade schoolers repeating history class than it is to history repeating itself. No, that last sentence is not a typo, merely evidence that historians do in fact repeat themselves. I repeat, historians do in fact repeat themselves.

The more important point, however, is that the lessons from history are not primarily negative. The overwhelming number of things from the past that people repeat are things that they saw work successfully in the past. Modern civilization is based on the repeating history. Without that, no agriculture, no electoral politics, no successful companies, no retirement investments. That is the part of being “doomed” to repeat history that nobody ever talks about. Most wealthy people, for example, got wealthy by being “doomed” to repeat financial strategies that worked in the past for them, their parents, their predecessors. The essence of a successful company, one might say, is its ability to repeat some of history (“Excellent customer service and product quality are important”) but not other aspects (“Let’s sell dog food on the internet” morphs into “Let’s sell delivered gasoline on the internet”). From my perspective as a historian, I think that more people, nations and companies would be successful if they put a little more time and effort into dooming themselves to repeat history. The fundamental thing is carefully selecting which aspects they are doomed to repeat.

So yes, people do the same stupid (and smart) things over and over and our era is one of change, but do those facts really merit headlines in the New York Times?

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