Past and present opacity

I’m currently engaged in a deep dive into the murky depths of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. And after reading numerous accounts of the same events, I’m beginning to realise the opacity of history, that there is so much we cannot determine about the past. Yet, whilst understanding this opacity I still proceed to try and learn from what has come to pass. To take reliable lessons from the descriptions and recounting of episodes which I know are unreliable. For example, I often read an account and think to myself that I am beginning to attain some measure of clarity about an event or figure. I wish to end this, to forever cement my distrust of history as we know it and as we commonly consume it. And yesterday, I discovered how.

I imagine that, as an historian of the future, I am able to travel back to the time which I wish to document, and I decide to write a comprehensive history of the events of 2018. But where do I start? The paralysis that confronts me at asking this question will have a definite effect; I’ll focus down, impose some constraints. Perhaps I opt to write a comprehensive treatise on the state of online privacy and security. Fine, but again, “Where do I start?” With the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation? With any of the countless data breaches and malicious attacks that have occurred during the year? Either one would be a good jump-off point, but either one would quickly reveal how much more digging I have to do.

For example, the General Data Protection Regulation was proposed to the EU in January 2012, voted on and negotiated throughout 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 and adopted in 2016. From then, a two year transition period began after which all EU member states were expected to abide by its commands. So the history of the GDPR is a history that spans years. And of those each individual years, I will have to chart the social, political and cultural climes that were in effect across a multitude of continents, countries and regions. Further, I will have be aware of all the primary players, the secondary players, the tertiary players, and all those who had a significant yet infinitesimal effect on proceedings—meaning individuals and institutions, many of whose involvement I will be unable to quantify or even find evidence of.

Seen from this perspective, the motivation for the genre of history—that we can, first, understand the past, and second, learn from it—is laughable. Every moment that passes is indelibly intertwined with every moment that has gone before it in some way, and I can never trace this continuity and connection totally. Thus, history is opaque because our experience of the world we live in—and our knowledge of our own existence within said world—is opaque. Heck, as you read this your subconscious mind is sifting through current and previous stimuli and imagining the presence and impact of those you’ll be exposed to in the future.

Approached from another angle—as humans we truly struggle to know the present, so what makes us think we can know the past?