History as surprise

Most of us have probably seen a version of the meme with then head of IBM saying “there is probably a world market for five computers.” Setting aside the fact that there probably was only a market for five computers in 1943, the meme implies the wrong message about history.

On the surface, the quote is funny because of how spectacularly wrong Watson was. To say his aim was off implies he was pointing the right direction, which he clearly was not. He did not miscount the number of computers, he failed to realise what it was computers were and what they would do to society.

His mistake is funny is because the correct answer seems so obvious to us. The power and potential of computing is writ large in the world and our daily lives are a living, constantly rewritten, testament to it. The path of history seems so obvious in retrospect, so filled with suggestive hints and clear turning points, that the kind of confidence (and ignorance) Watson’s quote implies is comical. Looking back, the potential of machines seemed already visible in electro-mechanical devices like the bombe which helped break the German Enigma code in the Second World War.

Seeing history this way eliminates one of its most important elements: surprise. History frequently came as a surprise to those that lived it, and it seems unlikely to change anytime soon (unless Tetlock has his way)

The tendency for history to seem inevitable, the present to feel natural, and the future to look obvious is probably the unavoidable consequence of how history is taught, and our subjective lived experience, which leaves us with the sneaking suspicion we are unique, or at the very least more real.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a wonderful passage from Hobsbawn’s Age of Capital, where he discusses the development of mass-manufacturing techniques, which occurred first in the US:

They worried intelligent Europeans, who already noted in the 1860s the technological superiority of the United States in mass production, but not yet the ‘practical men’ who merely thought that the Americans would not have to bother to invent machines to produce inferior articles, if they had as ready a supply of skilled and versatile craftsmen as the Europeans. After all, did not a French official as later as the early 1900s claim that, while France might not be able to keep up with other countries in mass-production industry, it could more than hold its own in the industry where ingenuity and craft skill were decisive: the manufacture of automobiles.

Henry Ford’s famous automobile assembly line would begin at Highland Park in 1908.

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