…because some thoughts are worth remembering
I didn’t enjoy history in high school. At the time I thought it was because the emphasis on memorizing names and events, who did what to whom, what happened after what. Looking back on it now, I think it was because history was presented as a list of characters and places and sequence of events we had to remember as if these elements were all tied together in a linear way, with one moment triggering the other, assuming causation.
At TEDx VennelystBlvd, the first TEDx event held in Aarhus, Denmark, I was introduced to Rasmus Dahlberg who spoke about ucronia, the study of history that didn’t happen (you can view the entire TEDx talk here). Also referred to as alternate or alternative history, ucronia consists of fictional stories set in a place and time in history but the events unfold differently than how it actually happened. Dahlberg has written about counterfactualism, examining the roads not taken. His inspiration was watching Sliding Doors, a movie whose plot evolves around two scenarios: whether the protagonist was able to catch the train or not, and two different stories emerge.
Would World War II have happened if Hitler had been accepted to the art school he was rejected from in real life?
Robert Fogel, a leading advocate of cliometrics, the use of quantitative methods in history, posed another what if question. In Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964), he questioned the assumed railroad’s contributions to the economy, as indispensable. What would the economy in 1890 look like if the railroads did not develop? Wagons, canals and natural waterways would have developed further to compensate for the transportation need facilitated by the railways, showing that the railroads were not necessarily indispensable in building the economy of the U.S. at the time.
Where the “what if” question becomes a tool for ideation is that in questioning the assumption of the dominant cause of something, you can more easily explore what else could have happened that might have compensated for it. In the case of the railroads analysis, new ways to develop waterways and the canal system were identified as new economic opportunities to augment the existing prosperity gained by the railroads.
Photo: Market in Orta, Italy was held at this spot continuously since 1228.