Why History works.

I worked for thirteen years for a company that dominated its field. It wasn’t a huge company but in the thirteen years it grew and became, for the industry, a behemoth a true monster. Since leaving that business I have gone through the usual emotional rollercoaster that comes with having to deal with leaving an institution that you have been a resident at for so long.  Those feelings have a way of colouring your perspective on things and when those feelings have sprung from other emotions almost brain washed into you, that perspective is almost as strong as reality.

I have taken to observing my former employers fortunes and actions for a variety of reasons; partly because deep down I still have that attachment and its counter, an almost violent revulsion; partly because I have such knowledge of the business as it relates to its customer base that there is a challenge of marrying the big picture to its customers observations and expectations; partly as a form of keeping in touch with something I am passionate about; and partly to as another way of keeping the old noggin ticking over.

Just recently I have been applying a historians eye to this business and its customers perceptions and two things are apparent. The first is the utter lack of reliable data on the market, let alone the businesses that have inhabited it over the decades. This makes an accurate reflection of the historical impacts of products, sales drives, promotions, decisions etc extremely difficult. The most basic of comparisons between companies become almost immediately mired in local environmental perceptions, emotional attachments and bias.

The second problem this lack of data and analysis presents is that there is little or nothing to challenge the perceptions of the customers within the market. This creates some very worrying conditions within the group mindset of the customer base particularly amongst the more vocal. This can be seen especially in internet forums where unsubstantiated rumour and/or opinion which happens to appeal to the zeitgeist of the community on that day or week.

When you then try to introduce a small amount of gentle historical analysis into the discussions (I use this in the very broadest of senses; internet forums bear little resemblance to actual discussions) you find that you are either ignored or challenged and that is in itself fine and probably the reaction by most people to historical analysis. What is interesting is when you are challenged, the facts used as the basis of the challenge are derived from the opinions and zeitgeist of the internet community, or local events presented as a worldwide and generalised facts; and because these events and opinions capture the general empathy of the community rather than accurately reflect historical reality they are embraced and held to be true.

So aside from a little confessional, what has all this to do with History? Over the past few years I have experienced a history being created that in many areas differs substantially from the reality. This history has been created by online demagogues, a localised anger driven form of hysteria, rumour and a little sprinkling of facts. This has given me a small insight into what our world could be like if professional Historians were not challenging world opinions with factually lead historical analysis; how our world might seem if history was decided by whoever was in charge or he who shouted loudest or funniest; if local mass hysterical opinion was recorded as historical fact; or if local, national or global history was recorded after a discussion on what people in a village hall perceived it as. History prevents this and allows us to truly understand where we have come from and what makes us now, even if that means confronting distasteful and uncomfortable facts, challenging common widely held opinions or going against fashion or public demand.

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