Making History

I recently encountered an amazing app and I am dumbfounded as to how it works.  It is called My History.

You can watch any sporting event from the past, for example, the Colts-Jets Super Bowl of 1969. If you watch with the My History app, the Jets do not necessarily win. Their upset quest is sometimes thwarted.

When this happened, I went to several online sources of sports records and they all indicated a Colts victory.  I sent emails to my sports buddies and asked them who won the 1969 Super Bowl. They all responded “Colts.”

So, I watched the game on My History again. The Jets won. I checked the online sports records. Jets won. My sports buddies also said “Jets.” Surprisingly, they were not irritated by being repeatedly asked the same question.

It seems that I can only assure the classic victories of my favorite teams if I keep everyone from using the My History app.  It is not at all clear how I can do this.

I moved beyond sports and looked at military engagements. Viewing Gettysburg footage, Lee won, Washington, DC was captured, and slavery persisted. I quickly viewed it again and the Union prevailed. I am not going to revisit it.

I found home movies — how did they get these — of my family a year or so before I was born. My father had a bit too much too drink and my mother was turned off. I am not born.  I reset this one very quickly.

What amazes me is that the My History app can change all historical records to align with what the last viewer witnessed. Beyond that, everyone who should know the true history agrees with the changes.

I had an idea. I got my US history book off the shelf, thumbed through it and landed on the 1948 presidential elections. Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey. The vote counts were crisply tallied.

I opened My History and found a newsreel on the election. In this newsreel Dewey won. I quickly looked at the open history book. The vote tallies now gave the election to Dewey.

How on earth could they change my hardcopy book from college?  I quickly viewed the video again. This time Truman won and the tallies in the book faded to be replaced by the original vote counts.

I had another bright idea. Could My History make a physical structure disappear?  I recalled a divisive debate by the City Council on whether a large vacant piece of land near city center would become an elementary school or a park with a memorial to those who died in Vietnam.  The park won.

I was across the street from the park when I clicked on My History and found the video of the City Council debate.  The elementary school won!  I looked up from my smart phone and a school had replaced the park.  I crossed the street and sat on a bench in front of the school.  I clicked on My History and accessed the same video.  The park won this time.  Instantly, I was sitting on a park bench, staring at the Vietnam monument.

The My History app suggests that history is fluid. This is rather unsettling. I am only here by chance. I only remain here if my older siblings do not encounter the My History app and want to preempt the irritating baby of the family.  If they do preempt me, I won’t exist to reverse it!

But, how could all of this happen?  I wanted a scientific explanation.  How could the changes I saw with my own eyes actually happen?  It suddenly struck me that my only evidence was what I saw.  If My History could augment what I perceived as reality, while I did not realize such manipulations were happening, then I would be fooled into believing my eyes.

I could imagine that they could spoof online content, including emails to my buddies.  The changes I saw in my history book were what I could see, but may not have happened in the book.  Transforming my view of a park into an elementary school seemed like a substantial leap in projection technology, something from the gaming industry or defense department – augmented reality on steroids.  Seemed unlikely but was plausible.

These experiences with My History caused me to wonder what do we really “know”?  I co-chaired a workshop on complexity in Australia several years ago.  There were philosophers, physicists, behavioral scientists, computer scientists, and engineers. The question arose of whether or not we know anything — a good question for jet-lagged intellectuals with ample alcohol available.

I raised my empty beer mug and dropped it from one hand to another. I asked, “Can we agree that this was due to gravity?”  One of the philosophers responded, “No, it might just be due to the object’s tendency to fall!”

“That’s just another explanation of gravity!” I asserted.  He asked, “Can you imagine a situation where it would not fall?”  I responded, “On the Space Station, I suppose.”  “Ah, so now what you know depends on the context.”

Context affects many, but not all things.  Does 2+2=4 depends on context?  No, but according to our philosophy colleagues this is because humans invented the system and defined the rules.  We also invented the rules of computing and how these devices work.  Of course, there is much current debate about intelligent computers.

However, context does influence what we “know” about history, politics, and society.  Our knowledge depends on the paths our families traveled, the circumstances they encountered, and how we have built upon this foundation.  What we “know” about nature also seems to be context dependent on what we studied, where we have lived, and our experiences in general.

Using My History unsettled my sense of what I know and, in particular, my sense that history has been written – it is done.  There are endless possibilities for what could have happened.  Fortunately, my father did not over drink, my mother was not turned off and, despite the extremely low probability, I am here.

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