Letters to the Editor

Wake-Up Call: Technologists' Take on History is Coming to HBO

Mark Ciotola, February 2015

To the Editor:

Interstellar’s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan recently announced that he is developing an HBO series to adapt science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Asimov’s story line portrays a future group of mathematicians who develop a powerful science of history to rule future millennia. Although the award-winning Foundation series has been popular among science fiction fans, 10 years ago this HBO series would have been marginalized as a mere “blip” on the radar.

Now there are concurrent developments that will make this HBO series hard to ignore. The accession of “big data” is perhaps the greatest driver of interest in the development of a science of history. Even if big data itself can be dismissed as hype as far as history is concerned, the hype itself is already inspiring technologists to take a broader look at history and the social sciences. MIT computer scientist Sandy Pentland’s social physics approach to human dynamics is an example. Stanford University has recently created a CS+X joint-major program in which undergraduates can earn a joint degree in computer science and history (or another humanities subject).

Literally down the street, the Google Scholar project is said to be scanning ­historical works to discover historical data patterns. Participants at Singularity ­University are also delving into such investigations. Bill Gates’s sponsorship of Big History is yet another example of technologists moving into the field of history. This is on top of longer-standing efforts by University of Connecticut population biologist Peter Turchin, the Santa Fe Institute, others, and myself.

The HBO series could have a lasting effect on public perception of how the field of history should evolve, and this could shape and direct the future of the field. The danger is that technology does not hold all the answers. Traditional methodologies and humanistic analysis will remain essential. Further, a misguided portrayal of a science of history on HBO may make a whole generation dismissive of the strengths of established methodologies as well as mislead viewers as to the real capabilities and limitations of the emerging science of history.

Historians of all stripes perhaps have 18 months before the HBO series is aired. The community of historians should use this time to prevent misconceptions, and to guide increased interest in history into channels where it can be most effective and beneficial.

Mark Ciotola
San Francisco State University


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