I don’t have the time or the patience to look through more than a couple of pages of search results, so this is not a definitive conclusion, but Googling the phrase “hacking history” produces plenty of accounts of the history of computer hacking, and not a lot else. There’s a summary of a 2014 talk on how the rise of digital tools ought to have led to a democratization of the production of history, and an advertisement for a History Hacker’s Camp on a farm museum in Maryland in June (tickets still available!), where children can learn all about farm life in the early 20th century through practical activities; in both cases, “hacking” seems to be little more than shorthand for “new and exciting!!!” Finally, if you look instead for “history has been hacked”, you’ll find an Assassin’s Creed III tie-in where you have to identify how the historical record has been tampered with, and a collection of links to claims that history as we know it is all a lie, the Trojan War was actually the same event as the First Crusade, the Book of Revelation was written in 1486, and no life’s just too short to start on this nonsense.
Why am I worrying about any of this? Because of the opening sentence of an essay by Mike Davis in Jacobin, ‘The Great God Trump and the White Working Class’:
History has been hacked. Trump’s “impossible” victories in June and November, together with the stunning challenge of Sanders’s primary campaign, have demolished much of elite political wisdom as well as destroying the two dynasties, the Clintons and Bushes, that have dominated national politics for thirty years. Not since Watergate has so much uncertainty and potential disorder infected every institution, network, and power relationship, including the Trump camp itself. What was unimaginable a few months ago, has now come to pass…
Okay, I will concede that life at present does often feel like switching on the world to find the keyboard is unresponsive and the screen is dominated by an orange-haired skull laughing at you and demanding $20 billion not to blow everything up. But ‘hacking’ is something that’s done to a machine or a computer programme, to make it work better or differently, to take control of it or divert or sabotage it. The USA has been hacked (literally and metaphorically): fine. The world has been hacked? Maybe. But history? Does history have a code or mechanism that makes it operate predictably unless this is interfered with by external agency? There’s a big difference between things taking an unexpected turn, and the idea that the machinery of historical development has been tampered with while it’s running, rather than the historical record being altered retrospectively.
The thrust of Davis’ opening argument is the reasonable claim that hardly anyone expected the election of Trump (or Brexit, for that matter); from that perspective, it does indeed seem as if the proper course of events has been derailed, a spanner thrown in the works, a pothole in the road that’s broken the axle – but only from that (elite/mainstream) perspective, whereas that opening sentence adopts the same perspective without any hint of irony. No, history hasn’t “gone wrong” in any meaningful sense (though obviously this is the darkest timeline. Wait, there are other timelines?). This is how it works: people do things, people respond to other people’s words and actions, people make decisions, things happen (that’s the simplified, anthropocentric version). There is no objectively correct or predestined way in which things ought to happen – the Whig Theory of History is bad enough when it’s applied retrospectively. Are we really so insulated from risk and uncertainty in normal life that this comes as a shock? Or is this an attempt to get down with the young people and their lingo, without quite thinking through the implications of the phrase..?