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Posts Tagged ‘nano-history’

One of my key intellectual influences as a historian is Fernand Braudel, both for his pioneering interest in environmental history and for his (closely connected) theorisation of the different speeds of historical time. Of course the division between l’histoire événementielleconjunctures and la longue durée is artificial and somewhat problematic, but it remains a useful starting point, reminding us not only of how far individual actions and short-term events are shaped by medium-term developments and processes, but also how far those economic, social and cultural changes are themselves shaped by still longer-term, more powerful forces and structures.

Debate about Braudel has tended to focus on whether he under-values the significance of individual events in the face of the very big and long term – hence the suspicion that he tends towards some form of determinism, encapsulated in his comparison of l’histoire événementielle to the froth on top of the ocean or remarks like “Its [the event’s] delusive smoke fills the minds of its contemporaries, but it does not last, and its flame can scarcely ever be discerned” (from On History, p.27). This is, after all, the pace at which most humans experience ‘history’, rather than the glacial periods to which Braudel wants to direct our attention – which from his point of view explains why others might seek to cling to the importance of events, without that making them correct to do so. What has not, to the best of my knowledge, yet been considered is whether we have paid sufficient attention to other speeds of change, equally alien to human experience: what one might call the micro-event, la très, très courte durée, or nano-history (perhaps the neatest term; it has, on the basis of a quick Google search, previously been used to describe the history of nano-technology, but not as a label for a distinctive approach to understanding historical time and change).

This was all brought to mind by a fascinating article by Andrew Smith in yesterday’s Grauniad on High Frequency Trading within stock exchanges, a subject on which I now know marginally more than nothing.

Here was a market beyond human control, dominated by super-fast machines running complex computer algorithms that jostled and fought each other at the level of milliseconds, microseconds – and with no meaningful oversight. The familiar cliche of gaudily dressed men waving arms on a stock market floor was history: trading now happened within black boxes housed in highly secure, unmarked “data farms”. Not only that, the algorithms at the heart of this world were run not by finance or programming people, but by “quants”: quantum physicists, climate scientists, theoretical mathematicians. Some of the most formidable minds in the world were now employed in a technological arms race, a hidden war stalked by million-dollar predator algorithms that could swarm those of the larger, slower players – typically, pension and mutual funds – in the same way a shoal of piranhas might an ox, cutting them to shreds and pocketing the profits. The regulators couldn’t keep up. If they tried, the algos simply mutated.

Tens of thousands of transactions and messages within micro-seconds; this all happens well beyond the limits of human perception, and the sheer volume of activity clearly makes it difficult to grasp events even in retrospect. Why does this matter? Because these transactions are shaping the prices of shares, the performance of different funds and currencies, the overall health of the world economy, all beyond not only human control but human comprehension. At least within the modern digital world, events are shaped not only by long-term inhuman structures but by very-short-term inhuman activities.

This suggests that writing the history of the present will demand new forms of analysis to cope with mountains of data; new forms of representation (perhaps anticipated by SF; I can think of episodes in some of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels that emphasise the unimaginable speed of Mind cognition and action – and maybe that whole “bullet time” thing); and new forms of historical consciousness – 0r at least a reminder that there are things going on beyond our usual horizons that have an enormous impact on our societies, that have to be grasped through a leap of imagination beyond our normal human experiences of time. Of course you could write such a history in a relatively conventional manner (much as the article is framed around the experiences of a couple of individuals investigating events, plus some general metaphors like the ‘shoal of piranhas’ image, rather than trying to convey the detail of the events themselves), but it remains to be seen whether that’s wholly adequate. For nano-history, the challenge will be to narrate and analyse the micro-events themselves, their myriad interactions within a horrendously complex system, and their impact on the analogue world…

Update: A couple of further random thoughts – as is doubtless evident, I’m making this up as I go along… The distinction between ‘nano-history’ and (so to speak) ‘history of nano’ seems to me ever more important, like the distinction between, say, Marxist history and history of Marxism: it’s the difference between a distinctive form of historiography and a conventional historiography of a topic. So, Smith’s article is essentially the latter: it presents things from the standard human perspective, framing the account around the efforts of different individuals to make sense of what is going on in the digital realm (above all in terms of its impact on the analogue world) rather than attempting to offer a full narrative of events in the digital realm. It’s a bit like the sort of anthropocentric history that takes the environmental context more or less for granted except when it explodes dramatically and buries a couple of cities; there may be a certain amount of general explanation of vulcanology and pyroclastic flows, but the account is organised around its human impact. Obviously this is what interests us most – would we be worrying about what predatory algorithms were getting up to if they didn’t have the potential to unleash unexpected catastrophe in the non-digital world? – but I’m not sure it’s wholly adequate as an account of digital events.

Josephine Crawley Quinn, meanwhile, has asked if I can think of ways of applying these ideas to the ancient world – if only as the ‘very short’ rather than ‘very very short’ term. Not sure; unless we’re going to start trying to chart the firing of individual synapses in Caesar’s brain as he comes to make a decision, are there actually realms in which events take place at a speed that’s a step change faster than in the human realm before the development of the digital? The major source of risk in antiquity seems to be the slowness of communication rather than its superhuman speed…

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