Every now and then my brother responds to an email in a way that makes me realize that I should have paid more attention in History class. The most embarrassing time was when I asked him to help me reconcile the fact that our paternal grandmother emigrated from Syria in the late 1800’s but that immigration records said she departed from Beirut. He pointed out the tangled history that established what we now know as Lebanon and suddenly things made sense. Once last year, while he was answering a question I had about Constitutional Amendments and the way in which, and the speed at which government responds to things, he pointed out that:
“we didn’t even have ‘standard time’ until after the transcontinental railroad in 1869.”
Suddenly, I see the wisdom of George Santayana “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” in a whole new light.
I am thinking about history and whether we ever learn from it for several reasons. I think about my grandmother, who was sent from Syria with two (perhaps three) sisters in search of a better life. I get a little sad when I realize how little has changed in that part of the world. I get hopeful when the news reports on how rapidly things seem to change in some countries, but those changes often evolve into “more of the same.” I notice that the technology that has been credited with helping to bring about some of those changes is often being treated as a threat by authorities, even sometimes in our own country. “Learning from history”, seems to be taking on a whole new meaning, as history in the making is being presented to us at the speed of light.
Just as the railroads ushered in the concept of ‘standard time’, technology companies have ushered in a new ability for people to communicate, inform and organize. We are left to wonder about how fast governments can adapt, and to what degree governments will try to control these new technologies? As I read about the history of Standard Time, I see that it was adopted in England in 1855, about 30 years before it was adopted in the US. Now I realize there wasn’t an Internet back then, but you would think that at least one politician had traveled to England and heard about the concept. Still, Standard Time was adopted in the United States by the railroads first and then by several states. Finally in 1918 the Federal government passed the Calder Act, establishing standard time. Of course, the Feds decided to mess with Standard Time and established Daylight Savings Time in that same act… sigh.
Still, time is a unique commodity. We all have it, we all have the same amount of it and short of fairly drastic measures, and no one can take your time away from you or give your time to someone else. The Internet, hmm, that’s another thing entirely.
Governments can, have done and still do mess with the distribution of valuable commodities. Our government is wrestling with regulations, without which some say the Internet will be destroyed while others claim “all is well” without government help. Actions/inactions in this area are not trivial and the ability of our government to “get it right” is not certain.
Historically, our government has encouraged economic activity, research and construction by giving away commodities. Several variations of land grants were used to encourage the railroads to lay the tracks that ultimately connected the east and west coasts. Many men ended up very wealthy and historians seem to have opinions on both sides of the issue even today. In turn, the railroads influenced and perhaps controlled the growth of some towns and the demise of others. Railroad routes were often chosen by access to water and / or the ability to easily cross over water. Ames, Iowa, the town where my brother lives, has a history tied to the Union Pacific railroad although I’d be foolish to try and describe that history. In reviewing selected history of railroads and their access to land and water, I noticed that they are trying to figure things out in Nevada and Texas still to this day.
How our government acts today with respect to Internet access, mineral rights, water rights, the generation and distribution of electricity and a vast array of other economic issues may impact people 100 years from now. How we act should be different from how our forefathers acted 100-150 years ago. We have an amazing ability to communicate, to organize and to educate one another. Others in the world do not enjoy these privileges. I am not advocating any particular course of action; I don’t know enough about any of these subjects to do that. On the other hand, I am going to try and understand the possible consequences of the actions companies and governments consider, and I urge you to do the same.