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This is a bit of a well-argued whinge for the loss of primacy of historians in the Age of Big Data. As well as an exhortation to claim the terrain lost to the reigning queen, Economics. History in the 21st century has been relegated to a handmaiden sweeping uncomfortably behind both Science and Economics. Part of this is in response to fact-fetishism and polycentric data centres. The other is history’s own abdication of its space by not devising forms appropriate to new tools of evaluation.

History, as a discipline, has not been able to lobby for space in campuses in the way say gender studies has. While the authors seem to shift a fraction of the blame on the new supra culture that deigns to consider historians of value, some of it sticks to historians themselves who have not produced history that can be used by governments and countries.

Traditionally, the role of history is generally viewed as a didactic one with lessons being teased out from older events and extrapolated into meaning. Twentyfive centuries ago, Thucydides talked of the instructive role of history in pre-empting the future. Cicero wrote in the first century BCE that history was a “guide to life" (magistra vitae)—for politicians, their advisers, and for citizens.

Two historians, Jo Guldi and David Armitage, say this is missing in the new dispensations and governments. Economics, they feel, is unduly promoted at the expense of history and historians While defending history they also quarrel with the short-termism of history as it is done today. Right from the 1950s this trend took root, even entering cultural artefacts such as Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s novel with a historian hero who has a project spanning decades rather than centuries. The authors believe, like French historian Fernand Braudel, that the long duration historical perspective is more rewarding than the increasingly micro perspectives that colleges nowadays encourage.

Their mascot is economist Thomas Piketty’s study rather than Jared Diamond’s popular books that they call reductionist history.

Last year Piketty’s, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) became a global intellectual sensation. Capital allegedly disproved the earlier doctrine that increasing prosperity leads to decreasing inequality.

In fact, empirical data emanating from advanced societies shows an increase in inequity, raising questions about the findings of Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets. Kuznets’ study had shown a direct correlation between the two—increasing capitalist democracy and fall in inequality. And here is where the book had its moment of glory—Kuznets’ data set spanned just 30 years whereas Piketty used data over 200 years. Tellingly, Piketty called his book “as much a work of history as of economics". Even climate change, a long-term phenomenon, is subjected to scrutiny by Piketty.

Guldi and Armitage cite economists such as Anil Markandya who have clearly established that Britain had started regulating sulphur dioxide and other contaminant as early as 1821 without any serious impact on its output.

While at it, the authors have also taken a swipe at social scientists Francis Fukayama and Samuel Huntington who posited a superior white culture in an act of simple triumphalism.

They feel that there are other alternatives to the Westphalian system—debt, for example in a somewhat counter-intuitive way, which is a recent individual burden in the capitalist system. Somewhat sympathetic to the subaltern cause, they are of the view that the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries are cut out of global deals. As India gathers economic clout, we might see a strong questioning of white colonialist history.

Guild, an assistant professor of history at Brown University, and Armitage, who is Lloyd C. Blankfein professor of history at Harvard University, promote the concept of long data rather than big data that seems to be the popular way of studying history.

While time has been collapsing and getting compressed, our planning has also followed suit. We set great store by quarterly results, electoral cycles and five-year plans, something that Armitage finds myopic and short-term, leading to bad planning because of poor perspective.

The Anthropocene era, where man’s activities have started impacting the globe with climate change, crises of terrorism, inequality and new aspirations is also being looked at with a historical perspective. But Armitage seems to suggest that instead of chroniclers, historians should be arbiters and referees of public policy, even policy shapers. The book has relevant and numerous examples to back history’s preeminent role in our future.

Now will the historians deliver?

Sundeep Khanna is Executive Editor, Livemint.com

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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