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How do we gauge how big a mess we’re in? Turn to a historian

Unthinkable: Ellie Payne, TCD historian and History of the Future podcast host, makes the case for being glass-half-full

Picture planet Earth in 50 years. Do you see peace and harmony where “the world will live as one”, to quote John Lennon? Or do you see warfare and social unrest, robots reducing humans to playthings, and environmental Armageddon?

Human history has gone through cycles of utopian thinking followed by doom-mongering, and it appears we are very much stuck in the pessimistic turn at present. A survey by Pew Research Centre last year found that 70 per cent of adults across 19 countries believe they will be financially worse off than their parents. The war in Ukraine, climate change and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) are seen as threats not just to our material wealth but to our very existence. The historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is among those raising alarm over chatbots, writing that “when language itself is hacked, the conversation breaks down, and democracy becomes untenable”.

But are we being too glass-half-empty?

The Trinity College Dublin historian Ellie Payne has been examining this question as joint host of the History of the Future podcast, an initiative of TCD’s Schuler Democracy Forum. Alongside Mark Little, the former RTÉ journalist who founded the digital media company Storyful, Payne has interviewed experts from a range of disciplines, including psychology, technology and culture, to try to gauge how big a mess we’re in.


A forward-looking historian may sound like a contradiction in terms but part of the idea of the podcast was to place our current woes within a greater chronology and to look at “the processes that led to where we are now”. She stresses she is not in the business of making any predictions – “much as I’d like the new job title of prophet” – but she believes we have good reason to be optimistic.

To what extent can looking back help us to chart a path forward?

“Historians are always looking at events critically, and actually that approach isn’t bad for the future either ... There are a lot of health warnings and caveats to that. It’s not that history is a blueprint or a model, because so much of importance is context and so much can change. Also, you don’t want to become, ‘Oh, it’s all happened before, so don’t worry’, especially with something like climate change.

“However, with all those health warnings and caveats, yes, I think history is massively important for charting the future. In part it’s because of that long-term perspective, that ‘How did we get here?’… History also can allow us sometimes to have a learned example – that you can see what could happen.

“Something like the moral panics we have right now about social media can be understood a bit better if we think about the moral panics about the tabloids back in the day [of newspaper innovation]. Or if we understand social media as not all good or all bad, like the tabloids are not all good and all bad ... As we try to work out how to regulate the [online] platforms, it’s not a bad thing to remember we still haven’t worked out how to regulate the press.”

Should historians be making predictions? Don’t economists have this market cornered?

“I’d be wary of predictions as an individual, and I don’t think historians are prophets. I think there is a danger there if you start putting that responsibility on a historian, or anyone. I mean, I think even economists are not necessarily good at predicting the future, but maybe we won’t tell them that.

“I think there are people doing great work in this field, but it’s not one that I would particularly want to do, partly because I think as well: who is good at [making predictions]? One of the things with the podcast is we spend a lot of time diving into archival material... Some of [the] predictions are ridiculous. You know, there will be holidays under the sea ... we will be colonising Mars, teleportation ... but some of them were bang on: the idea of information overload, and the issues that will come from being a global village, nobody being able to agree, the idea of politician as celebrity.

“Back to the question of whether historians are good at making predictions, I think they are good at looking at the possibilities. I think they can bring the past, present and future into a dialogue.”

Having spoken to all these experts about the big problems facing humanity, did you emerge more optimistic or pessimistic?

“You would think, having gone through it, we would come out more negative. But, no, definitely I came out more optimistic about the future.

“On the one hand, it does feel like the world is burning, and it’s a bit like one damn thing after another; we’re in a permacrisis. The doomsday clock is the closest to midnight it has ever been. The reason why I don’t think I’m a pessimist still, even with that recognition, is because I don’t think pessimism is useful.

“I don’t think we should be so optimistic we dismiss the challenges and blindly walk into the next disaster, or just take a brace position, but I think being realistic matters and optimism is key, because otherwise what’s the point? If we don’t remain optimistic it would be harder to get up in the morning and actually face what’s coming.”

What about AI? Should we fear the worst?

“I’ll go back to your prediction question. One of the reasons we are so bad at predicting the future is there are so many different factors interlinked. If one thing changes, the future doesn’t pan out as you’d expect. What will AI do to human agency? There are a lot of what-ifs there, but it’s not hard to imagine that dystopian future where we have no agency, where agency itself is history. The key thing for me is that critical engagement with technology.

“We need to keep asking, ‘What is the problem that we are trying to solve with this technology?’ and not just be swept away with it ... A lot of it is down to the decision-makers and the designers. As individuals the thing we often forget is that we have a lot of power and options open to us. There is an option where we pick the best of technology and try to minimise its damage.”

A longer-term research project you are involved in is on crises in democracy. There are lots of threats to democracy right now but is there one that stands out that is particularly challenging?

“For me it’s partly that speed, that it’s all happening so fast ... It feels like it’s too much to deal with. The other piece that maybe doesn’t come up as much is: what does democracy look like? How it looks right now might not be how it looks going forward.

“One of the big issues is short-term thinking. If we are going to deal with something like climate, thinking what works in parliamentary terms isn’t really good enough. Siloed thinking doesn’t help either. The other piece we’re going to have to get to grips with is what the relationship between democracy and capitalism is going to look like.

“So I think for democracy to survive it has to look at all the challenges but also the version of democracy we want coming out of it ... There are a lot of threats and a lot of dangers but there is also room for manoeuvre.”