Henningsen: Too Soon To Tell

Mar 31, 2015

In 1972, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution’s effect on world history, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En Lai responded, “Too soon to tell.”

A long view, to be sure, but many historians prefer it. Only time provides the perspective necessary for genuine understanding.

That’s why historians, who study change, don’t always like it. We know that when change occurs we perceive only its immediate effects. Its full significance may be something of which we are as yet totally unaware. And that’s frustrating for those trying to explain it. Hence, we prefer history that’s happened rather than happening. As essayist Janet Flanner noted, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it.”

So it’s hard to assess an anniversary coming up April 3rd, when, 20 years ago, Amazon.com made its first on-line sale. Amazon dates this to July ‘95, when it went fully public, but computer scientist John Wainwright’s order of Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies was the very first – and Wainwright still has the receipt certifying the date as April 3rd.

Today Amazon sells almost two-thirds of books bought on-line and more than 40% of all books purchased.

In its quest to become the “everything store”, it’s fueled the rise of on-line commerce: completely altering the nature of the world marketplace; changing the reading habits, the buying habits – the living habits – of people worldwide. On a good day, Amazon sells almost a thousand items a second. To put that in perspective, it took four centuries after Gutenberg to reach one billion books produced, let alone sold.

In 1970, journalist Alvin Toffler introduced the term “future shock” to explain the perception of too much change in too little time. We’re certainly experiencing that now. The first text message was sent in 1992. The iPhone appeared in 2007, which was also the first year that Americans exchanged more texts per month than phone calls. Think of the social, economic, and political changes texting and smart phones brought so quickly.

As an historian of the “too soon to tell” school, I’m experiencing the academic version of whiplash. To which I respond with the scholarly term “OMG!” - which itself only entered the dictionary in 2011.