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The return of big history: the long past is the antidote to short-termism

Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have created a powerful, ambitious rebuttal to "the spectre of the short term".

Photo Op (2006) by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps

“There never has been a time when . . . except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day,” Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in a speech to the US Congress in July 2003. Nowadays Blair is not exactly deemed a voice of authority, but the opinions he expressed are still widely shared. In an era when technology has revolutionised our daily existence – even the nature of life itself – understanding the past may seem irrelevant when planning the future. But history does matter. And many academics are anxious to explain why.

A striking contribution comes from the historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. At a mere 165 pages, their book The History Manifesto is modest in scale but not in ambition: its first sentence mimics the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term.” Guldi, who teaches at Brown, and Armitage, a British-born professor at Harvard, point to politicians trapped in the electoral cycle, business leaders fixated on profit returns and bureaucrats obsessed by performance targets. Academics, one might add, have also been sucked into the vortex, with the rigid six-year cycle of the Research Excellence Framework deterring big historical projects that take time to mature.

Yet Guldi and Armitage insist that historical writing can provide the answer to short-termism, if properly conceived and delivered. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they argue, most historians produced scholarly monographs or doctoral dissertations about narrow periods and specific topics, or they indulged in microhistories of “exceptionally normal” episodes from everyday life, such as Robert Darnton’s investigation of a bizarre cat massacre in 18th-century Paris. There seemed little appetite to explore the longue durée, a term popularised in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel and other scholars associated with the French journal Annales.

This obsession with the miniature reflected the increasing professionalisation of historical writing. In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history, women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject. Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less.

In consequence, Guldi and Armitage lament, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of historical perspective. They spotlight a trio of vital contemporary questions – climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality – that have been addressed mostly by economists and other social scientists, often using data and assumptions that are rooted in the short term. Yet these subjects cry out for a longue durée approach. And Guldi and Armitage show how historians have started to respond over the past decade, exploiting the mass of information that can now be marshalled thanks to the digitisation of archives and other databases, combined with the ubiquity of keyword searching. In the age of IT, social problems on a scale previously beyond the grasp of a large research group are feasible for a lone, but digitally smart, scholar. And so, The History Manifesto proclaims, big history is once again possible, thanks to big data.

Guldi and Armitage write with brio and passion and their ambition should be applauded. Yet their supposedly universal panacea is in many ways very American. The Manifesto offers a reworking for historians of a tradition of “big” thinking that has characterised American intellectual life since the Second World War. “Big science” led the way (in projects such as the Bomb, mainframe computers and the transistor), followed by big social science (through foundations such as the Ford and Rockefeller and the RAND Corporation) – all closely harnessed to the needs of the federal government. Big history, now much in fashion in leading US history departments such as Harvard’s, is another facet of that academic-governmental nexus: the cover of the Manifesto proclaims a desire to “speak truth to power”.

And yet, like many programmatic writings, The History Manifesto seems strangely indifferent to practicalities. It does not make clear how these big historical projects would grab the attention of people in power. Simply addressing topical issues such as climate change is not enough: as Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, politicians are creatures of the short term who prefer to ignore big problems that cannot be solved, or at least visibly ameliorated, within an electoral cycle. They are also busy people who do not have time for lengthy reading and reflection. All this shows that big historical truths must be served up in politically digestible, bite-sized chunks.

A more user-centred approach is exemplified by the work of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May – Harvard academics, now sadly deceased – who for many years taught a course on the uses of history to American politicians, officials and senior military. The book that grew out of it, Thinking in Time, was published way back in 1986, and The History Manifesto makes no reference to it. Yet Neustadt and May offer an instructive alternative response to the curse of short-termism in high places.

Their main injunction derives from Avram Goldberg, the chief executive of a New England grocery chain. Whenever a manager came to him in a flap, he wouldn’t ask, “What’s the problem?” but say, “Tell me the story.” That way, Goldberg said, “I find out what the problem really is.” His maxim became the premise of the book by Neustadt and May. Rather than focus on the crisis at hand (while already straining for a quick-fix solution), one should stand back and ask, “How did we get into this mess?” That is the first step to seeing a way out.

Telling the story requires identifying critical events and turning points, asking what happened when. This basic chronology then has to be fleshed out by addressing “who” and “why” questions about personalities and motivations: what Neustadt and May call “journalists’ questions”. Digging out this kind of human detail is as much a historical activity as constructing a chronology. It requires probing into the past of a person or a country, just the sort of thing that Blair, Bush and their aides did not do properly before the invasion of Iraq.

Asking “What’s the story?” may seem a strange way to define the practice of history. Our normal definition is content-based – the names-and-dates regime that destroyed any feel for the subject among millions of schoolchildren and that still features in the UK citizenship test. Nor does “What’s the story?” chime with the idea that history provides a stock of useful analogies, such as the “lessons of appeasement” that have seduced many political leaders, from Anthony Eden in 1956 to Blair and Bush in 2003. Instead of history as a body of facts or a toolkit of lessons, Neustadt and May presented it as a way of thinking: thinking in the stream of time.

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government.

Neustadt and May’s prescriptions still seem to me apt and perceptive. They are rooted in the recognition that human beings fundamentally are historical animals and they provide simple, practical advice about how people in power can be their own historians. But the Achilles heel of Thinking in Time in 1986 was how would-be practitioners could speedily obtain the essential historical information to put flesh on the bare bones of their narrative timelines. Neustadt and May suggested a range of useful books, articles and bibliographies, but it seemed implausible that most busy policymakers, or even their aides, would have time to do the necessary research.

Nearly 30 years on, however, the IT-age tools that Guldi and Armitage identify can also help the policymaker who wants to become historically literate. There is now a profusion of information out there, available at a few clicks of a mouse. The new problem is quality control: identifying the information that is reliable and that rises above mere WikiHistory.

One answer comes from History & Policy, a web-based think tank run jointly from Cambridge and King’s College London. This posts short papers of 2,500 to 3,000 words, each offering a historically informed view on issues of current concern. To date, nearly 200 papers have appeared, covering a wide range of issues; recent topics include power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the London airport debate, treatment of the mentally ill and the Ukraine crisis. The organisation also runs specialist seminars targeted at specific interests, with the aim of providing the busy politician, civil servant or business person with a broader perspective but in succinct, manageable form. Although each paper suggests further reading, it is assumed that most users won’t have the time for a long academic tutorial. The aim here is not big history but applied history, useful at the point of decision-making.

For some traditionalist scholars, this search for relevance threatens a core value of professional history – the recognition of the past as a foreign country. But, as John Tosh has insisted in his book Why History Matters (2008), what we need is “a critical applied history”, one that is attentive to both continuity and difference. Neustadt and May developed the same point: “the future has nowhere to come from but the past”, yet “what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past” – hence the predictive capacity and also the potential pitfalls of historical analysis. Those departures may be slight and subtle but recognising them is essential when trying to anticipate the future.

Public awareness of the interconnection of past, present and future has been particularly keen at moments of dramatic rupture or transition. The end of the Second World War, with the total collapse of Hitler’s European empire and the horrific exposure of his “Final Solution”, constituted one such moment; another was the end of the cold war in 1989-91, when the “Iron Curtain” disintegrated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Such evidently “historic” moments have kindled an interest in “contemporary history”, or Zeitgeschichte, as the Germans call it. In this area, too, historical awareness has relevance for political debate, by helping us to locate our contemporary problems in the longer sweep of events.

Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.

To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.

One significant trend is the vogue for “transnational” history, transcending the conventional western focus on the evolution of nation states: what the Harvard scholar Charles Maier calls the principle of “territoriality”. One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

Big history, thinking in time, applied history, alternative narratives: these are just a few ways that those who study the past are engaging with the present. That pioneer of “contemporary history”, Thucydides, writing 24 centuries ago, presented his account of the Peloponnesian wars as a warning for future decision-makers – for those who, as he put it, “want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future”.

He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse – triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal “human nature”, but his proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge. His latest book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “Apple” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.