The historian’s predictions in a time of crisis

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“The bourgeoisie mistakenly believes that the end of his world is the end of the world” Karl Marx

We’re growing weary here reading end of the year blogs by historians, theory types, and writers that predict the end of this and the end of that. The responses to the housing and economic crisis escalate. We are told that we will witness the end of irony, the end of criticality, the end of post-criticality, the end of suburbs, the end of the city, the end of infrastructure. It seems there is no place to hide! But many of these predictions are either exceedingly literal or naive. Who could have predicted that the collapse of the 0% down, adjustable rate American mortgage would mark “the end” of Reykjavik? Such an accurate prediction is, in hindsight, beyond the framework in which most forecasting is staged.

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But more important, I don’t like that historians engage in this forecasting role. I find it odd. Why are people who look to the past asked to predict the future? Many historians I know refuse to engage in this type of exercise. I enjoyed reading a recent 2009 prediction, in which the historian/author reprinted a prediction from the 1930s. It enabled us to see the futility of the prediction business.

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I once, mistakenly, agreed to offer a prediction. On September 20th, 2001, when I was the curator of architecture at the National Building Museum, I was asked by a major national newspaper to predict the future of the skyscraper. Like many people who witnessed 9/11, I predicted the end of the skyscraper. One of the museum’s major funders, one of the largest developers of skyscrapers in New York, predicted the end of the skyscraper. I believed him. But between 2001 and 2008, his real estate company posted record profits on office and apartment rentals within his various, exceedingly tall, properties. I’m sure he was happy he was wrong. I decided to stop making predictions.

It’s okay not to know the future. Historians are not fortune tellers.

All I can say is that in this new year let’s all take a deep breath. I can predict that I will be taking many.

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  1. 1 Erasing historical events « HTC Experiments

    […] more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Changing interpretations of early Indian […]




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