Professor Niall Ferguson is my new favourite historian. His recent work “Civilisation” is both a landmark book and a great 6-part TV series. “The Ascent of Money” and “War of the World” were also turned into television series. The last episode of Civilisation aired on BBC Knowledge in Full HD here in Australia last week. It marked the end of an experiment in learning for me and many others in my circle of friends.
The themes of Ferguson’s work make longer-term historical influences relevant to current affairs. “Civilisation” talks about 6 killer apps – Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, The Consumer Society and The Work Ethic – that allowed the West to dominate the rest for half a millennium. “The Ascent of Money” puts the GFC into a broad historical context spanning almost that long. “War of the World” looks at 20th Century warfare a single conflict based on racial discrimination and genocide.
They’ve been fascinating books to read and even more enthralling television to watch. “Civilisation” in particular has been one of the best pieces of documentary TV ever, not only for its content but for its production quality. I’ve always read history. Before Ferguson, some modern historians like Paul Kennedy and Barbara Tuchman captivated my imagination with their scholarship and style. But none of these academics seemed to be able to harness the new media like Ferguson.
To start with, I read these 3 of Ferguson’s many books electronically, thanks to Amazon’s Kindle technology. I didn’t use the Kindle device – I read them on smartphones and computers from Apple. More importantly, I first read the books as books are meant to be read – sequentially from start to finish. Then, as the TV episodes appeared in my electronic program guides on the TV, computer and smartphone, I re-read the relevant chapter just before watching the corresponding TV episode for the first time. I recorded the TV episode on a hard disc in my set-top box. I re-read the chapters, sometimes out of sequence then watched the recordings again. Sometimes I’d mix and match reading and watching across the 3 books/series, as there are many intersecting themes.
This is a serious change in learning for me – a deeply immersive experience that deals with some very important content in a way that surprised me (and many others amongst my friends). It led me to chasing down supporting literature and television referenced in the electronic record, often with no more effort than a hyperlink-click. It opened up new perspectives and an intensity of inquiry I haven’t felt since my university days.
Economic history is a bit of a fad these days. The GFC brought The Great Depression of the 1930s back into the foreground of public affairs. Before Obama’s inauguration, there was a run on books about the Depression on Amazon that caused a big backlog on orders and long delays in deliveries. It seemed that everyone wanted to know about the ’20s and ’30s again.
My father’s library from his days studying economics in London in the 50s and his graduate-school days in New York in the early sixties has always been there. My own library has many volumes. Margaret Macmillan’s “Paris 1919” is the only standout work that was made into a TV program – a 2-part docu-drama miniseries that regrettably does not do the book justice. I recently gave a DVD copy of it to my Dad for review. His knowledge of this material far exceeds my mine.
My learning of economic history has been partly academic, partly econometric and partly recreational – a hobby rather than any serious historical interest.
- The academic piece started in high school and ended in undergrad school, mostly to fulfill course requirements in what was otherwise a very practical curriculum around math, science and technology. I had a similar mix of philosophy, literature and debating during my schooling.
- I learned my econometrics on the job from a brilliant polymath who was a classic Oxford tutor. For years, we were drilled in endless conversations over cups of Earl Grey tea and the whiff of his pipe talking about economic cycles over the centuries. My active role in that time was as a software developer, but he insisted I participate in the interpretation of the models and data as well. I learned, if nothing else, how much there was for me to learn.
- For the 30 years since then, I’ve tried to narrow that gap. Reading history, especially economic history, has been part of that. Rewriting that software many times in several generations of technology has been part of that. Sourcing more and better data from a plethora of online resources has been part of that. Operating a private consulting organisation for many years dealing partly in that subject has been part of that. Engaging in continuous learning in the ICT profession for a quarter-century has helped. But nothing has approached the revelation about learning that I experienced this year with 3 of Ferguson’s works in print and on TV.
- The wars of last century changed the world. The GFC has rocked our present-day world to its foundations. The titanic battle between the West and the rest looks to dominate the next century of history. These are profound and impactful things.
- Ferguson puts them into context and into a stark perspective. His scholarship is world-class. His exposition is amazingly approachable. His TV appearances are both populist and learned. He makes the important understandable.
- Reading using Kindle technology on usable hardware and software from Apple enhances the experience. Watching Full HD television intensifies the experience. Doing both in sequence and repeatedly massively reinforces the message by leveraging the media effectively and efficiently. Getting a Kindle book online and reading it on a phone anywhere anytime and switching back to exactly where you were up to on a notebook or a big, hi-definition screen at home is a wonderfully easy thing to do.
- Bouncing off to the references at the tap of a finger is convenience itself. The TV content augments my mental imagery all the time, whether or not I’m watching it.
- Having first-hand experience of some of the many places in the world where the TV series were filmed enhances that imagery all the more. Strangely, I even have olfactory memories of that tea and the pipe-smoke coming into my head from time to time.
- Lastly, the room at home where most of this happened used to be my mentor’s study in the early 1980s.
This combined and repeated appeal to sensory dynamic memory (as the cognitive scientists call it) is a compelling factor in this issue. It takes the subject of dry book-learning and layers it with a rich and personal subtext. Experience augmented by someone else’s superb ability to communicate about something meaningful at the right time through new media.
I’m sure this is a harbinger of things to come – how learning can be changed to make education better and more impactful.