I guess it’s normal these small hindrances over space and time. Even in this era of high tech gadgetry, earth-orbiting satellites (which fills the internet unnecessarily with images of Lady Ga- Ga in her underwear), and cellular communications, time and distance still manages to interfere with the processes of life.

When I was born, computers were the size of small gymnasiums. When I graduated high school, our home in Cincinnatus, New York (then with a population 903 – “salute”), was on a party line: if the phone rang it did so in three other homes. When I owned my own business, fax machines were the rage of the day and I abused that bit of technological wonder with “fax-blasts” to important customers. Today, the world is in constant marvel over Wal-Mart-esque logistics that allow a globalized company to instantaneously create orders from a cash register in one part of the world (your neighborhood perhaps) to a manufacturing center in another (most likely China), so that the product can be produced, packed, and placed on a shipping container sometimes within twenty-four hours. Our world has indeed shrunk. Yet, time and distance still play a roll.

Empathy. Are historians supposed to feel it? Are we allowed to empathize with the people whom we study, bridled as they were in the land of so-long-ago?

Imagine distance and time as it appeared to – let’s say – a leader of a somewhat powerful nation-state in the mid-eighteenth century. A trouble spot brews in an important segment of the empire, so the hypothetical leader sends out a small fleet… and then waits. After waiting some more, this hypothetical leader waits still. Again, the leader waits, and waits for any scrap of news.

Now comes the problem in history – we can imagine this. “We” can. Today, we live in a society where waiting is like the scourge. We are a people and a culture of instant gratification. We want – and usually receive – just about everything in real time: food, information, entertainment, warfare, and all of it delivered to us at unimaginable speed. When it comes to distance and time today, we live in a very small world measured, as it seems, in nano-seconds.

But we must be careful; this is not the world of the mid-eighteenth century. A fleet sent out to a trouble spot in 1750 reports back to its nation-state in measurements of weeks, if not months. Waiting might be just what people do. Indeed, they may be so accustomed to it that they don’t fret about time delays at all; the news of a wayward fleet will arrive when it arrives. Not only do the people of eighteenth century perceive distance and time much more differently than we do, but they place distance and time differently into their cultural practices as well.

Empathy, then, may be wasted. Not only that, but empathy may lead a historian to falsely instill a sense of impatience in our mythical world leader which probably did not exist. Worse, the historian may make further uses of the leader’s impatience pointing to it as a reason the leader made a particular decision. But what if the leader was just stupid and not very bright? What if the leader held a penchant for impulsivity drawn from ego rather than impulsivity derived from a momentary fretting over distance and time? If a historian’s purpose is to seek the truth, empathy may do more harm than good.

The fix for a historian is to check his culture and his framework of reality at the door and, instead, don a different culture and reality as the people of the past truly perceived it. This is no easy task.

All of this came up today because I saw – or at least I perceived of a possible error in my Bristol acceptance letter. At 9:45am, I e-mailed the good folks at the University of Bristol my concerns. But there is an eight hour time difference. The e-mail may fly instantaneously, but it arrived in Bristol at 5:45pm – their workday was already over. And so I wait, and wait, and wait still.

 

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