November 25, 2007
In my post about "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages" I mentioned the phrase derivative history to which I associated this book and which I immediately declared was not a bad thing at all. Before I get into trouble, I thought I better explain my meaning with this phrase.
By derivative I specifically mean that the work is one that builds on the work of others who have either delved deeply into specific areas of history or have done some of the summary work of yet others who have delved even more deeply still. One of my own recollections from studying history is that there is literally no bottom to the details that can be unearthed. And at every level of depth there is no end to the number of possible perspectives that can be used to accord meaning to those details.
In my online archive of papers the curious can find an array of artifacts written during my time in Oxford and several of these illustrate some of the consequences of stepping into the rabbit hole of primary sources. While a reader at the Bodleian Library, I would often find materials by accident that bore upon the people or events I was researching and this would lead sometimes to days of further digging. All this impressed upon me a firm sense humility when confronting the subject of history. Drawing sweeping conclusions is something that must always be done with a pocket-full of this humility.
Now one other consequence of this observation upon history is that all history is derivative and that the process of derivation is central to the process of understanding the past a little better and hopefully learning a thing or two about ourselves and maybe even our future. A book such as that written by Alex Wright is one that tries to pull together some of the salient themes from an intricate lattice work of historical research and theoretical commentary. In dealing with some of this material it is helpful to quote liberally from both the initial sources as well as the commentators in order to let them be heard, however briefly, in their own voices.
Given the volume of materials that could be reviewed, the process of derivation, if done in a way that opens windows onto this prior work, is the best form of annotated orientation to these larger domains. And as was deeply embedded in the original practice of history writing, all history strives to tell a story and to communicate a moral - whether this is intended or not. Opening windows onto the underlying lattice work helps to make the distinctness of the new story more clear.
In all work, whether scientific or business or historical, among our most pressing challenges at this time is figuring out how to deal with infinite detail. Derivation, or as I sometimes say in meetings (to the utter bafflement of those around me) distillation, is a key prerequisite to innovation - to framing a new story.
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