History Lapse Whitepaper

Nopcea Francisc
francisc@historylapse.org


Nowadays, interest in history is steadily declining. This is a fact. We live in a world that delivers content on demand fast. Why bother with a boring, static web page that does a poor job of explaining relationships between various causes and effects, and just delivers unverified information without proper context? Faced with this type of text, the past seems like a cold and distant place.

By backing a strong scientific narrative with pictures, History Lapse brings an alternative, offering the reader the chance to visualize, empathize, relate and partially live in a world that is forever lost. Only by catching a glimpse of past moments can the reader realize that history is an inexhaustible web of stories about real people. However, History Lapse is not just another online history project. It uses authoritative resources that go through a diligent process of synthesis. Content-wise, this is complex. It requires specialized skills, higher education, a lot of time, and experience in the discipline. The end product is a highly refined work. History Lapse saves the reader hundreds of hours of researching dedicated literature while offering a material with a wide and broad view of the subject at hand.

Still, most history classes in schools and even in some universities stubbornly live, ironically, in the past. Basically they have not changed much over the last few decades. The younger generations consider history to be boring, impractical and irrelevant for our time. This is obviously a challenge. Why not then create an online system that delivers content on demand, highly visual, fast-paced and tailor-made for self learning? Teaching history has to keep up with advancements and progress in technology. We need to find the perfect balance between the volume of transferred information and the transfer process itself. We would like to argue that both need to change.

We think it is safe to say the amount of information is not necessarily the problem, unless it tends to be extremely large just for the sake of teaching and memorizing, like in the outdated scholastic traditions that originated in the Middle Ages. It is a real pity that oftentimes scientific rigor and the need for empirical proof are confused with an overly conservative discipline that has nothing to do with the ideals of scientific inquiries and research programs. Considering also this particular unfortunate context, we started to ask ourselves what we can do to make history appealing again. It is often said that you have to see something in order to have a complete grasp of it. We intend History Lapse to be one’s first contact with history: one can see it rather than imagine it. This is fundamental. The next few years will validate or invalidate the experiment History Lapse is doing right now.

History Lapse is built on a foundation of five principles:

First, don’t overload the information. We begin with chapters that are meant to be introductory, which lay the foundation for what will come afterwards. And let’s be bluntly honest about it. Many will just remain at this foundation level for the rest of their lives. And this is ok as long as the foundation is laid correctly. There is no point in losing the reader in irrelevant details. We think that it is better to divide the information into large subjects, containing a general introduction about the topic at hand, followed by specialized chapters that can better reflect particular circumstances which are of interest to more advanced scholars. As in any scientific article, every paper begins with an abstract that plays the role of introduction, stating the key points and the thesis. Moreover, we should keep in mind the fact that history is not a closed discipline. Interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity are needed in order to fully understand the past. Thus, the past should be seen through multiple lenses that are connected with each other: archeology, geography, genealogy, genetic studies, anthropology, history of linguistics, political history and international relations, economic history, military history, history of religion, history of arts, history of philosophy and ideas, etc. Some chapters focus on the general view and some address more particular intriguing queries.

This brings us to the second foundation principle: make History Lapse as objective as possible. Provide the facts and along with them try to answer the most basic question: why? Why did it happen the way it did? The cause and effect principle as well as the necessary and sufficient cause are fundamental as this kind of understanding will slowly connect the missing dots between the events. However, in his book World Order, Henry Kissinger points out a very important problem: ‘Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation depend on context and relevance. Information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge.’ Even more intriguing is the fact that when consulting with a well recognized academic bibliography, you will inevitably discover many controversies and competing theories. We have to understand that a theory represents an inevitable simplification of reality, and thus it has its limitations. As new discoveries are made, and brilliant scientists look at the already known facts from a different perspective, history is rewritten at a breathtaking pace. Trying to keep a balance between the classics and new approaches, our authors try to present all the significant hypotheses about a given phenomenon, interfering only when guidance is needed, and letting the reader make his own conclusions.

Thirdly, History Lapse embeds three distinct and yet connected layers of information. History Lapse is much more than a set of slides. It is a well-organized, structured history lesson. The first layer is actually the table of contents made up of story items or short titles. The user can read the contents and immediately get a feeling of what the subject is about. This first layer corresponds to the story line on top of the page. It is interactive. The user can scroll the story line and jump to any item. The second layer is represented by the summarized text linked with each item on the story line. Reading this layer will provide a clearer picture of what the subject is trying to convey. This layer is meant to be the helicopter view on the subject matter. Reading the short titles and their associated summarized texts will give a general overview of the subject. The third layer is made up of the additional texts that are associated with the historic pictures. Each story item has up to seven secondary texts. Why? Because psychological studies show that the average human memory can retain up to seven distinct pieces of information for a given matter. This is the don’t overload the information principle.

Reading the third level should be a breeze. It is a discovery process in itself. It is meant to trigger interest through the use of visual content. The pictures are carefully selected and extra effort is put in to make them go together with the subject at hand. The text associated with each picture is not displayed all at once. The reason is again not to overload the reader with too much information. Instead the text is delivered on demand, when the user hovers over the picture. The reader can choose how much he or she wants to learn. The level of flexibility is without precedent. It stands in strong contrast with any textbook’s inflexibility. This is a fundamentally new approach to learning, in that it empowers the reader to be in control of the information flow and volume. This is the future of learning. This is on-demand learning and research on a whole new level.

Next principle is keep it simple. The truth, unfortunately, is that works of specialized literature are not easily approachable by the vast majority of people. The reason is that many lack the uttermost basic historical information which represents the building blocks on which higher education is built. This is a serious issue. History has become a matter of interest only for the passionate and for those who pursue a career in it. Our proposed recipe for countering this unfortunate issue is to use simple language, or where necessary, explain specialized terminology. Don’t get into the details unless they are relevant for that given chapter, or for the phenomenon that you want to portray and explain.

The last principle is going back to the roots of how learning really works, through the association of a piece of information with an image. This is the binom, the combination of text and image that works naturally with the way the brain is hardwired. The binom is the basic principle through which newborns learn. This is the principle the ancient pictogram alphabets work by. The great German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey considered that the key to understanding history in a scientific way is recognizing the inevitable interaction of the researcher with the object: in our case, with a social dynamic phenomenon. This basically means that empathy is essential for comprehending the intermingling of various causes and effects, especially in a field of study where the very rationality and unlimited passions of people are under observation. And how can you better grasp this method than reading up-to-date research in the field, and having pictures that can transport you to a forsaken world, offering famous paintings, architectural wonders and other works of art, together with an idea about what those people looked like, what clothes and weapons they used? Although the historicist theory proposed by Dilthey is now considered, in epistemological studies, as outdated and exaggerated in making a distinction between social and natural sciences, his core arguments stand to this day. By studying history, however distant it may be, people want to discover and know themselves.

To sum up, History Lapse does nothing other than to go back to the basics and rediscover the methods that really work. The history classroom failed. It was meant to fail, and it has failed already because it is mechanic in its nature. Speaking about scientific truths that usually circulate in official institutions, the contemporary French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his opera called The Archaeology of Truth, explains the situation: ‘Truth is not outside of power... Each society has its own regime of truth, its general politics of truth... There is a combat for the truth, or at least around the truth, as long as we understand by the truth not those true things which are waiting to be discovered but rather the ensemble of rules according to which we distinguish the true from the false, and attach special effects of power to “the truth”.’

The real tragic contrast of our present time is that, although the younger generations are more and more educated, and benefit from an almost unlimited pool of information with wider access to education year after year, however, if action is not taken, the efforts of countless generations of brilliant people will be wasted in an era that offers more and more information, but less and less knowledge. This is what History Lapse is trying to reverse.