We Have No Idea What’s Happened Before

I was reading the new Fenton Wood book last night (I recommend all of his books) and he referred to kids in the ’80s playing war games, with one side dressed up as Nazi soldiers and the other Americans as, “Something you could never do today”.

Then this morning a friend shared a screenshot of someone asking one of the AI tools to generate a picture of a soldier from 1932 Germany, to which it replied ‘no’, and explained that would be too sensitive.

I have no particular interest in Nazi soldiers or militaries in general, but I am fascinated by the concept of suppressing history.

Of course it’s a myth that history has ever been or could ever be some sort of complete and objective picture in the first place. Most things are simply forgotten. I saw a Tweet just the other day where someone was genuinely asking how anyone possibly bought airline tickets before the internet. They had zero knowledge or even ability to guess how humans performed a common task just a few decades ago.

Other things are suppressed by the controlling regime in secret or subtle ways. A little exclusion here, a little shift of focus there. That’s the more common way history gets re-written. Things that have been excluded are denied altogether and called myths, or severely downplayed in importance.

But to just say straight up, “We all know that happened. We all know it was real. We all know many facts about it. But we are not ever going to speak of it or represent it as it was again” is a bit startling.

People like to compare these developments to 1984, but in that story, they would at least try to convince you that they’d ‘always been at war with Eastasia’ when the rewrites happened. It’s different to admit there was a time of peace, but to disallow anyone to talk about it or share artifacts about it.

No, it has not gone that far. One AI tool refusing to render a picture of a German soldier is not a ban on discussion. But the principle behind it – we cannot depict this part of history because it’s offensive – is so broad and sweeping nearly anything could be justified in that way. And it’s contradictory too. Can anyone bad be depicted? Why and under what conditions? When does a person or epoch get considered bad enough to not be depictable?

It’s easy to get near universal agreement that Nazis are bad. But what happens with cases that are not so widely agreed upon? Majority rule? (Didn’t a majority in Germany vote in the Nazis?) A tyranny of experts?

Granted, as far as I know this instance is a privately owned AI company, which as far as I’m concerned can do whatever they like. The ideal way for these matters to be dealt with is freely by myriad individuals and companies in whatever way each deems best, and where the profit and loss signals of the market create a distribution of many solutions for many markets.

I hope that’s how things unfold. I fear they won’t. Not so much because I fear governments will prohibit more and more historical discussion and depiction, more because I fear the eventual reaction to private companies doing it. At some point, people will get fed up and demand laws to prohibit the prohibition, or some strongman to redefine what can be excluded.

I guess it’s oddly reassuring to know history has never been presented in it’s entirety and can’t be. Best is to be aware of this fact and know that it’s always skewed.