Can we prevent history from repeating by reimagining how we tell it?

Winnie Lim
The experimental years
6 min readDec 25, 2016


“We’re doomed to repeat history”, a good friend was saying to me — how humanity keeps going through these cycles, and how we are probably in one such cycle now.

The Chinese saying goes: wealth doesn’t last beyond three generations. The hypothesis is that we forget what it is like to endure hardship, how much it took to establish peace and hence we take our prosperity for granted, leading to our own downfall by squandering it and making irresponsible or narrow decisions (research seems to back this up). By extension, we can apply this to the wealth of nations too. One doesn’t have to be a historian to know the falls of the Rome, Greek, Mongol, Persian, etc, empires (Interesting Quora thread).

Despite the current world situation, I have always been somewhat cynically optimistic about humanity’s future so it seems unacceptable that we are just resigned to repeat our own mistakes.

Here is my hypothesis:

We are doomed to repeat history until we get better at making people remember it, and getting better at telling history means we must attempt to get better at telling complex narratives.

Why learn history

“You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” (source)

We have tried to kill each other before. We destroyed our own accumulated knowledge, several times. Those who lived through to witness the horrors say, never again. But we forget. Those of us who knew nothing but peace, we don’t understand how hard-fought is peace.

How do we make ourselves remember?

Why we are not good at telling history

It is told mostly through formal education, through textbooks.

The word history seems to induce involuntary coma in many of us. I cannot be absolutely sure, but I hypothesise that this phenomenon is associated with unwanted memories of countless hours of trying to memorise our textbooks in order to pass exams.

Exams aside, how can we expect people to be interested in history when it is represented by long unending chunks of small text?

We don’t seem to be aware of its importance

In order to be aware of the importance of history, we need to foster critical-mindedness and this is a whole other argument on education itself.

It is told mostly through linear formats such as text and video and hence it obscures the context and dynamism of history

Every node in history branches out to other nodes and need to be considered in relation to them. Several narratives are also taking place in parallel to an event, yet text or video is unable to express that multi-dimensionality cohesively. It is also challenging to contemplate the web of history without being able to see the whole at a high level. You can turn pages forward and backwards, rewind and forward a video, but you can’t zoom out to see it as a web of connections. How can we express non-linearity?

Course Map: A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

Linear traditional formats also do not express pace and momentum accurately. What if we could experience viscerally how quickly was it for Hitler to establish his totalitarian government? What dimension would that add? Would it be helpful?

Questions, ideas and thoughts to tell history better

How can we nurture critical minds and instill the awareness that understanding history is critical to our survival?

We can discuss how we can tell history better till the end of time and yet it wouldn’t be enough if people are apathetic towards it. I think we need to reimagine education and society, perhaps strengthen the connections between them. How can we make people see we are really in an interconnected web of existence, and it is to everybody’s advantage that we step up our individual responsibility towards this web? Currently we educate people in subject silos, overemphasising certain disciplines due to economic demand, we don’t ask of people to contemplate how society can be better. We just want them to work harder, to be more productive, to make them feel like they are just another worker in the production line. So why would they feel invested in upholding peace?

It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out this is a recipe for disaster. We don’t really grasp the sacredness of humanity in order to truly value it.

Is this chicken and egg? If we develop better ways of telling stories, would it raise the awareness of more people? I think about the invention of text, photography, moving pictures, hypertext — the leaps of consciousness they enabled. What would be the next leap, and what would it enable?

Current non-traditional efforts

There are podcasts like Hardcore History, videos like CrashCourse, Khan Academy, games and animations, interactive websites this and this, an entire organisation devoted to interactive documentaries. You can even take a historic New York City tour with a mobile app.

Reimagining formats and experiences

We are only at the cusp of reimagining ways to tell stories. I cannot wait to see what people come up with using new technology like augmented reality or virtual reality. Imagine being able to time-travel, to experience a slice of that moment’s reality?

Union Station experienced foot traffic not seen since its days as an operational train station. During opening weekend there were more than 30,000 in-app interactions, with visitors spending an average of one hour reliving history. What started as an app is now a permanent attraction, drawing visitors to step into the past. — source

Can we use immersive media to foster empathy and understanding?

Anne Frank’s room is being recreated as a VR film

Viewers will be immersed in the presence of Anne Frank and the other individuals in hiding. — source

Combinatory multi-dimensional experiences

Currently we seem to tell stories in very specific modalities. The trend now is to use data and charts:

I chanced upon this fascinating response to the above article by Bret Victor (entire thread worth reading):

Like him, I believe is huge room to explore how we tell stories and by extension, improve our engagement with it. How do we express a ladder of abstraction when it comes to telling history? Can we imagine an immersive interactive experience that displays context and data as and when as needed? Will we be able to “pause” an experience and explore data models in relation to that moment? How about bringing up a list of key characters and understanding their personal histories and trajectories? Do you know Hitler was obsessed with art? Can we truly understand history without understanding the psyches of the collective and the key actors?

Could we experience the different possibilities of our decision-making through replaying the experience multiple times? How about role-playing different actors to experience different shoes? Changing sets of variables? Imagine playing Civilization or Democracy in VR?

The future of storytelling seems to be bright and exciting (if we don’t blow up the world). To me this isn’t just about creative experimentation or artistic expression. We are all about our collective myths so the fabric of our society depends on how well we tell our stories. I believe the medium affects the expression and hence impacts the memory.

Isn’t how we live, all about how we react to our memories?

Note: I am trying to share more in-progress ideas and thoughts so I didn’t spend a lot of time editing this piece. Thank you for your attention.