It is a cliche that not knowing history makes one repeat it. As many people have also pointed out, the only thing we learn from history is that we rarely learn anything from history. People engage in land wars in Asia over and over. They repeat the same dating mistakes, again and again. But why does this happen? And will technology put an end to it?
One issue is forgetfulness and “myopia”: we do not see how past events are relevant to current ones, overlooking the unfolding pattern. Napoleon ought to have noticed the similarities between his march on Moscow and the Swedish king Charles XII’s failed attempt to do likewise roughly a century before him.
We are also bad at learning when things go wrong. Instead of determining why a decision was wrong and how to avoid it ever happening again, we often try to ignore the embarrassing turn of events. That means that the next time a similar situation comes around, we do not see the similarity – and repeat the mistake.
Both reveal problems with information. In the first case, we fail to remember personal or historical information. In the second, we fail to encode information when it is available.
That said, we also make mistakes when we cannot efficiently deduce what is going to happen. Perhaps the situation is too complex or too time-consuming to think about. Or we are biased to misinterpret what is going on.
The annoying power of technology
But surely technology can help us? We can now store information outside of our brains, and use computers to retrieve it. That ought to make learning and remembering easy, right?