Looking Back: A 2018 Historical Retrospective

In what is becoming an annual tradition here at Concerning History, it’s time to reflect back on the year that was and ask ourselves what we think future historians might talk about when they study 2018.

Bryan: Another year has come and gone, and here we are again, ruminating on the possible significance of all the events that have paraded past us in the last 365 days. Last year, we singled out superstorms, Confederate monument removal, a changing geopolitical landscape, and a new, more sinister role of social media as the takeaways of 2017, and while the furor over pulling down rebel statues seems to have subsided (for now), the other three themes have certainly continued to be major concerns. A new one, added quite late in the year, is that of science run amok. In the waning days of 2018, the world was introduced to He Janqui, a Chinese scientist who claimed to have used CRISPR gene editing technology to modify the DNA of human fetuses inside the womb. The scientific community reacted with shock and disapproval to the reveal of this secret experiment, and the following weeks revealed more and more damning information about the lack of ethics involved and alarming absence of any organization to police those ethics in scientific experimentation. History has very few absolute rules, but once certain discoveries are made, they never seem to be put back in their bag, and I cannot help but wonder if 2018 will be remembered as the year that science entered a new, darker era of human gene manipulation and designer organisms.

Kevin: Dr. Moreau is not the only monster we’ve seen this year. Between the Parkland shooting, the Tibbett murder, and the Pittsburgh attack, we witnessed some of the worst of humanity in 2018. But we’ve also seen what these horrors can galvanize in us. The survivors of Parkland flipped the script on school shootings, the mother of a murder victim took in a child of the immigrant community blamed by some for the crime, and the city of Pittsburgh rallied around a Jewish community that was targeted in part for its support of refugees. 2018 will be a year remembered by historians for escalating violence in American society, but also for fierce resistance to its normalization. The midterm elections also provide some evidence that a majority of Americans reject the way our politicians are responding to this new normal.

Heather: The record-breaking California wildfires of 2018 are definitely another instance. With 1,671,187 acres burned, dozens killed, and billions of dollars in damage, the 2018 wildfire season stands out as both the largest and most deadly in state history. As a California native, I was horrified to follow the gruesome coverage of this year’s fires, but I also watched in amazement as Californians from across the state and others from around the country and the globe came together to provide aid and support. As terrifying an ecological catastrophe as they were, I hope that the 2018 fires are also remembered for an aftermath that was both heartwarming and humbling.

California’s Camp Fire. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Kevin: On an unhappier note, I also think that 2018 will be seen as the year America officially surrendered the initiative in global affairs. American influence has waned since the mid-2000s and Trump’s election in 2016 guaranteed a turn towards isolationism, but several decisions this year confirmed the extent of the American retreat. By siding with Putin over US intelligence at Helsinki, walking back on the Iran Deal, and withdrawing troops from Syria, Trump prioritized his brand of nationalism over America’s global interests. This is in stark contrast to the aggressive foreign policy of Russia and the hegemonic ambitions reflected in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Made available on Wikimedia Commons by the Kremlin.
(CC BY 4.0)

Ryan: I would actually double down on my point last year (that 2017 would be remembered as a turning point in the early history of social media) to say that everything we saw this year only reinforced this point. Between Facebook’s data privacy scandal, Cambridge Analytica, and our emerging knowledge of the ways that foreign agents manipulate domestic opinions across platforms, the choice that many are making to leave social media entirely behind is looking more and more appealing. Considering these developments, the issue is starting to look a lot less like “social media” being the fundamental problem, and more like a wild west of digital technology that privacy laws and cybersecurity policies have not yet caught up with. That said, non-state and foreign entities are not exclusively the problem: the death of net neutrality and China’s advancing social credit system are ways in which governments themselves are testing, if not outright shattering, the bounds of digital privacy. For me, all these developments paint a picture of a digital gilded age–or an age defined by the rapid spread of technology seen as a pathway to prosperity, but ultimately causing massive social disruption due to laws which inadequately protect the public from exploitation. If there’s any truth to this analogy, however, we may have hope yet, if digital trust-busters rise up to challenge the masters of our online lives much like the Progressives challenged the great industrialists. If that were to occur, the reputation and legacy of these technologies may ultimately be salvaged in a way to live up to the standards of community building and interconnectivity that we have always hoped they should fulfill.

Bryan: And it is this spirit of humanity, both in resistance and in cooperation, that we may need in the years ahead. Authoritarianism is on the rise throughout the world, especially in areas long thought safe for democracy. You will have all seen far more coverage of such events from other sources, and so we will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say, however, that we hope 2018 may be remembered as the start of a global fight against this trend, rather than the beginning of its victory.

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