The End Is Always Near
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Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and my special guest this week is Dan Carlin and I’m sure a lot of you know Dan Carlin. He is one of the world’s most popular historians. He was recently dubbed America’s history professor. His hard-core history podcast gets millions of downloads, and he is really someone who knows a lot about the world of history. It’s a delight to have him on the show. Dan, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: Thank you so much for having me. I’d like to correct you though. I’m not a historian and I’m pretty vociferous about saying that only because I don’t do any original work and I’m a real fan of those people who get out there and do the digging for us and then I sometimes translate their digging into fun stories. That’s my job.
Mat: Fair enough. And you do it very, very well. I mean, a lot of our listeners, a lot of feedback I constantly get on my podcast is did you hear the latest episode of Dan Carlin’s podcasts? So it’s really wonderful the work that you’re doing in the history space, whether you call yourself a historian or not, just give us a bit of background, Dan. How did you end up being this mouthpiece for history around the world?
Dan: You know, it’s funny. I keep telling my wife that I feel like I learn more about or understand more about history as I get older and have some of your own personal history to look back on, because when I see how improbable some of the moves and the strange timing is in my own life, I kind of extrapolate that out to some of the great figures in history that we read about or whatever, and start to realize, Oh, it was probably like this for most people. And I feel like I have a better understanding of how some of those things go because my life is a perfect example. If you went to school saying, I want to grow up and do what I do for a living right now, how could you have possibly studied that in the 1980’s when I was going to school?
So it’s interesting how timing lines up with where you happen to be at the moment. I was a radio broadcaster and somebody back in like 1995 had said, I want to put your radio show on the internet, and I didn’t even know what he was talking about back in 1995. But that started the whole thing of this convergence in my mind about you might be able to do the audio stuff and have people download it. And that meant that when podcasting or MP3s or any of the pre podcasting stuff first showed up, it was a right place, right time kind of moment. I was already in a space where I wasn’t learning how to use a microphone anymore. I was past that level, certainly. But at the same time I wasn’t. I had some friends who were really too old and established in radio to pivot like that.
It seemed like too much of a gamble for them. So I was just in that sweet spot where I could both be professional about it, but at the same time take advantage of something where the timing was just right. And I’m starting to look at other figures in history and think to myself, ah, I can see where Julius Caesar – not to compare myself to great figures – but you can see where these great figures a-ha, there’s a fork in the road in their life, and if they hadn’t made that left turn, where would they be now. I look at my life now all the time and look back on it and go, God, if I hadn’t made that left turn way back there, where would I be today?
Mat: Well, you mentioned technology and I think we live in a fascinating era and especially when you compare it to previous eras, and technology in some ways gets a bad reputation because of problems on the internet and Twitter and things like that. But one thing that I am very excited about is it does give everyone a voice and it’s wonderful now that if you have some knowledge and something to say about any topic – history or cooking or golf or anything at all that excites you, you can now have a platform that comes with good and bad things. But I mostly think it comes with very positive benefits. Do you perceive the modern era in that way?
Dan: You know, it’s funny because this actually ties into your last question. we were talking about timing and I was involved in what we were calling back in the late 90s, early 2000s, amateur content, and what you just said to me was almost my exact investor pitch where I was going out to these people saying, ah, you’re going to have all this amazing stuff online. You’re going to have a bazillion people. We were basically pitching things like YouTube or anything like that, and the answer that people had at the time was that no one was going to be interested in it because the quality was going to be so low. And what I had said to them was, it’s a line I use all the time, quantity has a quality on its own, and when there’s enough stuff out there, there’s going to be some stuff that’s really interesting and good.
And so now fast forward to where we are today, and there I was selling that idea and I’m actually watching society tried to deal with it now, and I’m finding it both interesting and slightly horrifying only because I really feel like we’re in an uncharted water right now. That we have systems that were put in place under the old rules, whatever the old rules were. But the systems we have now are legacy systems that go back to at least the mid-20th century, depending on what we’re talking about. And yet we have these challenges. And one of them is the amazing amount of amplification we all have in being able to speak and make our opinions known and all these things. And these are not challenges that our society necessarily had evolved to incorporate. I mean, you can see the pressure it puts on totalitarian or really repressive regimes, for example, but it has a similar destabilizing effect to a lesser degree, even to systems like the United States or Australia or Britain or Scandinavia or anywhere else.
And I think it’s rather interesting to watch what we’re still in the really early phases of this. I tell my oldest kid that this whole world that she thinks is like concrete set in stone is about as old as she is – the texting, the cell phones, the instant access to the internet, and we’re still, if you pardon me we’re guinea pigging this still and seeing how, not just the human beings, but the systems that we have in place handle this flexibility-wise. So I feel like you do overall, but I can’t imagine going back to the way things were, but I find the challenge itself to be interesting in a scary kind of way.
Mat: I mean human beings have always been fairly adaptable and have always sort of found a way to muddle through, and I think it’s a really interesting era where we’re no longer relying on distribution anymore. It used to be the case that book publishers controlled the book industry, and movie studios controlled movies and music studios controlled music. We’re in an era now where everyone has a voice. Do you think human beings are good at navigating these changing times, these turbulent times? At the moment it’s an era related to communication and technology, but in the past it’s been all sorts of things that we’ve had to negotiate. In your experience, in your estimation, are humans good at navigating these difficult changing times?
Dan: Well, I think the short answer is yes, or we wouldn’t be here. We pride ourselves on our adaptability. A couple of the chapters that my book starts out with, we start with the plasticity and the question of human’s ability to adapt. So there’s no question that we’re adaptable. And I do think that it’s maybe too early to judge. So as a 53 year old guy, hopefully I’m not like getting to that point where I’m romanticizing the past and denigrating everything going on now because it’s very easy to say that we’re still in the transition phase here. So all of this could still turn out absolutely awesomely. Once we have some time to get used to it and things to adapt. Imagine what our whole informationally connected world, and by the way, you are using almost my exact pitch.
We were talking about the gatekeepers of content and all that stuff. It will be interesting to see what 20 years from now or 25 years from now, all of this has wrought, both good and bad. I think this is the kind of stuff that can destabilize governments and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the government we’re talking about, but this is about so much more than just somebody in their basement being able to podcast or everybody being able to post their opinion. It is truly something that human beings have never been able to do on this scale, and you know what it is? It’s exhilarating in the sense that anything that is historically new and unusual opens up vast possibilities to anything you want to imagine, and then whether or not you’re imagining something good or bad, may be based on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist
Mat: As we move forward Dan, do you think it’s important that we continue to look back, that we continue to analyze chapters of history that have come before? Is that important in the 21st century?
Dan: Oh God, that’s like shooting a fish in a barrel as we say over here with me, because of course I’m going to say it is. I have this theory that people who naturally are drawn to history, that that’s the way they’re hardwired mentally, that that’s how they organize their mind in a sort of a linear sense where there’s context based on, okay, ‘A’ happened then ‘B’ happened and ‘C’ happened and here we are. I have a friend who does the same thing mathematically. And so in my mind I think I couldn’t answer it any other way because that’s how I frame my whole world. And that’s how I decide, okay, how does this look to me? Well, what happened before? What happened over here? So, even in the book we’re talking about, I use these scenarios that have happened before as ways – it’s an old line, I hardly came up with it – but as ways to hold a mirror up and say, does this look like us at all, and would it look like us in similar circumstances? So my answer to your question is yes but I’m geared towards saying that I think.
Mat: I certainly agree. But I think the fascinating thing we hear all the time about learning lessons from history, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t see a lot in modern times where people are looking back and going, oh, maybe we should change our behavior based on what went before. It seems to me like humans are doomed to repeat the same errors. We just can’t seem to help ourselves.
Dan: We have a problem maybe with interpretations. I think most historians wince when they hear things like lessons of history, because they imagine some talk show host here in the United States saying that what the Munich agreement in 1938 taught us is we can never make agreements with dictators. In other words, it doesn’t teach specific things like that at all, and that’s a misuse of the idea. But what history does seem pretty good at is showing us what happens when lots of human beings get together, and let’s just, for example, panic or get scared. There’s certain ways that on individuals we can be very different person to person, but we devolve to the emotional mean when you take us in groups. And for me, history is a wonderful example of the power of things like mass hysteria and all the sorts of things that you can see, I think in our society right now. The perfect example is this whole question right now I think in the United States especially, but globally of what we used to call news when I was a kid, but what now maybe you would call propaganda. How do you figure out how to navigate your way around stuff like that?
The problem is that there are certain things that seem to resonate and recur. And to me, they seem valid when we’re talking about mass human psychological things, and invalid when we’re talking about very specific you know you can’t. It’s the old line about you should know that you shouldn’t invade Russia in the winter time. To me that’s a historical lesson, but specifically finding out about how to behave in certain circumstances doesn’t apply. So I just tend to think that circumstances are so different that certain things don’t apply, but human beings are relatively constant. I hate to fall back on a trope like that. But I think if I took … and I’ve always said this, if I take a human infant from now, they’re genetically the same as people from the past, you raised them in the 16th century and they’re going to enjoy watching public executions. It’s a context thing and I think what we get in groups, we revert to something that the Romans or the ancient Greek writers would completely understand, which is why I think those things are valuable because we haven’t changed that much, but you brought it up yourself. We’re living in an era where the communication levels are unprecedented, and so that makes some of the context moot because where’s the analogy for the times we live in now? Historically, I can’t think of anything.
Mat: No, I certainly agree with that. And it always strikes me when we talk about lessons of history. I mean it’s an overused phrase and when we talk about it, we tend to mean the negative. People say, oh well the rise of the Nazis. Everyone always looks at the negative aspects, the Holocaust, but I also think if we are learning lessons from history, there’s positives that come out of it as well. You know, League of Nations, countries getting on better with each other, peaceful times that we’ve had in the last 50 years or so, there are positives that come out of lessons of history as well, aren’t they?
Dan: Oh, absolutely. And I actually, because this is just the way I think, but I almost juxtaposition the negatives with the positives. So you mentioned something like the League of Nations but the League of Nations was a result of the shock that all the major countries had after the First World War. So you have this terrible thing and then out of those ashes, a seed grows towards what most people consider progress. All this stuff is now optional these days, but I see what you’re saying.
Absolutely. If the old line that Will Duran wrote many years ago, and I won’t be able to quote it verbatim, but it was something about how most of history is really people having children, making their individual lives, going about their daily business, just struggling to survive and enjoy themselves, but historians are concerned with the blood and the war and all of the things that are going on that make the news. In other words, the same things that would make your headlines in the newspapers today tend to make it in the history books. And he said something like, historians are blind because they focus on the river and not the mundane banal things going on on the banks, which make up the majority of human experience and the majority of human enjoyment and positivity and all those things you were referring to. So not only do I agree with you, I think historians have always been able to recognize the blind spot that we used to say in news. If it bleeds, it leads and historians traditionally if it bleeds it leads and things make it in the history but more often too.
Mat: Well Dan, let’s talk about your new book because a lot of these broad topics we’ve been touching on in the interview so far, are neatly encapsulated in your book. So the book is The End is Always Near. Why don’t you give us the quick summary of what it’s all about?
Dan: Well it actually started like one of those inkblot tests that a psychiatrist might give somebody in the old days, because my editors said to me surely you have a lot of things in the files. Go back and see if there’s any connecting threads to them. And it’s funny because when I do these podcasts, I do them individually. I don’t think about them as having any broadly connecting themes. So I was going through my old work going, Holy cow, I’m really interested in the end of civilization. I’m really interested in these recurring challenges that force human beings to adapt and respond. And so that’s kind of what the book is about. So it has a couple chapters that broadly… I would call them loosely connected vignettes by the way, rather than anything that makes a concise argument because I’m a podcaster who deals with questions, if that makes sense.
You’ve heard the show, I don’t give answers. I’m not qualified to give answers, but I deal with these questions that have always fascinated people. There’s some of the deep why are we here kind of historical questions, and in this book we try to look at circumstances where those questions have come into play, and then ask how we might respond if the same thing happened to us. And many of these same things that we deal with are recurring human challenges, and it’s almost weird that we haven’t had to deal with them in a while. So, for example, take disease or pandemics or black plagues or Justinian’s plagues or any of those things that throughout human history, as part of the human condition, what we really – with some notable exceptions – don’t deal with that anymore or haven’t dealt with them lately, or don’t deal with them in most of the world anymore.
So I love wondering about the question of recurrence. Is this a recurring human challenge that we have banished forever, because of modern medicine and all of the things you and I have been talking about? Or are we just in an intermediary period between terrible pandemics and are we going to see this again, and if we see it again, can we learn anything from other times when it’s been around? And so the book looks at those. So we have pandemics. We have systems collapse, like when the end of the Bronze Age happened and for no apparent reason that anyone can absolutely finger an entire system, an interconnected world went down. So we look at that and ask. Could that happen today? What would it be like if it did? And what might’ve done it? So the book is about recurring human challenges and our ability to adapt and evolve to deal with them.
Mat: What were the parts of the book, Dan that most spoke to you, that were the most stimulating to write? I won’t say favourites because that seems a bit banal, but what were the parts that you felt that you could get your teeth into the most?
Dan: Every chapter has something in it that has totally fascinated me. So there’s one that’s part of the human plasticity idea that has to do with toughness, and I’ve always been interested in this amorphous human question of toughness, because I think it’s something we can all recognize has some sort of value, but that we also recognized is culturally determined, impossible to measure or quantify. And so one chapter has that fascinating idea to me anyway in it. If you talk about getting your teeth into something, there’s a chapter in the book that leads up to the nuclear war chapter, and it’s a chapter that basically deals with how the heck do basically well-meaning human beings ever get to a point where it sounds like a good idea and accepted behavior to wipe out millions and millions and millions of fellow humans. And so that chapter has to do with the growth of what’s called strategic bombing, the bombing of cities in the two World Wars especially. And so that chapter speaks to me somehow because it kind of shows how human beings thinking that they are doing the best of things ends up creating a situation that today you can’t even get your mind around.
Mat: Dan, having explored all these chapters of history and obviously a lot of dark chapters of history, how does it make you feel about how we’re going as a species now? Are we doing well? We have this incredible arrogance that we’re the best humans have ever been, and as you say that nothing bad is ever going to happen again. We’ve banished disease and war and everything else. How do you feel after researching all this that we’re going as a species?
Dan: I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s part of what I’m sitting back, I think and observing these days. I keep trying to wonder whether, like I look at the complexity of society of modern society, and if you look at the pace of change and you look at how long your experience would have served you well a thousand years ago versus today when you won’t be able to use the new smart phones 15 years from now, you’ll have to have your kids show you. So I look at those kinds of questions and I try to figure out whether or not the complexity of modern society will at some point outstrip the average human’s ability to deal with it. So are we getting smarter as a species, or are people… IQ is a terrible way to measure human intelligence, but for the sake of our argument, let’s just use IQ.
If the IQ for the average human being has remained the same since caveman times and I don’t think it has, but let’s just imagine, does an increasingly complex society at some point outstrip you? And so for me, that’s what I look at. I think for most of human history, things have changed so slowly human beings have had plenty of time to adapt and now we’re under a level of pressure we’d never seen before. And so many of the questions you and I have just discussed today have been about whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing or whether it’s leading to a good or a bad future. And I don’t know, because I think a lot of it has to do with the chapters. The first two chapters of my book are about our ability to be plastic and adapt. And I’m not sure what being plastic and adapt to this world, which is, I tell my daughter is 10 or 12 years old, if we’re talking about the texting, cell phone, online at their fingertips world. I don’t have the answer to that question. I feel like we’re all sort of on the couch eating popcorn, watching a historical age unfold that they’re going to write about in the future.
Mat: Are you optimistic about that future?
Dan: I don’t know. Here’s the thing. Even when I’m optimistic, I do think that there are some cataclysmic changes in the future just as the imbalances that we talked about earlier. The imbalances between the level of individual communication, and the amplification of people’s opinions, and the ability of old governmental systems designed for previous eras to adapt to that. I think you see it in Iran. I think you see it in China. I think you see these places that are having a harder time, but I think that’s they’re ahead of the curve. I think the democratic, more open societies will see similar challenges a little farther down the line. And so I think that it’s going to force some adaptation, and the adaptation can be a peaceful evolution based on progress and updating and what not, or it can be something where you have to break a few eggs to make progress, or take a step back to take two steps forward, and I don’t think that’s very fun to live through sometimes. And so when you say are you optimistic or pessimistic? I think on the long term I’m optimistic. I’m not sure that we’re not living close to a time when a few eggs are going to be broken. So I suppose it depends on whether or not you’re there to cash in on the results, or whether or not you’re just the guy who has to pick up the check at the restaurant. We may be in a historical check paying here.
Mat: Well, I’m apprehensive and also looking forward to see how this unfolds. But I think your book is a fantastic resource for people to at least sit back and analyze what has come before. I don’t think we’re very good at that anymore. We’re not very good at sitting back and analyzing, and even pausing to think about what’s come before and so that’s why I think your book and examples like it are really important in this modern era.
Dan: I wish I had thought to bring that up because I do think that’s such an amazing point, which is the so-called five minute or five second attention span or whatever it is. Do we lose something not having people who have so little to do that they can simply sit and think for long? Are we doing this like intense concentration power or not? That’s a perfect example of the kind of questions that the book deals with. There is no right answer to that. You couldn’t really measure it or study it or prove it, yet it might be one of the more important questions for our future. So I find those things fascinating. I’m so glad you brought that up.
Mat: What about hard-core history? What are you working on the podcast at the moment?
Dan: Oh we are so close.
Mat: Because the podcast it’s really fascinating.
Dan: We’re so close Mat. It’s awful right now.
Mat: It’s really interesting. It’s not a formula for podcasts that anyone would say is a likely way for podcasts to work. Each episode is very, very long. They don’t come out particularly frequently, but they’re so immensely popular. So tell us a bit about the podcast and what you have got coming up.
Dan: This book slowed me down, needless to say. I thought I was going to be able to keep a bunch of plates spinning and Murphy’s Law intervenes and all the plates start wobbling at the same time. And so this is the latest show in terms of how long it’s been since the previous show we’ve ever done. So it’s driving me nuts and we’re so close. By the time this comes out, the show should have come out. So it’s a little like, we always say like college final exams around here, lots of pizza boxes, tons of caffeine, and it looks like a bomb went off in my studio. But we’re getting pretty close to instalment number three of the story of the Asia-Pacific theatre in the Second World War. And I’m a little distraught because it’s going to be another one of these many hours’ long shows and we don’t get that far in the story. So I’m just probably getting more long winded as I get older. But by the end of October we should have the next hard-core history out and hopefully it is never this long between shows again.
Mat: Well I think everything that you’re doing Dan, you just have a great ability to speak to people, and to make these complicated topics consumable for average people and understandable. So I think it’s really wonderful. What else have you got coming up? In the busy plate-spinning world with podcasts and books, what are we going to see next from Dan Carlin?
Dan: I have a… they call it an immersive experience. I think we would’ve called it virtual reality a few years ago. An immersive experience of a World War One experience that’s going on right now. Instead of a virtual reality experience at your home, it’s one where the entire environment can be controlled so you could control the haptic for example. I don’t know if I’ve explained it very well, but it’s essentially an experience. You go to someplace, you walk in, they put the gear on you and you start walking through a First World War trench and a First World War experience, and the trench is actually there. So if you reach out and touch it, you’ll feel the trench. You feel wind. You feel the sound of those shells hitting. There are big speakers underneath your feet.
So it’s this experience designed to really force you. We talked a second ago about the ability to concentrate or focus. Well if you’re at home and you’ve got the virtual reality headset on in your phone rings, maybe you stop or somebody walks in the room. So we wanted to be able to control your entire environment and not let you get away for 15 minutes or something. So we immerse you in this world where you can touch and feel everything. Everything looks like it’s real. The sound was done by Skywalker sound that did the Star Wars things. And that’s on tour right now. So that’s going on at the moment and people seem to like that and that took up a lot of time this year too. So hopefully it’s just podcasts for a while after this.
Mat: Well, Dan, it’s absolutely extraordinary the work you’re doing and I appreciate you taking time out of your very busy schedule to stop and talk to us. We’d love to get you back on the show again in the future and keep this wonderful discussion about history going, but just thank you so much for joining us on Living History.
Dan: Thank you for saying all of the nice things. My goodness. I appreciate it, and thank you so much for having me on the show.
CLICK HERE to view and buy Dan Carlin’s book The End is Always Near.