2086: History Department

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 00:01, 27 August 2022 by (talk)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
History Department
When we take into account the recent discovery of previously-unstudied history in the 1750s, this year may have been an outright loss.
Title text: When we take into account the recent discovery of previously-unstudied history in the 1750s, this year may have been an outright loss.


In this comic Ponytail is a representative of the history department, which might be a department of a university or other organisation. She presents the year report of 2018. In this, she explains, the department has fully analyzed over four months of history. In the meantime, due to the passage of time, another year of history has been added to their workload (implied to be the year spanning between the current meeting and the previous one). This presents a cycle in which the department would only be able to keep up if they could analyze, within a one year period, more than or exactly one year of history.

A department in a business, such as the finance department, is typically required to keep up with their own workload and complete an entire year's worth of workload every year. A business that fails to manage this minimum would almost certainly fail: bills would not get collected, invoices would not get paid, employees would not get paid, etc. A history department fails to follow this model in two very important ways. First, the subject of history cannot be fully processed. New discoveries change what we know about certain time periods. Even current events cannot be fully processed, as future events will cause historians to see connections in things not previously thought to be connected. Second, the standard model for history departments focuses on specific eras or specific subjects for the purpose of explaining the events to students. History departments do not process years, but instead process the subject so that it stays relevant to the understanding of the current student body.

There are, however, long running historical projects that have suffered this very problem. An example is the Histoire littéraire de la France which began publication in 1733 with a volume covering up to the year 300. By 1995 over 40 volumes had been published, but the historical account had only reached the 14th century. The volumes for the 14th century had taken 130 years to produce. Although over the 250 years of the project publication had been proceeding faster than time elapsed, the proliferation of literary content following the dawn of printing in the 15th century is likely to cause the project to slip further into reverse.

The title text further expands this problem by indicating the discovery of a new era of history that had previously gone un-analyzed, which would have added more undiscovered history than it removed. The 1750s decade is possibly a reference to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar by the British Empire.

Randall previously mentioned that history is huge in 1979: History.

Events in the dates listed:

  • May 21-25, 585 BCE: Possibly a reference to the solar eclipse that actually happened May 28, 585 BCE, or to the war between King Alyattes of Lydia and King Cyaxares of Media that ended after said solar eclipse.
  • June-August 1848:


[Ponytail is standing behind a lectern holding a hand up indicating the presentation screen next to her with a list of time periods. The screen has a string ending in ring, attached to it, to pull it down.]
Ponytail: 2018 was a productive year for the history department - we were able to fully analyze over four months of history.
Ponytail: Unfortunately, over that same period, an entire year of new history was produced.
Ponytail: I'm afraid we're falling behind.
November 1833
April 19-22, 1979
May 21-25, 585 BCE
June-August 1848
May 16, 2001

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


The business about the 1750s probably has something to do with the British doing their changeover from Julian to Gregorian calendars then, but you can't look too carefully at the details. 18:51, 17 December 2018 (UTC)

Perhaps the "previously-unstudied history in the 1750s" refers to the eleven days that were simply removed when the Calendar Act 1750 went into effect? Mr. I (talk) 00:23, 19 December 2018 (UTC)
This may even refer to the Phantom Time Hypothesis, a historical conspiracy theory proposed by German journalist H. Illig. That theory basically proposes that the 297 years between September 614 and August 911 were simply invented later. Maybe the History Department just recently discovered that the Phantom Time Hypothesis was indeed a conspiracy? That would amount to falling almost 300 years behind schedule.-- 10:07, 19 December 2018 (UTC)

I'm confused. Is there any joke apart from the obvious "haha, studying history by fully covering time slices instead of topics"? Fabian42 (talk) 19:05, 17 December 2018 (UTC)

There's also the joke about taking longer to study a period of time than that time took to pass. 19:31, 17 December 2018 (UTC)
I think it's also a reference to the fact that we are creating more and more data in the digital age, leading to the problem of there being too much data to keep up with. 01:13, 18 December 2018 (UTC)
Anything created will became part of history almost immediately. Taken literally, study of history means to study EVERYTHING, and it's obviously impossible to be done due to self-reference. Digital data are just subset of it. In reality, historians try to focus just on important things and hope they don't miss anything ; for digital data, it often involves algorithms automatically analyzing data and finding "interesting" ones.
In not-so-distant future, archaeologists won't be digging in mud to find physical artefacts from past periods (any mud would be already covered by buildings or roads anyway). They would be digging in digital archives and searching for stuff which didn't seemed important when fresh, but in hindsight turned out to be more important and require to be better indexed or correlated with other data. Sometimes, they would be able to find newsworthy discoveries without ever setting foot from their home.

Or, well, sometimes they will find a piece of entertainment, say, a webcomics, which they realize can easily be turned out to blockbuster ; I mean, seriously, major movie studios could already learn from webcomics ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 06:20, 18 December 2018 (UTC)

Are you hinting at an xkcd movie? Perhaps Black Hat trying to destroy the world classhole-ily?Linker (talk) 12:59, 18 December 2018 (UTC)
An xkcd movie would be... entertaining... I would watch it! (I assume most people on this wiki would, too, there IS a reason we are here, after all...) Nyx goddess (talk) 22:08, 18 December 2018 (UTC)
I think if there would be an XKCD movie, either it would be a collection of short films or Time. Either way, someone please make this.Netherin5 (talk) 14:57, 19 December 2018 (UTC)

Two sides to the same coin? We normally think about historians studying time periods on the order of years, decades, or even longer periods (e.g. the Dark Ages), which naturally takes less time than the original era. Another joke is the idea that an entire department is devoted to such narrow periods, but maybe it's a really small college. Barmar (talk) 20:04, 17 December 2018 (UTC)

It seems to me that the humor is based on the incongruity of thinking in business-like terms of productivity and gains and losses in a history department.

I think the 1750s reference is to Tristram Shandy.

The last Animorphs novel was published in May 2001. Given the number of times Randall's brought up Animorphs in comics, is it possible that May 16, 2001 refers to that? I think it would be very much in line with comic 1380 for him to strangely emphasize an Animorphs-related date. Gman314 (talk) 02:36, 18 December 2018 (UTC)

I'm sure he meant this as a joke, But there's a real phenomena when covering ongoing wars where day-by-day front line maps like this one have to be produced faster than the war actually happened, in order for them to be released while the war is still relevant. 10:06, 18 December 2018 (UTC)

The answer is clear: The History Department needs more funding. ;S ProphetZarquon (talk) 17:05, 18 December 2018 (UTC)

Randall touched on this problem with history in Comic #1979, where he said history was so huge! Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 03:58, 19 December 2018 (UTC)

I think the date May 16, 2001 probably refers to the originally scheduled date of the Timothy McVeigh execution. 19:05, 19 December 2018 (UTC)

There is a right square bracket under the comments on this page. I can't locate it either in the page wikisource or the comments wikisource. Nitpicking (talk) 21:44, 26 August 2022 (UTC)

Hidden in plain(ish!) sight... [[Category:Comics featuring Ponytail]]] ...or at least it was, until just now. ;) 00:04, 27 August 2022 (UTC)
Thanks. Nitpicking (talk) 00:54, 27 August 2022 (UTC)