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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Digital Historiography: Part 2

I left off in my last note with a question. What do you see or what do you think about the way we interact with each other online? Here are my thoughts on the subject.


Clive Thompson "Smarter Than You Think":
Socrates might be pleased. Back when he was alive, twenty-five hundred years ago, society had begun shifting gradually from an oral mode to a written one. For Socrates, the advent of writing was dangerous. He worried that text was too inert: once you wrote something down, that text couldn’t adapt to its audience. People would read your book and think of a problem in your argument or want clarifications of your points, but they’d be out of luck. For Socrates, this was deadly to the quality of thought, because in the Greek intellectual tradition, knowledge was formed in the cut and thrust of debate.
I work in print journalism, and now in print books, because the “typographical fixity” of paper—to use Elizabeth Eisenstein’s lovely phrase—is a superb tool for focusing the mind. Constraints can impose creativity and rigor. When I have only six hundred words in a magazine column to make my point, I’m forced to make decisions about what I’m willing to commit to print.

Why write this in a blog then? Wouldn't I write more prolific, poetic, grammatically sound prose if printed in physical media? Maybe, but no one would read it and I would not journal my thoughts as regularly, not to mention the massive amount of trouble required to publish. I like the idea of regular people sharing their hopes and fears. Our perspectives are all so different and enlightening. I am in no way comparing myself when I say this, but I wonder what could have been shared if the great minds of Humanity had shared via social media... silly, right? 

Is it that silly to contemplate what Martin Luther might have blogged about or Martin Luther King's potential photos on Instagram look like? I encourage students of all ages to share their voices positively and respectfully online. The next Socrates may be poised to "cut and thrust" in the digital world, but fear of audience or longevity of text online may hinder them. I think it better to share, change, revise, and reflect on the past rather than bottle our thoughts. Don't fear permanence, embrace it. Your story can only be told by you.

"If a story is in you, it has got to come out." (Faulkner)

Social Physics

Alex Pentland “Social Physics”:

Idea flow is the spreading of ideas, whether by example or story, through a social network—be it a company, a family, or a city. This flow of ideas is key to the development of traditions, and ultimately of culture. It facilitates the transfer of habits and customs from person to person and from generation to generation. Further, being part of this flow of ideas allows people to learn new behaviors, without the dangers or risks of individual experimentation, and to acquire large integrated patterns of behavior, without having to form them gradually by laborious experimentation.

Telling your story is incredibly entertaining once you really get into it. Think about backyard BBQs with a few cold beverages and close friends. Can you imagine all the wonderful stories and ideas shared there simply disappearing forever? To me it's more than entertainment, though. Perhaps there is a way to learn hiding in wait or an opportunity to expand our understanding by sharing and consuming information alike. I love to bounce ideas off of my family and friends, organize a defense of my position, and be challenged as a group on a particular topic. By sharing on the web, though, we can escape the echo chamber of our immediate social groups. We tend to surround ourselves with similarly minded individuals who often reflect own values. These echoes around us refine our opinions, narrowing our focus. Studies show that passive exposure, perhaps to blogging, tweets, or posts, can effect our habits more than direct interactions with others. We become less tolerant and less empathetic to others without the give and take of broader discourse.

History is Made of Stories

How does this all tie together: cyberspace, cloud storage, social media, and history? It's not a question we can answer now, of course, but one we can and should speculate on. Today's textbooks are based on commonly agreed upon historical events, though you would likely be surprised at the inaccuracies therein. James Loewan's Lies My Teacher Told Me will both shock you and disgust you, I highly recommend the read... The point is not the weakness of text, but the weakness of humanity in not providing more input. If the victor of every battle is allowed to rewrite history then we portray atrocities such as Manifest Destiny, the Aleut Evacuation, or the Inquisition in a less than negative light. The stories of Malala Yousafzai, the civil war bloggers in Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali, and ISIS commentators in the Middle East will be cited in the history of the next decade. The writers of these blogs will become Nobel Laureates, government officials, and perhaps world leaders! My local paper doesn't even publish stories in my favorite section of the website, just a blog from freelance writers. My, how the world of journalism has changed... and I love it. More than 20% of Americans get their news online, like political blogs, not TV. Even when I do watch TV, I prefer Jon Stewart to CNN...


ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek historiographia, from historia ‘narrative, history’ + graphia ‘writing.’

The more we write, the more sources. The more sources, the more accurate the next generation's opinions and perspectives can become. This balance cannot be achieved without the input of all factions in a debate or conflict, however. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed depends on the availability of knowledge, access to outlets such as the media (or social media) and the internet. Only through literacy and connections to the the greater collective we can engage and empower the less fortunate. 

Write, journal, share... I'll read it, "like" it, "pin it," "plus one" it, or whatever else you prefer... After your post, I encourage you to read another. Who knows maybe we'll both learn something. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Digital Historiography: Part 1

Throughout humanity our species has adapted to its environment and attempted to better our interactions with it. We increase productivity, decrease labor requirements, and capitalize on the efficiencies of consumption. The yin and yang of our modern existence is held in balance by our self-reflection and philosophical dogmas regarding our role in the universe. The collective of humanity will grow and change, that is certain, but are we bound as individuals to follow? I say no. No, I do not want to depend on the internet. I refuse to teach my children to use calculators instead of mathematics. My computer will always be a place for storage and meant to increase my productivity, not a place to live vicariously in a virtual world devoid of morality functioning on alternate social rules and lacking humanity. 

Digitizing Our Collective Histories

It's not just the virtual existence that I fear, but it's effects on the real world as well. My memory is terrible. I try to train my mind as I train my body: rigorous exercise and avoidance of lethargy. Instead of mindless television I read, and when I want to game, I often play Lumosity or Nat Geo games. My forgetfulness is not unique, though. I see it in my generation and I see it in children. We cannot remember phone numbers (I have certainly shed a tear or two over a lost phone's contacts), keep up with schedule without numerous reminder apps and calendars, or birthdays without Facebook... Your memory isn't on trial here, though. After all with free online storage, cloud contacts, web calendaring, and thousands of other web-based utilities you don't need to... right? The information out there is out there permanently, though, and potentially shared with any/everyone. You can never get it back. As I tell students, never share anything you wouldn't want your mother to see (good Lord, would that shut down Snapchat in a heartbeat). I know calendar events aren't so important, but emails certainly are. I read every email 2-3 times and often have a colleague read the important ones prior to hitting send. I double check every Facebook photo's permissions after posting and carefully manage visibility and groups, but does this really matter? I think not. Think about the security breaches we hear about far too often on the nightly news. We put our faith in the IT good guys and pray they know more than the bad guys and that they will protect our social security numbers at risk on dozens of databases worldwide. I am not afraid though, it is the price we pay for being a part of it all; a part of the collective. There are benefits to the model after all. For example: I don't often delete email. This gives me the ability to search my sent and received folders in gmail for names, numbers, important messages, etc. Why not turn your inbox into a repository of searchable fields; Google does it. Google actually encourages it! If you don't believe me just take a peek at the banner adds on your inbox. Where else would they get that suggestion for a hotel in Cozumel... certainly not from reading your email to a friend about considering a trip to Mexico this spring... Don't sweat it, there's nothing you can do to stop it. Instead, shift your mindset to focus on the positives that come with the system.

More than databases and email, we insist on overloading every microchip in every device and perpetuating the backups of every minutia of detail for fear of... of... what? Think of the device you are reading this on right now. What is the oldest file you have? I have all of my assignments from undergrad classes back to 2001! "Why," my wife always asks, "would you ever want all that junk?" Believe it or not, I enjoy reading writing samples from my 2001 self. I see nuances of change in writing style and political opinions. I have come a long way and seen much more of the world I could ever have imagined in that small Louisiana town before 9/11, before Alaska, before life... The key is how I use the information. I reteach myself things I forgot about education, history, and sociology from those old essays. I refine my ethics and values through reflection on changes I make, updating them over the years. Every computer I have ever owned for work and pleasure is living on the solid state drive above which my fingers tap. This is an interesting observation and one the ancients would have considered Earth-shattering. I can cross-reference, search, and aggregate my entire adult life with a few simple clicks! This power is at my fingertips every second of the day... and it pails in comparison to the information on the internet. I feel smarter already.

historiography |hiˌstôrēˈägrəfē, -ˌstär-|
the study of historical writing.
• the writing of history.

So what we write, then, becomes part of our collective history. The process of filling up our Dropboxes, Drives, email inboxes, and iClouds is our input to the collective library of human ingenuity. Assuming someone could filter out all the garbage, we'd have a pretty interesting database to sift through. Some express a danger in the amount of information essentially making the use of the internet impossible. I don't buy it. I see a challenge while Google sees a profit. Governments see data and hackers drool at the possibilities (I think I'm more afraid of the former). What do you see?