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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.