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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sitting on my fence post, chewing my bubblegum..

In Grade 12 I was asked to write a paper for my Early Modern History Class. The topic was the French Revolution, and you could choose to write either on how ideology was the cause of the French Revolution, or how the conditions in which the working class/rural peasantry lived caused it. I passed in a paper that said that the two were both equally necessary, and equally dependent on each other as causes of the French Revolution. My teacher wrote on it 'I guess that is an opinion, but it's not really what I asked.'

I am a notorious fence sitter. Turns out a program in public history is just what I needed. Everywhere we turn we are surrounded by equally true, yet usually mutually exclusive truths. That has been my experience during my first foray into Digital History, and my experience throughout the Public History program.

One of the fundamental contradictory truths we must deal with are the two ways of knowing that we must now contend with. The internet has not only revolutionized the way that we are given information, but it has also changed the way that we receive information. How then do we join the tradition of historical interpretation up to this point. We now train ourselves in the traditional ... tradition of history, so that we can be well-versed in the historiography that has come before. But we must also train ourselves in this new way of presenting information, otherwise we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to future generations. We agree that the book is not going anywhere, but we are also convinced that the internet is here to stay. Therefore we must now walk the line between the two, and to be good in both kinds of epistemology we not only have to be versed in both, but the nature of academia and historical scholarship will have to change.

Going back to an earlier blog, the theme of both scarcity and abundance have come up time and time again. It is true that the majority of the things on the internet are ephemeral and transitional in some way; they can be added to all the time, or changed, like on Wikipedia. It is easily changed and it is also easily erased. People still recommend that you should print out something that is important to you, because you could lose it. This is all true, but it is also true that if there is something that you would actually like to erase it is very difficult to eradicate all traces of it. Just take the personal information that was gathered and posted by AOL; though it was eventually taken down it is almost impossible to get rid of. Even now there are still mirror sites linking you to the information. And many things have been saved to the Internet Archive. Not only that, since now everything can be posted to the internet, even if some of the individual things are transitional or temporary, the information that is conveyed by those documents persists and there is now so much good information on so may subject that now historians will have to be extremely specialized, or very broad to do justice to their sources, which was not the case before. That is another interesting case of two equally true yet mutually exclusive truths.

A case of two competing ideologies, both with some validity, is seen in the debate between open source and closed source theories behind the web. For us as modern historians we must both operate in the closed source environment which has already been established, and it is through those already established channels we have to operate to be taken seriously. Yet, we must also be on the forefront of the open source movement, again so that we can be most relevant to the public (possibly more of a concern to public historians than to academic historians) and so that in the future the powers that be will be more motivated to choose open source over closed source options. (Yes I have a bias, and yes it may be a direct result of my digital history class).

Another case of two equally true yet mutually exclusive truths is that collective intelligence is both smarter and more stupid than the individuals who make up that collective. When you make things not only open source, but interactive, like wikipedia, you run into the problem that anyone can contribute to it. But of course, by the same token, anyone can contribute to it, making it so that people can build upon the foundations of everyone else's thought. A lot of interesting work, like with the I Like Bees experiment, has been done on getting the collective intelligence to work. They prove that a lot can be accomplished, but they also seem to involve heavy guidance by a few key intelligent individuals/architects. Therefore both that the collective is smarter and that it is more stupid than the individual is true, but there is no solution to that dichotomy.

It is not just digital history, as I say I come across this as well in my other Public history classes. When the historians dictate to the public which history they should be interested, and how inclusive it should be, and what high brow culture is, this is very clearly elitist. However, to do the 'old, dead, white man's history' is also a problem, though it may be what people are interested in, and can also be considered to be 'elitist.'

Museums are considered to be shying away from their mandate if they spend a lot of money to put on high profile shows, especially ones that are corporate sponsors. Some have even questioned whether or not a corporate museum should be counted as a 'museum,' but museums too must deal with the question of relevance, and by putting on high profile shows and accepting corporate sponsorship they are often better able to serve the audience that they are aiming at, the 'masses' (which is a loaded word in itself) and all aspects of the community. If it appeals to only other historians than it is not that useful. Therefore it is true that museums should stick to their mandate, but it is also true that their mandate is also to serve their community (and their community often wants contradictory things).

For those of you who were not familiar with it (I don't know, maybe it is a song only sung by people in Southern Ontario, and only when they are part of Girl Guides; a part of my history, but anyway) the reference in the title is to a song called Herman the Worm. The premise of the song is that you spend your time sitting pleasantly on your fence post, and wait for your friend Herman the Worm to come and tell you that the reason he is so much larger than the last time you saw him is because he has yet again eaten another member of his family. This continues until finally he comes to you as a very skinny worm. Turns out he exploded. And if you were wondering I write differently in my blog than I would for any other audiences, yes I do. When reflecting on this year so far, I couldn't help but think of fence-sitting, and when I think of fence sitting I always associate it with this song. If Herman were in fact history, which continues to encompass related disciplines and expand the tools that we use as historians, we will have to take an active role in making sure it doesn't blow up on us. And on that very strained metaphor,

Have a Merry Christmas Everyone.

(Some of the links are to particular sites or articles, but most are to the relevant week/readings that caused the discussion that caused me to come to the conclusions I come to)

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