Monday, December 16, 2013

A Message to Future Historians

One thing that makes it fun to be a historian or an archaeologist is the lack of information left behind from past generations. Right? It's the searching that is the fun part; the following of trails of clues...

An archaeologist uncovers an object with a pointy end and another end that appears to have been wrapped in long-decayed-away leather, apparently for grip comfort, and he concludes: "Ah! A Weapon. A jabbing weapon, too..."

A historian finds some pictures from the dawn of photography, all taken in New York City, and he draws conclusions about the manners of the day: men tended to walk on one particular side of the street; women held their parasols in the left hand; hansom cab drivers didn't just touch their hat brims, they lifted their bowlers completely off of their heads when greeting a lady... Or, he reads newspaper articles from the highly opinionated writers of the late nineteenth century about, say, the World's Fair in Chicago and compares the author's opinions to the letters of the fair's primary organizer, Burnham, in order to get closer to the truth...

I wonder how much fun it will be to be an archaeologist or a historian in a hundred years from now. These scholars will be faced with an incredible amount of documentation, especially in pictures and video. We have become a society that keeps records obsessively. We no longer watch concerts through our own eyes; we do it through a camera lens. We no longer watch our kids open presents; we fiddle with the video camera, trying to "capture the moment," futile though the attempt might be. (In the process, of course, we completely lose the moment.)

Every political speech is recorded. Every newspaper is widely available online and will continue to be, forever, as long as the digital framework remains intact -- which could be forever, if the cyber-stewards do their work. (Paper decays; code can last forever...)

Will it be any fun to study us, a few centuries from now?

Well, if historians are out to figure out "what happened" I don't think it will be. But, if they still want to figure out what we were all about, they will still have some digging to do. There is an abundance of information, for sure, but the majority of it is superficial.

Can you imagine a historian trying to glean social convention from photos of a thousand pairs of teenaged girls, all standing with that one-leg-in-front, shoulders-back, lips-pursed pose? He might try to figure out social values from that, but all he will really have is the result of copies copying copies of copiers.

We share so much but we share so little. Human reunions are dimmed in intensity by constant digital contact: "Hey, I haven't seen you in years, but it feels like I just talked to you because of Facebook..."

I suppose the study of history in the future will be more of a sifting through the (mostly) useless abundance we leave behind. I know historians are sometimes faced with this now -- piles of documents related to a court case; sifting through old registers to find the names of a renegade... As the norm, though, historians will have to get a lot better at figuring out what mountains of information are unimportant or un-revealing, otherwise the historical texts of the future are likely to amount to so many tweets.

It would be interesting to look over the shoulders of the future scholars to see what they make of all this informational vomitting we are doing. Maybe one of them will read this and get my message:
The loudest is not the truest; we were not all on the treadmill on convention; some of us listened and watched while others were "capturing;" and, for heaven's sake, remember: there were people behind the instant celebrity facades of their social media personae. You won't know us from Facebook. Look for handwritten journals. Look for us. Look for us harder. We're there. It's not all right on the table. If you draw conclusions from the surfaces, you are a bad historian and I don't want you to tell my story.

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