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The Democratization of History
Jamais Cascio, 8 Jul 05

underkingsx.jpgWhen Howard Zinn wrote A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present in 1980, the effect was electric. It was a history book that talked more about citizens than leaders, more about daily lives than state conflicts. While it wasn't the first time that scholars focused on something other than the official histories as told by the winners, it was nonetheless eye-opening for academics and students everywhere. It signaled the end for the "great man" theory of history.

But histories based on the words, records and thoughts of average citizens have faced a serious problem: a paucity of documentation. People tend not to think of their letters and notes as historical artifacts, and for decades, only professionals would carry cameras around with them in their daily lives. Even as historians came to recognize the value of the stories and reflections from every day citizens, the records of key events used by scholars were still largely taken from the reporters and officials charged with documenting and explaining the world.

This is no longer true.

Yesterday's bombings in London will undoubtedly have many repercussions in terms of politics, and economics, and war, but its greatest -- if most subtle -- effect may be the confirmation that we have entered an era where we are all historians.

From blog entries by people in the bombed trains, to cameraphone photos of the aftermath, to wikipedia accumulation of facts (and squashing of rumors), the globally collaborative, connected and (most of all) personal nature of the modern Internet gives us remarkably abundant documentation of how everyday individuals responded to history-making events. Millions of us have online journals -- or, at minimum, send email -- where we can take notes about what we've experienced, visible to anyone who is interested. Millions of us carry cameras with us wherever we go, allowing us to record events as they happen. Millions of us are now historians.

It's hard to overestimate how revolutionary this is. Scholars who look back on events of the early 21st century will not have to rely solely (or at all) on the stories told by officials, or the images deemed sufficiently interesting by newspaper editors. There are almost always more citizen witnesses to events than reporters or political spokespeople; for what may be the first time, those citizen witnesses can have a louder voice than the official records. History can now be written by those who experience it, rather than just by those who believe they control it.

This does not necessarily mean that records of these events will be more "accurate." Like Rashomon, the stories each witness tells will vary, sometimes dramatically. Memories are imperfect, and we all interpret what we see through our own filters of experience and belief. But even if each individual story is a subjective impression, the accumulation of recordings and documents can form in total a far more complete version of a moment in history than one could get from the sanitized revelations from governments and sensationalized accounts from journalists. These personal impressions, in turn, shape the choices made by the citizens in policy, in elections, even in culture and media. Future historians will have a far greater understanding of the events of today than we could hope to have of our own past.

But even if weblogs and Flickr image sets offer greater visibility than handwritten journals and shoeboxes of pictures, they may be no more permanent. Eventually websites will disappear, backup files will become corrupt, and file formats will change. The Internet Archive is a good start at keeping track of what has been on the web, but it has its limits. If we don't think about how to retain our digital records, the most complete historical documentation ever could also be the most ephemeral.

Perhaps this should be Google's next project: Google History, regular snapshots of the Internet, held in multiple archives in multiple locations. They could remain accessible, like the Internet Archives, or could be "locked away" for a set number of years, only making them available to historians after the content's commercial value (or embarrassment potential) has long faded.

If those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, we have in our hands -- and in our computers, and networks, and phones -- a priceless treasure: the opportunity to remember our history in far greater detail than ever before. And it will truly be our history -- the words, images and thoughts of millions of us, documented and retained to help inform the future.

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Comments

Maybe this is a semantic quibble, but is it the democratization of history itself, or that so many of us are now capable of being reporters, or recorders, of what's happening from our individual points of view, and contributing to a more openly distributed first draft of history?


Posted by: Emily on 8 Jul 05

Well the fact that we can all publish and contest rumour and fact means that the 'History of the Victors' may be a thing of the past. And that IS revolutionary in itself.


Posted by: eam on 8 Jul 05

Obviously it's the latter, too, but I don't simply mean that bloggers and camphone photographers are shoulder-to-shoulder with reporters in the "first draft of history" game. To the extent that they're focusing upon an interpretation of the events, they are -- but what's important (to me) is the accumulation of a far broader package of experiences and impressions of the world than ever before.

Think about, for example, the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. The letter-writers from the front lines give us a perspective on the course of the conflict that simply would not be possible by poring over the newspaper accounts of battles and archives of Lincoln's and Davis' musings. The eyewitnesses to yesterday's bombing who recorded their experiences via camphone or blog or email are the functional equivalent of those Civil War letter-writers. The difference is that the digital age makes it simpler for people both to assemble those recordings and for others to know about them.

So when I say democratization of history, I don't just mean the reportage -- I mean the documentation that historians use to understand the world of the past.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Jul 05

Jamais, it seems that you're saying that we're increasing the ability of "ordinary" people to be an historian's SOURCE. But often, research isn't helped by increasing the mass of raw data. There's something at work leading an historian to choose what, among the mass of data, is the narrative. Historians are filters. Howard Zinn's book was refreshing because he decided to look at the available data with a different filter. By doing so, he created an new narrative. What is it about a "Participatory Panopticon" that will change the filters? You've thought a lot about this, so I'd value your opinion.


Posted by: David Foley on 8 Jul 05

David, you're right when you say that historians filter the data to develop a narrative. But both parts are important -- the filter can only act on the available data. What I find important in this, then, is that there will be an increasingly wide and diverse set of stories to examine, allowing for a more complete telling of history. There will be a greater opportunity to construct an image of what life was like in 2005 (e.g.) vs. 1985 (e.g.), because of the greater individual sources of perspective and information.

Thanks for raising the Participatory Panopticon aspect, too. While after-the-fact journal entries and occasional camphone snaps aren't quite the same as 24/7 lifelogging, they can serve a similar function: allowing for the re-examination of seemingly innocuous or inconsequential events prior to the better-known "historical" events. We may find, for example, that someone who had ridden a bombed train at the time the bomber left the explosive had snapped a picture of a friend, with the bomber unknowingly in the background.

The value of these records for the retelling of history, then, is not simply in the multiple perspectives of big events (although they are useful), but also in the greater detail of life before and after.

Moreover, as long as these blogs and messages and photos are archived online, they will be accessible to future analytic methods. Image and text analysis software is improving; at some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be useful to have analytic software re-examine old images and journal entries, looking for previously hidden or subtle patterns.

In short, as the filters become more nuanced, it's helpful to have a deep resource of data.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Jul 05

Yes, this is an important conversation. Let's remember McLuhan's prophesy of "information as garbage". More people are able to make public / input information onto the internet etc, but how do we find the information we need? Who is in control of the search engine? Nuanced filters need to be coupled with reliable, non-biased search engines. Cut out google as the middle-man, then the revolution begins. Any suggestions?


Posted by: David Szlasa on 8 Jul 05

Try using Technorati instead:
www.technorati.com


Posted by: beev on 8 Jul 05

While the above entry notes some important trends, the following does have more than a touch of truth:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/07/08/blog_ambulance_chasers/


Posted by: steve on 9 Jul 05



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