18 December 2006

Agre-avating Ecology

I took an immediately dislike to the first reading for the week of 10 October for my course in digital history. It is a chapter written by Philip E. Agre entitled, Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political Contexts.

The first aspect of the article that irked me was, I must admit, that Agre proposed a vision of the future that was in stark contrast – in fact almost the exact opposite – to what I envision. In class that week, I put forth the argument that by using technology and representations of things real, as often occurs on museum websites, we are, in essence, eliminating the physical world, putting in its place a world made up of images with less depth than the objects they replace. I didn’t exactly say all of that, but I sure was thinking it.

The second aspect of Agre’s chapter that bothered me was his use of the word “ecology” to describe the environment in which he feels people will find themselves in the future. Specifically, Agre writes: “Everybody's daily life will include a whole ecology of media.”

I investigated the etymology of the word “ecology,” using two online sources, wikipedia and dictionary.com (Before continuing, I should state, for Agre’s benefit, that wikipedia was not even an idea when Agre wrote his piece in 1995, and dictionary.com had only just launched in May of that same year).

Wikipedia’s entry defines ecology as “the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of living organisms and how the distribution and abundance are affected by interactions between the organisms and their environment.”

Dictionary.com brought up nine different entries for “ecology.” Seven of those entries are relevant, and each of those seven had at least two definitions for the term.

Summarily, the first relates to the branch of biology within which ecology generally falls. The second term, I believe, is that which more easily applies to Agre’s use of the term, yet is still somewhat troublesome (The point of this exercise will eventually become clear, I promise). The second (or third, as it applies) definition provided in most of the dictionary.com results presents “ecology” as a branch of, or relating to sociology; that is, how humans interact with their physical and social environments. Some of the results also label this definition “human ecology.”

Now, some may argue that I am merely squibbling over details, but my distaste for Agre’s argument lies in how he applied the term ecology to mean the interaction and relationship between technologies, not organisms.

The wikipedia entry and all the dictionary.com results specify that “ecology” is an organic term. An “ecology of media” is, therefore, impossible. Unless Agre meant to infer upon these particular media an organic nature they, thus far, do not possess. Perhaps Agre, at the time of writing, felt that these media would have sufficient levels of artificial intelligence to be able to label them organic.

Granted, Agre wrote this chapter over ten years ago, and I am sure that if written today, much of his argument would change given the reality he would see around him. Nevertheless, it was a reading assigned in my class in the year 2006, and therefore must have some resonance in the digital community.

And that was just the first paragraph.

Digital Books

In his paper, “The Bookless Future: What the Internet is Doing to Scholarship,” David Bell paints a scary picture of the future when he predicts that books will soon follow in the footsteps of their now nearly-deceased relative, the card catalogue.

Digitization and online access, he tells us, is already underway for

“every issue ever printed of the New York Times; tens of thousands of classic and not-so-classic works of literature; a large majority of the books published in English before 1800; a million pages' worth of French Revolutionary pamphlets and newspapers; every issue of virtually every major American newspaper and magazine going back a decade or more; every page of most major American academic journals going back half a century; most major encyclopedias and dictionaries; all the major works of Western painters and sculptors. And much more is coming.” DAB

He also points out the bookless society’s strongest asset:

“Making vast libraries of learning available at no cost to anyone with an Internet connection is surely more important than preserving the rarefied pleasures of physical research libraries for those lucky or privileged enough to have easy access to them.” DAB

Before reading Bell’s paper, I would certainly have counted myself amongst those who, like “Writers such as Nicholson Baker… are likely to greet this much larger change with despairing howls of anger.” DAB.

While not quite fully reformed, I am more convinced of the value of e-books. I will not go out and by an e-book reader any time soon, but neither will I turn my nose up at the efforts of those who seek to enable more people more access to more books. Perhaps instead of trying to gentrify myself, I will instead applaud – and thank – those who are helping me reach new intellectual heights.

Photography, Shmotography (Part Three)

In two (count ‘em: one, two) previous posts, I wrote about the decline of the story through our society’s increasing reliance on images.

In my work on the public history class’ Museum London exhibit (plug-plug, wink-wink, Jeremy), questions like “did people want to document their lives for the same reasons that we do today?,” or “has the desire to record events changed over time?” popped into my head frequently. As I always try to do with my students, this thinking led me to the present day. This thinking prompted me to question why it is that we, today, want to document our lives so heavily. As I wrote in my museum text, cameras are everywhere. Everywhere!

I hesitate to think that the ubiquity of the camera is because we are a completely narcissistic society, but sometimes I have to wonder. I am not harping on the fact that we document everything (not yet, anyway), just wondering from where it stems.

I concur that photography, in the words of Nancy Martha West, “functions as its own language, with its own codes, rhetoric, agency, and reading practices separate from those of written language.” [1]

I also concur with West when she states that in spite of the language of photography that has evolved over the years, photography cannot adequately document our lives enough to supplant our memories. West posits that Kodak advertising in the early decades of the twentieth century planted the idea in the minds of the public that their memories were in danger of escaping them, and that Kodak was there to save the day. Thus, people began to rely on photographs and photography as a means of documenting the past. This practice, argues West, is partially to blame for the resultant erosion of the practice of telling stories through words.

While photography rose in prominence after the advent of the camera, writing, speaking, and telling stories as means of communicating our stories did not all of a sudden disappear from the landscape. After all, I am writing this blog. My point is that the ability to tell stories, and the skills involved in telling those stories has, in many cases, been largely superceded by the preference to tell stories through pictures. And I am just as guilty of this as the next person.

When I used to visit my grandmother before she passed away, I always made her pull out her family photo album. Whenever I return from a trip somewhere, or if visiting with people I have not seen in some time, I refer to pictures. I even have a flickr account (don’t judge me!), where people can go to see what pictures I think are interesting or worthy of publishing. When my fiancée and I were first getting together, one way we tried to tell each other our life stories was by flipping through our photo albums and picture boxes, a practice that many people, I am sure, also do.

The thing is, when I interact with people and show them my pictures, or ask them to show me theirs, I always make sure to try to tell or get the story behind each picture. Every time I was at my grandmother’s house, I made sure to get at least one story out of her that I had not ever heard before. Sometimes I got the same story, but with a new twist, which was okay. It’s not that she was without her wits, but that talking about a particular person or event, in different ways and at different times, aroused different thoughts for her, as it does for me, and I suppose for you, too, dear reader. That just demonstrates the flexibility of memory.

But you cannot get that from pictures; you can only get the same picture, time and again. It is the people telling the story behind the picture that bring the picture to life. Now, if I ever get a chance to see my grandmother’s photo album again, I will be able relate some of her stories to the people around me who care to listen.

Which is why I have a problem with things like flickr. The only story you get is that told by the picture. People like Bill Turkel will tell you that now, with the wonders of the internet and Web 2.0, there is all sorts of metadata than can be embedded in the pictures that can tell you quite a lot more about the photo. And who knows, perhaps some day we will be able to attach a digital file to the photograph that will tell the viewer the story behind it, via the microchip implanted in that viewer’s brain.

And therein, once again, lies the problem. For me. In this semi-science fiction scenario I just made up, the human interaction is non-existent. It is just computer to brain.

I suppose the overarching gist of this three-part post, then, is not so much about photography, but how we communicate with one another. I know that I should not be too critical about photography, as it allows us a bit of a glimpse into the past. Albeit a brief, passing moment that we try to freeze into perpetuity.

Plus, I have some very close friends and family members who are extremely passionate about photography, and if I ever expect to get some nice prints from them, I had best stop bad-mouthing their passion.

I will conclude this by requesting that all those out there trying to enlighten us as to how to read photographs keep working at it; you have a lot of work ahead of you. Because for every thousand words a picture tells, there are another billion waiting to be told and heard.


[1] Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 166.

My Anti-Technology Stance

I think it is time I did a little house cleaning.

I won’t lie: artificial intelligence scares the pants off me. I am worried, however, that because my classmates in digital history are all too aware of this fact, it distorts their understanding of how I really feel.

In that class, I came out, it seems, with a new fear or criticism of the digital world every week. I believe that in the minds of my classmates and professor, I became somewhat of a fear-monger, the equivalent of those prophetic people depicted throughout the 1980s with long, straggly beards, torn clothing, and sandwich boards telling anyone and everyone who would listen that “The End Is Near!”

Well, I want to clear this up.

I am not that guy.

Okay, maybe a little bit. I am growing a beard. So what?

As I explained in one of our classes, my fear of technology stems from the first time I watched Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I recognized in that film the possibility of such a world, a world in which computers have taken over, and humans no longer exist.

Other things have influenced me along the way, too. The Matrix is a good one. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, too. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 are a couple of books I read in my formative years that deeply affected me.

But those are just the most popular and familiar of all media influences on my fragile psyche. Millions of other people have also seen those films, and yet they have not adopted my worldview.

People who know me might also point out that I have a tendency to have somewhat irrational fears. I have watched one horror film my entire life. It gave me nightmares for seven years. Hence, it is the only horror film I will probably ever watch. Ever. And I am a grown adult. I cannot separate that fiction from reality. (As an aside, and what is worse, is that in fetching the link to the Internet Movie Database for that one horror film, I noticed that it falls under the genre of “comedy” before it falls under “horror.” How embarrassing.)

But I digress.

Despite all these fears, I have, I believe, embraced technology to a great extent. By no means am I a computer wizard, but I do know my way around a computer fairly well. Sometimes I feel I am hypocritical for doing so. Sometimes I think I am just lazy. But most of the time I realize exactly what Bill Turkel has been telling us from day one: if we are to control the increasingly convergent paths our lives and technology take, and if humanists are to take a seat at the table in determining where that path is heading, we need to understand technology. We need to understand humans, too, but that is an understanding well on its way.

I do not want computers to run the earth, but I recognize that technology is here to stay. Therefore, we need to understand it in order to prevent scenarios like Terminator from occurring (I know, I know. It’s just a movie).

I like the humanities because, like all of you reading this blog, I am human. And I like humans. I think that digital technologies have the power and ability to help people. Whatever we do with digital technologies ought to, in my mind, be guided by what is good for the universe, and consequently, humans. To that end, I really like a quote from one of our readings by Jaron Lanier:

“The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.” JL

The value is in the people. What a simple and brilliant observation.

A Query for Public History

To all public historians: who is our audience?

A simple question, not so simple to answer. I was thinking about who the public is in “public history.” Of course, that public is me. But I do not think that I am the typical public history consumer. After all, by virtue of the fact that I am enrolled in a Master’s program in Public History, I think I can safely make the argument that I have a greater interest in the public presentation of history than at least 90% of the population.

I think rigorously applied methodologies to discovering audience demographics have merit. The thing is, they also require time and resources, neither of which are available to me at this moment. What I need right now are some blog posts about public history.

Thus, I am not able – or willing – to take a highly scientific approach to figuring out who the public in my public history is. Or what they want to hear, see, read, learn, deduce, ignore, refute, contemplate, or any other such thing that history can make you do.

So my question becomes: if I am not the average, then, who do I think is? And how can I access that public to find out what interests them?

The simplest answer that occurred to me in this regard was that the public to whom I want to get my history out to are people like my family and friends. What is even better about my drawing this conclusion, convenient as it is, is that I have access to them.

Moreover, being a public historian, I do not want to write only for an academic audience. I am pursuing a Master’s in public history because I want to engage with the public. So, the public, not just my professors, classmates, former professors, and other academics, ought to be reading this blog. I want to hear from the people for whom public history is created.

I still want to hear from my colleagues and mentors, of course. I would not be here were it not for them. They provide valuable and rich insights that I need. I also, however, would not be where I am (London, Ontario, at the University of Western Ontario, in the History Department, Public History stream) without the people in my social circles.

Which brings us back to my family and friends. I’m not afraid to admit that what I do in every part of my life I do, to some degree, to impress the people around me. I don’t mean impress them like one might try to impress a Monarch (or professor). I mean impress them in the sense that all the hassle and trouble I have caused them over the years has been worth it. I want to show the people around me that I made something out of the morass (thanks, Alan) that is myself.

Wow. This is getting way too personal.

My idea is to encourage those I know and love to read my blog more and give me feedback on what I have written.

For fear that it will bore them to death (because of the subject matter), I have thus far been reluctant to tell too many people about my blog. Generally speaking, I want to avoid making the people around me uncomfortable. You know that feeling of discomfort when someone makes you something, or cooks you something, or gives you something, and it sucks, but they are right there asking you how much you like it? Are you familiar with that uncomfortable feeling? I don’t wish that upon anyone, least of all my loved ones.

But as history has taught me, sometimes uncomfortable is the best thing we can ask for. The (watch out for the cliché) truth hurts. So I have decided that I need to face up to the truth. Unfortunately (actually, I don’t think the truth should ever be viewed as unfortunate) in this instance, so do those around me. They need not feel uncomfortable (though they surely will) about telling me my blog posts are boring. Or incorrect. Or stupid. That’s fine. That is what I want. I want to improve; I want to get better. And if that means making the readers of this blog uncomfortable when I get all up in their faces, demanding answers to my questions, well, so be it. They will be able to look upon whatever I do with my life with a little bit of satisfaction in knowing that they helped make me who I am.

One thing I know without anyone telling me is that I need to keep these blog posts shorter; otherwise, no one is going to read them.

17 December 2006

Photography, Shmotography (Part Two)

In a previous post, I lamented what I see as the loss of stories and storytelling. Their surrogate, I argued, is fast becoming the image, specifically the photograph. I would like to state that I am not advocating a complete disregard of the photograph, as I have a collection of my own that I cherish very deeply. Some might say that if we did not have photographs, there is much of the past that would be forgotten. Photo-journalists talk of “documenting” the atrocities of war and hardship the world over. Those, among others, are valuable uses of photography.

Nor do I think that the story is on a short rope.

It is when we expect to be able to tell a whole story just by looking at a picture that I believe we lose something of the past. The cliché, “a picture tells a thousand words,” is a crock if we take it to mean that it can tell the whole story. I fear that if we use pictures and images as the only means of telling our stories (through things like flickr and YouTube), the real depth of the world may slip away from us.

In the CBC interview I mentioned in my past post, Jennifer Baichwal discussed some issues surrounding photography that resonate with a discussion we had in one of our Public History classes regarding memory. She says that photography is artificial in some senses, especially in the way that it is a suspension of reality representing a specific moment. She equates still and moving images with laziness in memory. Her fear is that people are not living in the moment, not focusing on what it is they are doing. Instead, we worry about documenting the moment for future reference and use.

I agree with her. I think that in some ways we are too caught up in things like documentation to be able to stop and enjoy the moment, or even reflect on the moment.

But for historians, including public historians, this documentation is often seen as a goldmine, a real wealth of information. The problem with this view, however, is that rather than being able to tell our stories about the past, and relating events and moments to ourselves and others, we rely on the picture to tell those thousand words. Are we losing our ability to tell stories?

Now, some may argue that it is better to at least have a glimpse – a window, if you will – into a moment in the past, than nothing at all. And I think I agree. But I waver. And this is why.

A number of years ago, I did a tour of Australia with the band in I was in. On one particular night, my closest friend (and bandmate) and I sat outside Flinders University in Adelaide on a clear, sparkling night. The university is on a high elevation, so we could see for kilometres. We could even see the footy pitch where we had spent the previous day soaked to the skin watching the most amazing spectacle of sport I have ever witnessed. We sat out on that hill and talked for quite a while. It was a glorious, dazzling evening. We were young. We were about to play a gig. We were full of vim and vigour. I turned to Darryl (my bandmate), and said, “Man. This is beautiful. I wish we had a camera.”

He responded with something that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that that moment, that glorious view, could not be captured in a picture. It was better encapsulated in our minds. There was no way that a picture would ever relate how the two of us felt at that moment. This was a new idea to me, and it struck me with such profundity that I think it burned itself onto the rear interior of my skull.

Still, I remember just as clearly how he screamed like a girl and jumped into the front seat of our car when he saw a spider.

But Darryl’s point was that some things are better left to the imagination, to our memory. It was a memory for Darryl and I – and only Darryl and I – to share. Taking a picture of it and sharing it would have taken us, and any viewer of that picture, out of the moment. Sure, Darryl or I could look at the picture and recall that moment, but it would never capture the entire story.

Good public history ought to tell a story. To be honest, I just wanted to include "public history" in this blog somewhere so it shows up in a Google Blog Search under that topic. Cheeky of me, ain't it? Not really, though. I truly believe that history is storytelling, and that for the public to be interested in history (hence, "public history"), we public historians need to find ways of communicating meaningful, interesting stories about the past.

That’s long enough for one post. Stay tuned for Photography, Shmotography, Part Three.

14 December 2006

My eyes! My poor, ruined eyes!

I have been staring at microfilm for five hours a day for the past week. You could also say that I have been staring at poorly reproduced copies of original documents for the past week.

I do not like it.

I know what it is I need from the films, but I am forced to scan, however briefly, each document contained on each of the sixteen rolls I have on loan from Library and Archives Canada.

I do not like doing this.

I like what I am learning. That is not the problem. The thing is, I’ve found myself thinking, everyday, numerous times, “There has got to be a better way to do this. This is horrible.”

Sometimes I scan the film at a quick clip. I do this because it is more efficient. Looking at the microfilm while it is whizzing past produces in me, however, an unpleasant side-effect: it makes me dizzy, creating nausea.

I hate this.

Recalling all those wonderful digital history readings and discussions from this past term, I want to think that I could just skip to the highlighted spots on the microfilm that are specific to my topic.

But I can’t.

I know that this digging through archival material is supposed to be part of the fun of being a historian. But I recall a certain device called the “internet” (ever heard of it?) coming up in our class discussions quite frequently. I also recall hearing that on the internet - and within other digital realms - you can “search” for terms, with results specific to that search appearing for you, on a sort of binary silver platter.

That, to me, sounds like fun. And fast. One turd of a lot faster than my current searching. Instead of a week spent scanning thousands of sheets of miniatures of old documents, I would only have to spend - at most - a day gathering what I need. And that would allow me to devote one heck of a lot more time to thinking about my topic. And isn't thinking the real point of writing a research paper in history?