Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Puttin' too much food on my plate!"

The shift from scarcity to abundance seems, for some conservative historians, especially, to be the apocalyptic end of scholarly professionalism of history. The basis for this paranoia, I think, lies in the fact that we are seeing a huge shift toward the sharing of historical authority. With the abundance of historical accounts being digitized daily and indeed, the accessibility of these accounts, the job of assigning relevancy to historical topics no longer lies in the hands of intermediaries. Now, the power rests in the hands of each and every graduate student, antiquarian, and seventh-grader writing a show-and-tell report. Surely, this will decrease the legitimacy of historical practice and turn what historians do into a joke or sorts, or even render them completely obsolete sooner or later.


Well, not necessarily. It would seem to me that with the increase in abundance of historical information, something (besides quality) needs to decrease into scarcity to recreate balance. Perhaps this could be the interest of the public for historical information. Simple economic laws of supply and demand tell us that when a product (yes, we are in an age where it’s not odd to view historical information as a product) becomes abundant, public demand for this product inevitably decreases. Society may just become very disinterested with its past if we start developing things like total archives and leaving everything out in the open for any kind of interpretation – thus, history (more so than other disciplines) would lose its significance if humans placed absolutely no value on it. I suppose the situation would be comparable to when technologies like the television swept humanity. It was brilliant and everyone was interested in it in the 50s – yet now that it’s become more popularized, it’s become such a part of everyday life that it’s completely lost its value. We barely even notice it, let alone think about its significance to the human race. It’s a given. Historical information would be a great thing to integrate into the daily lives of humanity – but does it not seem like something’s being detracted from its intrinsic value under these conditions?

Also, I personally foresee a problem in the quality of interpretation. How are we supposed to know what is significant and valuable historical information if every single thing is being preserved? Perhaps this is another whole argument entirely – who’s to say that a piece of historic information is garbage and should be disposed of? I mean, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But apart from that issue, I think that the public (and maybe even historians) will start to lose appreciation for what we’ve always known as historical study. I suppose it could be related to the problem that a museum curator faces when deciding which artifacts to accession into a museum and which ones to reject. I’d imagine it’s not an easy call – but we can’t possibly collect EVERYTHING. What’s the point in examining an overwhelming pile of trash? Can we possibly draw anything valuable or intelligible from these types of practices? When does collecting stop being an actual collection and turn into a compulsion?

Now, given these points of inquiry—on the other hand, it is not exactly my belief that the authority of the past should lie in the hands of only the most highly educated PhDs and other such individuals. History should belong to the general public, at least to some extent. With the disappearance of scarcity will come the right of every citizen to pick and choose what they think is historically significant about the past—buffet style! Whether that’s an ultimately good or bad thing, I’m not in a position to say at the moment, but that certainly seems to be where we’re heading in this digital age of abundance. He who controls the rare sources has a monopoly on deciding what’s important and what’s not—and essentially holds the immense power of what we remember as history and recall as reality. Any post-modernist historian would smile blissfully at the mere thought.

Given these circumstances, of course there will be certain topics that will become prevalent in historic study. Studies seem to show that the general public tends to participate mostly in genealogy or the study of family histories. If the public are given the authority to deem this topic historically significant, they most certainly will. Everyone has the tendency to want to preserve their own history for themselves and for posterity. I think that eventually, the consciousness of history as a broad topic may start to burn out because personal histories will become too populous to study collectively.

I find it very interesting that the root of all these popular debates in public history is starting to stem from ABUNDANCE of information. I bet people in the past would never have predicted that too much information could be so very problematic!

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