History in the Digital Age

You know it’s all downhill from here when every article you read about the days of your youth does not remind you of days of your youth. Maybe that’s how history works. On the one hand I want to tell the writer he’s got it all wrong, on the other hand I know he’d never let facts get in the way of a good theory. Soon we all die and that history becomes the way it was. It has always been this way.

There was a great scene in that John Adams mini-series where Douglas Trumbull shows John Adams his rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is all wrong, Adams yells, it wasn’t like this at all. We were never in that room at the same time! There was a war on! We dropped by when to sign when we could! He went on, a livid old curmudgeon, glorying in being an old curmudgeon. But he was serious, too, because from his vantage point of actually having been there, Trumbull’s now iconic painting was a travesty, totally misrepresenting the truth as he, John Adams, had experienced it. But to Trumbull, even if it were not literally accurate, it got the point across. All these patriots, bravely signing a document that could have been their death warrant. And to us, that is the way it actually happened, in one dramatic scene. The misrepresentation became reality. That has to be what riled Adams. And he had to know there was nothing to be done about it but rail.

Good historians write vast books proving Adams right. Good historians go to the original sources to discover how things actually were. But who reads vast books anymore? And who double checks what passes for the history of my youth in Slate or wherever? You can tell in the comments section to the article [what article it was I have no idea, not that it matters] this battle is lost anyway, not that we–those of us who actually experienced those days–even put up a fight. It’s so strange to read articles in which all sorts of modern concepts are applied to us, things we didn’t even know existed. This is a current academic trend, applying current theory to old events. That’s the influence of the Marxist theory of history, really, although Marx, like Latin, is dead everywhere but academia. But how could we then have done things according to theories and concepts and categories that weren’t invented yet? Or, with even more absurdity, theories and concepts and categories that had never existed at all, except as theories, concepts and categories developed and assigned retroactively by later historians.

I think what I was going on about when I began this essay some years ago was reading articles about bands in my day written by today’s Pop Critics. We didn’t have “pop critics” in my day, just “rock critics”, as pop would have put you in the same league as Steve and Edie. The basketfuls of throwaway bands who rediscovered by later “pop historians” were not yet given an importance that it utterly ridiculous if you stop and think about it. They didn’t really categorize so much then, and the sad thing about creating categories is that one must squeeze things into them, which essentially alters what they actually had been. Not that it matters to the one who, years later, is doing the categorizing. There’s a scientific concept that neatly describes this in a few words…but I’m trying to avoid concepts here. Concepts and categories and theories that pass for reality in universities. There are only a few theories that actually work, and they are born out by reams of evidence. They are nearly all hard science, too. Theories about culture crumble once you leave the campus. You have to live a cloistered life to think they still hold true, and a sadder life to think they are important.

I began this ages ago–years in fact–complaining about how those pop historians fit our reality then into concepts and categories they learned in college. Concepts and categories that did not exist at the time, and thus render every article you read that uses them into fiction. Badly written fiction at that–pop critics are far too often mediocre writers at best, sheesh. And now ages later I’ve ended this piece condemning the intellectual fashion of refusing to look at past events as they actually were, as things you could hear and touch and feel, and insist instead on absurd theorizing and categorization and big words and desperate intellectualism.

I hate all that. I want history, real history. But they don’t teach real history in college, it seems. They teach theory. Historians are dull. They write footnotes, plod through archives, get excited over details. And that stuff goes nowhere online. When reading is something done on a smartphone in an elevator, details are irrelevant at best, annoying as a rule. Truth has become relative, or even insignificant. History ain’t exactly dead, it’s just ignored.

Sometimes I listen to old time radio and marvel at just how effective a medium it was for the imagination. With everything invisible anything was possible. The mind’s eye is a powerful medium, all you need to do is suggest something and the audience pictures it. Jack Benny’s radio household included a parrot, a polar bear, an ostrich and a levitating tenant. On television only the parrot remained. The digital medium of the internet allows for the same sort of imaginary reality. We suspend our disbelief and believe anything we read. The photoshopped pictures and faked videos we’ve become hip to, but we still tend to take whatever we read at face value. There’s almost no skepticism at all for things read on blogs or Facebook. It’s as if what we read becomes vivid reality in our imagination, something we stopped doing with analog mediums long ago. Magazines and newspapers people read with skepticism. But you can write the wildest things on Facebook or in a blog and people will believe it. They can picture chemtrails or bizarre conspiracies or completely made up stories and believe every word. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds would fool millions all over again online. And in a digital environment where the perception of reality can approach Medieval thinking in its irrationality, something as dry as history–real history, researched and sweated over–is an anachronism. History itself is history in the digital world. Virtual reality is reality, and there is no one to say it isn’t. All history is fiction, someone said on Facebook recently. No one disagreed. History is whatever you want it to be someone responded. I thought about arguing the point, but let it go.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s