Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Present, Future, Past

I'll pay my irony fine first and note that I lean skeptical about the value of the internet in solving a whole lot of issues that face us in today's world. I hold social media activism to be almost completely ineffective -- it mostly seems to work as a way of bullying private citizens who've said unpopular things or done stupid stuff. I live and work in areas of my state that don't always have the latest and fastest zippadeedillion-MbPS connections and among people who were born way too early for the benefits the online world offers. I think the failure of Los Angeles schools' "buy every student an iPad" was the most instruction that superintendent had done in years.

So you'd think that Andrew Keen's The Internet Is Not the Answer would be right up my alley. And although it's got a lot to recommend it, much of the complaint that Keen levels against the online world varies between snootery and lamenting the post-bovine exodus notice of the barn door position.

The first section of Answer outlines the creation of the technology and software that eventually became our modern internet, highlighting different milestones along the way such as the development of browsers and the interactive "Web 2.0" that allowed online retail to take off. Keen suggests the originators of the internet's "prehistoric" ancestors in the 1940s through the 1980s were motivated by Cold War concerns and desires to spread knowledge and information around as widely as possible. But most of the modern features of our online world have come from people who saw the potential to make a whole lot of money. Keen may not like this, but short of government ownership of the internet, it's hard to see many other ways it could have developed. And although the monetized internet presents several problems, it does in fact help solve a lot of others and allow more people to access more information and benefits than they ever have.

Keen also includes another lament against the way that modern technology has allowed folks to flood the marketplace with music, books, articles and such that aren't very good, drowning some of the better art and creativity in mediocrity. Video processing technology means that anyone with a few thousand dollars can pretend to be Steven Spielberg with a camera, but not everyone with a few thousand dollars has Spielberg's vision and gifts. A lot of these kinds of complaints amount to a lament that the barbarians are no longer at the gates -- they've bought the house next door and are decorating their mailbox with the skulls of their vanquished foes. But who is Keen to judge who are barbarians, who are not and whether or not that skull-sculpture is actually more interesting than whatever the community art collective stuck in the window of its subsidized downtown loft?

Keen's strongest points address things like way that many of these companies make immense profits from data we give them for free, and how the game is rigged against people who figure the company should pay them for the data. It leads him to suggest that, rather than an internet user Bill of Rights, we really need an internet entrepreneur's Bill of Responsibilities. But the success of the Volstead Act offers a pretty clear example of how easy it is to force or coerce people into being responsible. No, the internet isn't the answer. Until we get a clearer idea of just what question we're asking, though, figuring out any answer is going to be a tough job.
Complaints against the modern university's production of weapons-grade balloon juice have been around for a long time, although they have mostly been the province of more conservative-minded folk. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind gave respectable cover for people who would identify as liberal but who were seeing goofy ideas grab hold of their respective disciplines and render them inaccurate, distorted or in many cases, just plain silly. It's kind of interesting to look on some of those works some years down the line and see if their alarm was warranted.

The concepts of literary criticism and theory were beginning their inroads in 1997, when Australian history professor Keith Windschuttle published his The Killing of History. Although he would later move significantly rightward in his politics, Windschuttle was still a centrist when Killing was published. And like many moderate or leftist folks who have to confront views similar to their own taken to extremes, he seems somewhat at sea in parts of his argument.

Windschuttle's core claim is that folks who practice a broad range of politicized writing and study that's often lumped together as "theory" are exerting their influence on historical research and writing. His view as a historian is that such writing needs to communicate the central facts of its subjects in the clearest and most engaging manner possible. Writing about the Civil War as a whole, for example, needs to include things like major battles and some of the people and forces that played roles in them. A book focused on a diary of a poor farm family affected by Lincoln's 1863 conscription order lights up a small corner of that time, but someone who learns it backwards and forwards has not learned the history of the Civil War.

But the literary theorists and social critics were claiming that just that kind of change was needed to do "real history," and focus on the voices previously drowned out by the privileged few. Windschuttle acknowledges the gaps, but says reconstruction of the missing material is a job for a novelist, not a historian.

Windschuttle spends a lot of time explaining and exploring the roots of the theories that offer this new and to his mind, vague and often inaccurate form of history. He ventures into some very deep weeds in these sections, devoting a number of pages to critiquing, for example, the idea that Karl Popper's falsifiability model is useful for historical research. Some of these are far too jargon-rich for folks who don't work with history for a living, and Windschuttle writes in a mostly academic style that doesn't much leaven these pages.

More interesting to us in 2017 are Windschuttle's cautions against the ultimate result of history modified by theory and social criticism. When we see people insisting that statues be removed and building names be changed in order to wipe "unpleasant" history from our public view, we can see that although history ain't dead yet, it's got a pretty bad cough that it ought to see the doctor about.

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