Lost in the Digital Wilderness: A Perpetual Jerimiad

I was distracted by a thoughtful jeremiad, “How Long will People Read History Books?” written by William Cronon for the President column of the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History. It bemoans the fact that the digital age is one of “impatience” and “distractedness” and that the computational maw will ground to dust the “long, slow, thoughtful” writing and reading practices that are necessary to produce good history. Whenever I come across these well written pieces, I feel the tug of resistance, the need to go into the streets and erect barricades around the book, before it too is lost to history and all we left are the shiny baubles and glittering trinkets of digital culture.

Few things are more popular among cultural spokespeople who analyze the ills of our digital age than to point out how we have all become multitaskers lost in the tsunami of information, hopelessly distracted and impatient: info-junkies perpetually needing the next google search, twitter hash fix. I have always wanted to do a jeremiad project that would chart from generation to generation the lament of speed and chaos into which the new age, the next age, was plunging us. We always begin with Plato who lamented that writing would be the undoing of things since it destroyed the necessary practice of memory. I always kind of liked Thoreau being flummoxed by high speed rail travel; 25 mph had great promise and terror. If I had the patience I would like to do the study, but I dread the last decade or so. There has seen an avalanche of books about the end of the book and the dumbing down of the digital generation. Whatever happened to crazy-hair guy, Silicon Snake Oil, who would pop up on every channel as a talking head. It is really not by placing Cronon’s work in the jeremiad cavalcade that I wish to criticize it, though.

If I had the focus, I would write a history of the history monograph. It has been a rather short-lived thing. Born with the modern university, it did not really come into its own until the birth the modern research university (post WW II) and the entrenchment of the tenure system in the 1960s. Since then it has been an evolving thing that has had its social swings. Now I don’t think it is fair to criticize Cronon’s piece based on the rather short and changing history of the monograph. Brevity of a tradition does not negate saving it from the digital miasma. But it does set one to wondering, as a historian, are bulwarks against change covering over complex and nuanced moments of flux?

If I had a more hardy constitution, I would like to collect together all of the more recent studies about reading and writing, not to mention those about digital age distraction and multitasking to see if our claims of lore are correct. Much of the recent evidence about reading and writing rates (and not to mention book publishing rates) seems to counter claims about the end of reading and writing as we know it. Cronon acknowledges this but if more it can only be fast food bits and bytes (yet is it really? As good historians, can we make this claim based on solid evidence?). Of course this goes back to the jeremiad. It would be nice to collect all of those 20th-century claims about how one media or technology would destroy the prior. Recording replaces sheet music. TV replaces the radio. (I always liked, TV would replace teachers — see hysterical claims about MOOCs). Historians know that the answers to these replacement questions are never complete but are “complicated webs of actors and actions, causes and effects, events and contexts, ideas and meanings.”  We do have to wonder.  It may be true that the public has liked the thick histories and read from cover to cover, but with indexes, citations, and table of contents, have academics been hypertext poachers since long before the invention of the web?

In the end, what I think we really need is a good cat massacre. Because here is the sneaky and treacherous thing about Cronon’s argument. We all know many historians who simply dismiss the digital humanities and anything technological as bad history. In a way they are easy to understand and deal with. Here Cronon embraces the digital as an important space: “[p]lease do not misunderstand me. I embrace and celebrate the digital age.” But then through an argument of dichotomy, he sets digital as a space of frenetic, “frictionless” movement (thin greasy gruel), and history as the disciplined, slow and solid place of “richness” (rich creamy goodness). We can ignore that this cuts short “complicated webs of actors and actions, causes and effects, events and contexts, ideas and meanings” of history in the digital age. This thin and rigidly ahistorical binary view of digital/history is the precise fulcrum that maintains the illegitimacy of the digital humanities. In fact, I have rarely seen such a brute and naked occasion of the rhetoric, a perpetual jeremiad. You digital humanists are cute, slick, fast, and important, but you can never be real. Digital tools have their place — they are good for “sharing” with that messy, frantic “wider world.” Real historians are solid, slow, and meticulous and history making can only happen outside of history.

We do need to get past this binary thinking.  I am a book collector and fan of the thick, rich history.  The monograph is one way of doing really good history and will as Cronon imagines continue with the ebook.  Good historical thinking may take many shapes and forms (perhaps even digital).

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