Social Classes, Storied Lives, and History Writing

February 28, 2010

I’m going to stray a bit from strict history into the personal today, and ask about the inevitability of storied lives that originate in storied beginnings.

This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing several candidates for full scholarships to the University of Toronto. It is the most inspiring activity I participate in all year. The criteria for the award are originality, creativity, leadership in various activities in school and the community, breadth of interest and intellectual curiosity. The students – all in their final year of high school – are delightful: bright, motivated, and full of ideas and energy. One can’t help but be excited by their futures, whether they win the scholarship and come to Toronto or not. Just interviewing them is humbling.

Reading over their applications, I am struck by another similarity that binds them: the majority are from private or specialized high schools that excel at producing legions of talented young people just like these. Of course, this is not to take anything away from the clearly exceptional students I meet every year – but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities presented to every student in these schools: newspapers and art reviews in four languages, classics clubs, near-professional yearbook facilities, annual plays, musicals, and shows, Reach for the Top teams, Model United Nations, biodiversity labs, expensive and exclusive sports, IB programs, AP courses – and any number of others you’ve probably never even heard of. And they all have the benefit of funding, teacher support, and a legacy of (in some cases) decades of school tradition behind them. It’s no wonder students succeed.

I won’t go into questions of whether it is “fair” that some students are given these opportunities and some are not, because of course it isn’t fair. I also won’t speculate about whether it is possible to be greatly successful from humble upbringings, because that too is an obvious answer, as many before have proved.  But I do often wonder the effect schools like these have on the futures of the students who attend them.

Now, I adored my high school – the teachers were admirably talented and dedicated, and the classes and activity selection was above-average for a public school – but we didn’t have windows in a lot of our classrooms. Our auditorium doubled as a cafeteria, fondly dubbed the “cafetorium” (try producing a Shakespearean production with meatball smells and spirited games of Euchre going on in the background). And I’d never heard of Model UN until I got to university. It isn’t a school that will ever be famous in its own right for having educated some of Canada’s greatest scholars or politicians; it’s just an average suburban high school.

I wonder, how much more likely is sustained success in life amongst those who attend these exclusive schools? How much less likely is it for one of my peers? Here is where I define “sustained success” as achievement, and notability, and expertise. Prime Ministers, writers, public intellectuals, leaders of organizations. Let’s talk for a minute about one of my favourite Canadian historical figures, George R. Parkin, tireless promoter of imperial unity and designer of my favourite map ever . He went to Oxford, was the first administrator of the Rhodes Scholarships, and served as headmaster of Upper Canada College (one of those storied schools I’m talking about). Parkin’s daughter married Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born Governor General, and who was himself from the storied Massey Ferguson family (of tractor fame). Another of Parkin’s daughters married George Grant, renowned Canadian historian of the 1950s (and also a UCC grad). Parkin’s great-grandson is Michael Ignatieff, who is current and controversial enough to need no explanation.

Aside from showing how delightfully incestuous early nineteenth-century, upper-class Canadian society was, it also shows the near-inevitability of some of these individuals becoming notable. (And here is where I veer off into Whig history, never to be seen again outside of grand, teleological narratives with bad sourcing.) With parents, networks, and educational experiences like they had, how could they not be? Even today, though it is subtle and often disguised, the class divide in Canada is alive and well. And in Canada, it is propagated and advanced by educational institutions.

I truly believe Canada is more of a “land of opportunity” than other countries: these schools, for example, encourage diversity of background and even offer scholarships to those whose parents can’t afford the steep tuition.  Some other storied institutions (I’m looking at you, UofT) are inclusive by virtue of size alone. But how can we even think of parity among students in first year university when some arrive in first-year history knowing only the vague contours of major wars and great figures, and others have in-depth knowledge of realpolitik that would rival that of a Master’s student? How does one address that as an educator?

Arriving in Toronto was an experience for me, as I was pushed into networks that included all classes and backgrounds.  I feel as though I have the benefit of a relatively objective view of them, coming from such an average educational upbringing. I wonder if historians who grew up within history – the storied walls of UCC, or Cambridge, or a home in Rosedale that has appeared in several books on Toronto history – look at things differently. Does it make them more empathetic, or less? Do they have biases that I don’t? Do I have biases they don’t? How does it affect how we each see and explain the world?

Ongoing questions all. For now I’ll focus on my delightful students – perhaps I’ll ask them what they think.

How about you? How do you think your background shapes the way you see things? What impact did your education have on your current success? Do you think the class system in Canada is as restrictive as in other countries? Post your thoughts below!

New Orientations in Canadian Nationalism – And Tim Hortons!

February 24, 2010

My Honourary Olympics post on Canadian Nationalism got a fair bit of traffic and some thoughtful comments last week, which I suspect can be attributed to the fact that we are quite an introspective nation and going through a very introspective time. Canadians love to talk about what makes us unique, how we differ from other countries (especially, ahem, our neighbours to the south), and how we differ from what other people think we are. Are we friendly? Polite? Clean? Aggressive? Neurotic? Arrogant? White? Black? All of the above, I think – and happily so.

Timothy Egan, writing for his blog in the New York Times, very accurately captures our diversity – but seems unaware that we already know all about it. You’ve probably already read the following quote from his post somewhere around the web. It reduces our introspection to insecure hand-wringing:

Why the lack of self-esteem? Canada — snap out of it! You’re gorgeous, baby, you’re sophisticated, you live well. No need for an apology.

Typical American brashness (see? two can play this stereotyping game!). As though we all understand and explain our national cultures the same way. I much prefer this one, from Judith Timson of The Globe & Mail:

We are already who we are, a magnificent blend of urban and rural, of flying canoes and Chinese grocery stores, of heart-stopping scenery and mind-blowing talent, all of it confirming on a daily basis there is no Canadian identity crisis, only an identity crisis industry.

It’s so true. We are a blend. Not a melting pot, or a salad, though. Perhaps a high-quality vinaigrette, one that has clearly identifiable parts to it that sometimes separate, but that but generally mixes well together. This is what makes it so hard to talk about a Canadian “type,” as I did last week. Historically, there was, in the official literature and thinking about Canada, a definite “colonial type” – rugged and masculine, white, and very British in orientation. The old Canadian colonial type is clearly present in this hilarious ad by HBC. But then the officials doing the thinking changed, and the way Canadians started to think and talk about ourselves changed too.

Particularly in the years after World War II, improvements in communications technology and the advent of air travel further reduced the conceptual distance between geographical spaces, and made the world appear to shrink as never before.  The number of (overt) supporters of imperialism dwindled, both in the British Empire and around the world. This shift was reflected in Canadian historiography, in which imperialism was often categorized as the opposite of nationalism, and a losing allegiance. Canada’s relationship with Britain has consequently received less attention than a historical narrative which seeks to recover (or perhaps invent) a pluralistic and multicultural history more in accordance with present-day Canadian national values. To emphasize British influence in the past is to deny the influence of French, Aboriginal, or other immigrant groups to Canada, now a highly politically-charged issue.

Instead, historians have increasingly focused on Canada’s relationship with the United States, portraying Canada as a diplomatic intermediary of sorts between America and Britain. (This can perhaps be read as an attempt to grant Canada political capital in the post-World War II world by emphasizing the arbitrary role Canada played in events like the Suez Crisis and the lead-up to the Vietnam War. But that’s another story entirely.)  The predominant narrative of the past 60 years has emphasized the inevitability of the Canada-U.S. relationship in the history of both countries – and the links between Canada and the countries where so many of its citizens were born.

There is another ad that is making me sit up and take notice this Olympic season. It’s for Tim Hortons, which perhaps has an even greater claim on speaking for Canadian identity than HBC. It chronicles a “true story” of the “new” Canada, with new, multicultural immigrants and strong families – not a bunch of rugged, white, English fellows struggling against the driving snow.  In fact, I don’t think there’s a white person in the entire video. Check it out here to see what I mean. We’re also seeing Canadian Tire commercials in which kids know how to skate – of course! like all Canadian children! – but their (presumably immigrant) parents don’t. It’s a completely different image, and probably one that speaks to many more Canadians who have bought into and propagated the new national narrative of multiculturalism. And sells more terrible coffee and snow shovels, probably.

The British press has been slamming Canada right, left, and centre for not living up to the world’s expectations of our national character. The irony is that the new Canada doesn’t really care what Britain has to say. Now, if it comes from the US? That’s a whole different story.

What do you think? Is the new Canadian “type” more accurate than the old one? Do you think Canada has tried to blur/erase its past connections with Britain in favour of multiculturalism? Or ties to the US? And which commercial wins: HBC’s or Timmy Hos’?

Political Intermediaries – Translating Technological Advances Into Government Policy

February 23, 2010

Culture is a “soft” kind of power: it greatly influences and shapes society, but rarely makes the “hard” decisions that will immediately effect changes in how people live. Governments, on the other hand, deploy this “hard” power through the policies they enact, and as such can have great impact on the lives of citizens in the everyday sense. For this reason it is interesting to see what governments are thinking about new technologies, and how changes in technologies are affecting their overarching partisan philosophies.

In response to yesterday’s post on cultural intermediaries, a friend directed me to a 14-minute online presentation by British Leader of the Opposition David Cameron titled “The Next Age of Government” (thanks, Jeff!). Watch it here on, and if you haven’t spent much time on, this is also a great opportunity to look around a bit. It’s a fantastic site. Mr. Cameron, while no Benjamin Disraeli, is a thoughtful and relatively engaging speaker who seems to be able to abstract himself from the day-to-day granularity of politics and comment on a few “big ideas.”

He begins by asking how “we” can make things better without spending more money, and notes that there are many factors affecting “well-being,” including family, achievement, values, etc. that are outside of things the government controls (such as health care spending). He then posits that we are living today in the “post-bureaucratic age,” after many years of “pre-bureaucratic,” or local, control and “bureaucratic,” or central, control by the government or other powers that be. I was interested to note that advances in technology – primarily in the form of improvements in travel and communications – were essential in demarcating these ages. His point was that the role of government has changed – from overseeing and running all major programmes simply because it could, and was the only organization that could, to being in a position to give citizens information and let them make their own decisions.

His basic premise is that knowledge (brought by technology) equals power, and not just power for the government, but for ordinary people. He cleverly and seamlessly incorporates the benefits of technological innovation (transparency, choice) into the classic conservative mantra of personal accountability. His message is not, “The government is collecting all your information to be a kind of Big Brother and watch over you,” as Gordon Brown and Labour are perceived right now; it’s, “We are going to give you all this information so you can run with it and make your own choices. Go ahead: challenge our existing supplier agreements if you can do better. We’ll tell you which hospitals have the best wait times so you can go there. You’ll know where lots of crime is occurring – avoid those areas.” And he sums it all up with a classic quotation from JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s a masterful display of euphemism, because while he is giving all of this power to the people, he is simultaneously and deliberately not saying, “And if you don’t avoid the areas where crime is most frequently occurring, and you are assaulted, it is very much your own fault.” This, of course, is the flip side of less government and more “power to the people,” as he says:  responsibility of the people. It is also an inherently capitalistic idea, in that it encourages competition among government services like hospitals and police departments to be the safest, fastest, best at controlling infection outbreaks, whatever – another core tenet of conservatism. It’s remarkable how well these messages blend into Mr. Cameron’s presentation, which on the surface is all about intermediaries. Instead of government being the instigator of action, David Cameron wants it to be an intermediary; a broker between services and citizens. It’s a fundamental shift in how government is viewed. We will see later this year if Britons agree with this shift.

I suspect this is where Barack Obama is going wrong today. He is trying to fuse these two ideas – the oversight of government and the responsibility of the people – and in doing so is peddling an inconsistent message. His unprecedented spending on health care and stimulus measures is well known, and violently opposed by the Tea Party movement, most Republicans, and even many Democrats and Independents. Again and again his opponents call for smaller government, less public money being spent – in other words, how the government can make things better without spending more money.

It’s not easy. But many of the technological innovations and initiatives David Cameron pointed to as critical for the “post-bureaucratic age” (transparency, choice and most importantly, lots and lots of information) are already in place in the United States. Perhaps Mr. Obama should shift his message back to what he said in his November 2008 victory speech:

“[Change] can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”

What do you think? Is government’s role in the modern age as a provider and overseer, or as an intermediary? Do you buy David Cameron’s argument? Are we really living in a “post-bureaucratic” age? And if so, isn’t there a better name for it?

Cultural Intermediaries in the Wikipedian Age

February 22, 2010

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how technology has changed the way we communicate. It has obviously changed the tenor of our conversations:  they happen much more quickly now, and many at once, and in many different forms and forums.  We talk to more people, and different ones, with experiences different from our own.  But has technology changed the content of our communications? And has the level of quality changed?

Cultural intermediaries then…

I read a statement about culture in an article for a class a few years ago, and it has stayed vividly in my memory. The author was Pierre Bourdieu, an important sociologist and thinker from the past century, and he was discussing cultural intermediaries, those who fit between “legitimate” culture and mass-produced culture, the popularizers of the world. He wrote in 1984 but his perspective seemed much older: he described the petit bourgeoisie and their love of what he calls the “minor forms of legitimate culture” such as “light operas, science programmes, [and] poetry readings.” The intermediaries give life to dry institutional competence, as he puts it, but as presenters are devoid of any intrinsic value in and of themselves. They instead stage moderate cultural revolutions by canonizing “not-yet-legitimate arts” and masquerading as experts by surrounding themselves with a veneer of cultural authority in the form of (and this is worth quoting in full) “Academician contributors to painless history magazines, Sorbonne professors debating on TV, Menuhins gracing ‘quality’ variety shows.” (I had to look up Menuhin also; he was considered one of the twentieth century’s best violinists.) I like to think of this as giving street cred to high art, and vice versa.

…and now

I think of this passage often. I see its effects when I read web pages dedicated to collecting strange maps or entertainment blogs covering pop culture. I see it when I watch American Idol and note how it attempts to associate itself with the new “legitimate” musical culture (producers like Quincy Jones, judges like Elton John, and YES!, performers like George Michael). I see it when I watch YouTube videos or ze frank’s peculiar brand of comedy. It is exactly what Bourdieu means: everywhere today, individuals without the “standard cultural credentials” (whatever those may be) have essentially cornered the market on some small area of life in which there is great popular interest. (Interestingly, it is often themselves – think of most Internet memes and how they can come out of nowhere from an individual’s particular fancy writ large.) I read the writers’ comments about American Idol and Survivor on EW fairly religiously, all the while thinking that it is crazy that there are individuals out there whose livelihood is earned acerbically describing the proceedings of a variety show to an audience that mostly includes people who watched it the night before. How did this happen? And at least their subjects are real people: there is also extensive discussion about TV dramas, and comedies, and everything in between.

And what discussion of the canonization and genre-ization of life would be complete without discussing Wikipedia? Wikipedia is founded upon the classification and summarization of life’s minutiae, things like characters in popular movies, or levels in video games, or contestants on reality television shows. Approximately 45% of its content is Culture & Arts, or Biographies & Persons. (1% is Thought & Philosophy.) I’m guessing most of that is current pop culture. In order to gain entry, a topic must be “notable,” that is, it must have “received significant coverage in secondary reliable sources (i.e., mainstream media or major academic journals) that are independent of the subject of the topic.”  Consider: this is the veneer of cultural “legitimacy” that Bourdieu speaks of, this association with longstanding cultural pillars like the established news media. The irony is that old media are dying, and Wikipedia grows every minute. It has become a cultural compass in its own right.

Cultural legitimacy in the 21st century

Which leads me to ask what “important” and “legitimate” means today. Has technology changed the content of communication after all? Does it, by its nature as transient and inclusive, privilege the popular, mass-produced, lowbrow culture? And if so, is that bad? Are certain types of culture intrinsically better or more valuable than others? Bourdieu would likely say “yes,” in that his discussions of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” culture included an inherent value judgment. The debate rises to new levels of importance – and not just culturally, but politically – with so much more “out there” and accessible. Viewers can pick and choose what elements of culture they pay attention to, essentially filtering out all viewpoints that do not converge with their own. (The Atlantic ran a fascinating article on the shift to new media and how it has affected politics last month – check it out if you have a chance.)

But who are the culture brokers who determine what culture is good or bad, highbrow or lowbrow, worthy or not worthy of attention?

It’s relevant and interesting to me because posthistorical turns 1 month old today.  And I look at the most popular posts sometimes on the WordPress Dashboard and sigh that they are always about things like “the truth about Nicole Richie’s engagement ring,” or a “LOST exclusive” or a change in the top 24 of American Idol (full disclosure: I clicked on that one). There is no person deciding what is most popular in and around WordPress. Numbers are. Undoubtedly, because of today’s technology, culture is more democratized than ever before. And there are many, many more intermediaries than ever before because technology has played upon how fractured our culture can be. There are more and more people out there who don’t want to be mere consumers of information and culture, but producers of it as well. Many more people are finding their voices than ever before, and creating new forums to talk about culture. I am one of these people, and I love being able to be one.

New technology has made it easier to become a cultural intermediary, and in doing so has legitimized – at least in part – hundreds of new forms of culture. The content has indeed changed – significantly. It has caused a revolutionary shift in cultural studies as well, and changed the lenses through which we see and categorize the world for the purposes of analysis.

So who are the cultural intermediaries of the twenty-first century? Perhaps we might call them “aggregators,” either in their automated forms, or human ones. They are those who collect seemingly disparate bits of data and combine them into a coherent and meaningful whole.  I believe that all this technology makes cultural intermediaries – the trusted, popular, consistently competent ones – more important than ever. Career counsellors and management thinkers in the “information age” are constantly pointing out that with all of the information being thrown at us, the need increases for those who can rise above it all and provide an intelligent layer of analysis to help others sift through it and realize what is important.

So my focus as I move forward in life and with this blog is going to be to provide a lens through which disparate things make sense and are interesting. Wish me luck – and stay tuned!

I’m interested in hearing from you! Are you a cultural intermediary? If so, how do you see your role? Who do you think are the most significant cultural intermediaries of this new century? And what is “legitimate” culture now? Does it still exist?

Paris: The City of Light, Love, and Atrocious Service

February 18, 2010

In the BBC yesterday, columnist Emma Jane Kirby described the customer service experience in Paris – cab drivers refusing to take her (on crutches for breaking a leg skiing) because she was a “cripple,” vendors refusing to assist customers by selecting their produce, and restaurant waiters refusing to answer to anything other than “Monsieur.” It is a sorry picture indeed. “The customer is not always right,” she writes – as though this is acceptable behaviour among those seeking to earn money in a sinking economy.

What is the reason for this particularly French brand of incivility? Apparently, it dates back to the French Revolution. “The revolution of 1789,” Ms. Kirby writes, “Has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.” Americans in the service industry, on the other hand, use their first names and seek to “give us ‘good folks [i.e., patrons] a great time.’” Friendliness? Promptness? An enjoyable customer experience? Heaven forbid!

I wonder that the author of this article points to the French Revolution as the origin of French servers desiring equal status to their patrons, and yet contrasts their service with that in America. Didn’t the United States have a similar revolution, with similar aims and results? Indeed, I doubt that many countries exist with the idea of equality so firmly engrained in their culture as the United States, nor that of a strong work ethic. I have already posted about the fact that Americans work longer hours, are more productive, and make more money than Europeans. Granted, there are numerous problems that have resulted from the shift from an old, European artisan kind of work (like the article’s French grocer who carefully selects the right avocado for when the customer will use it, perhaps?) to the modern, Fordist division of labour in the American corporation. However, in the area of customer service, the Anglo-Saxon idea of the customer calling the shots clearly wins the day – in theory and in profits.

I suspect that the two countries have diverged in this way for very different reasons. In fact, I think the lingering resentment displayed by the French servers described in this article is more a holdover from the ancien régime than something created by its overthrow in 1789. It is a modern parallel to the old, chafing class consciousness, and reflects the old divisions of education, upbringing, and geography. French peasants – both urban and rural – were overtaxed and undervalued for most of French history. They felt as though they were ignored and treated as though their opinions meant nothing, particularly in Paris, where most of upper classes lived. This was the whole cause of the French Revolution. America, in contrast, began (ostensibly) as a society of equals, in which farmers and the urban working class had as much right to participate politically as the intellectual and social elites. There were – absolutely – de facto class divisions, but in a nation of immigrants, everybody had to start from close to nothing. In comparison to the old European system of birth determining all, the American system was, from the start, a meritocracy in which hard work was prized above all. 

And it’s no coincidence that the eminent management thinker, Peter Drucker (himself an immigrant to the US) was famous for arguing for both good, old-fashioned hard work and putting the customer first. They are closely related. I object to the idea of “Joe,” the American server in the article, who (the implication is) simpers his way obsequiously through the course of meal with no genuine pride in his work, solely seeking a fat tip. In North America, great customer service is a source of pride in itself. It is also a growing trend for companies to (re)focus on the customer. In the January-February 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin describes this trend as a new, customer-focused stage of modern capitalism. Are the French so out of sync with modern management theory as to willingly slight their customers?

Quite frankly, I find the idea of French customers being mere “irritants” appalling. Does the service ethic not apply to everyone? Should Nicolas Sarkozy refuse to serve his country if we do not refer to him as “Monsieur”? Is he inferior because he ‘serves’ his voters? Is Thierry Henry inferior to his audience/ticket holders because he ‘serves’ them by bringing in goals (and controversial World Cup qualifying berths)? No. These are their jobs. Few can afford to serve none.

On a personal note, I have always found customer service in the United States to be exceptional, in every regard.  It’s a large contributor to the overall pleasant feeling I have when I’m there – and for tourists, that feeling is invaluable. Perhaps the Parisians have something to learn from the American tourists they dislike so much.

In Honour of the Winter Olympics, A Special Post on Canadian Nationalism

February 15, 2010

I get very excited when the topics I write major papers on appear in glorious technicolour on TV commercials. (Shockingly, this doesn’t happen all that often.) So I can’t help but write about the new Hudson’s Bay Company advertisement that is currently airing to foster a sense of national pride and sell $10 red mittens.

(You can also watch the video here, if you haven’t already seen it 800 times between biathlon and speed skating heats.)

The commercial is, in essence, a glossily-packaged 60-second breakdown of the major historical arguments for a Canadian national identity, as separate from an imperial one as a colony of the British Empire. Canadian nationalism always was very different from that in other parts of the Empire. In the “ruled” colonies (India, the rest of Africa, etc.), nationalism was often a much stronger and easily identifiable sentiment because the definition of nationalism usually presumes underlying ethnographic, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity and distinction from empire. Easily identified differences like these make the articulation of a national idea anti-imperial and pro-national, two separate ideas that work very well together.

In the settlement colonies (Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc.), however, imperialism was usually a more subtle and nuanced affair because it wasn’t anti-imperial. In fact, Canadian nationalism is an unstable category of analysis, because many Canadians were in fact highly supportive of British imperialism. Exploiting foreign countries for resources? Check. Advancing a pure British race in new lands? Check. Hyper-masculine militarism? But of course – isn’t this the whole idea of the Olympics in the first place? Because long before the idea of cooperation between nations, sport was all about training for war, and proving that your soldiers were younger, stronger, and fitter than the next country’s. (Especially Germany. Everyone was always on the look-out for Germany. And with good reason – when East and West Germany’s totals are added in, they’ve won more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country – by far.)

Therefore, since Canadians were, by and large, so supportive of imperial ideals, they needed to find some area of divergence from Britain. They found it in the land. It was the cold, harsh, bracing land that allowed Britannia’s children in Canada to take imperialism and advance it further than could ever happen in Britain alone. Canada’s nationalist argument was thus never anti-imperial; it was superimperial. The basis for differentiation was spatial.

I could write about this *at length* (in fact, I already have), but I will restrain myself and instead point out the supporting evidence that can so amusingly be found in the video linked to above.

“We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of rock, ice, and snow…”

I love the rugged, masculine “colonial” types that emerge from this boat (did they row from Britain? Across the Atlantic?) and immediately start running off to colonize people and, presumably, claim the land for themselves. Emigration was always promoted as a way to tame the wilderness and regain one’s sense of masculinity that had been lost in rainy, effeminate Britain. See how successful we were? Now we snowboard!

Note also, at the 0:14 second mark, the reinforcement of gender roles with the women doing laundry. How proper!

“…We didn’t just survive the elements. Together, we thrived in them.”

I love this too. See how we’ve tamed Mother Nature with our hyper-masculinism! See how we’ve bonded together, as a nation, to thrive in those elements! See what moral clarity and racial purity we have! (Note the vast quantities of snow, of course. And Caucasian people everywhere. It’s all very white.)

“We were made for this.”

Made for pioneering and exploring and skiing and running and rowing from Britain, of course. Against all of this, these Olympic Games are nothing! Hear our nifty fiddle music! See our toned bodies and hip clothing! (bonus points to HBC for so seamlessly blending their corporate history with Canadian national history. That may just be worthy of a whole separate post sometime.)

Hey, it worked. Canada is an independent nation, and we’ve also won almost six times as many Winter Olympics Medals as Britain. Go figure. Must be the red mittens. Now, if only we could figure out how to get those Olympic cauldron torches to work…

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Computers Are Making Us A Society of Elephants – But Should We Be More Like Goldfish?

February 11, 2010

What would it mean to us if we remembered everything? Terrible things, apparently.

There’s a new book out that’s concerned with data storage and the importance of teaching computers how to “forget” by deleting information. The author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, identifies four factors that have led to unprecedented amounts of data being stored indefinitely: digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach. Is all of this information a good thing? No, argues Mayer-Schönberger, on the grounds that it will cause humans to pay their whole lives for past mistakes because they will never be erased by the passage of time and natural process of forgetting. In his words, we will have “a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting.”

The book’s thesis is that it is better to forget some things, so we are able to filter through what is actually important in order to draw conclusions at a higher level of analysis. On a personal level, this makes complete sense: being mired in the details can negatively alter one’s perspective and possibly render one unable to function. But what does it mean when applied to a society, or a discipline? Isn’t society, through its historians, in need of remembering as much of the past as possible? If not, what are the limits to what societies should remember?

In many ways, the effect that increased quantities information has had and no doubt will have on history as a practice and a profession is immense. Being able to store data indefinitely with significantly less risk of primary sources being destroyed will exponentially increase the number of sources from which we draw conclusions. Consequently, it will no doubt change the tone of debates historians have about whether one can ever truly know the “facts” of the past, or discover what “really happened.” (NB: I put these expressions in quotes because I am among those who believe that our idea of what is a fact and what happened changes as society changes, and that history is not an objective thing that we can ever know, but rather an idea that we hold.) More information will also radically alter who and how many people have access to primary documents. The “global reach” factor was certainly instrumental in helping me to complete my MA thesis, for example, which was sourced almost entirely through the online collections of universities in different countries. Technology may even, in time, displace the geographical and archival advantages of universities altogether. Why go to Oxford for the Bodleian Library when you might access all of its information sitting at home in rural Missouri? Democratizing a discipline is never a bad thing.

So why should we forego any of this in favour of forgetting? Well, for one, I suspect that societies may suffer from information overload just as surely as individuals. With the past documented more richly than ever before, events that occur now will face a far greater degree of scrutiny than has previously been known. Are we then destined to drown in the details and drift toward paralysis by analysis?

I also worry about the effect of yet more data concerning the minutiae of life. History as an academic discipline is already falling victim to the dangers of over-specialization (for proof of this, check out the title of any history Ph.D. student’s dissertation. any one. you’ll enjoy yourself). More technological advances will only further the trend.

So where does that leave us? My sense is that we as a society will always want more history because as individuals we will always be curious about where we come from and where we might go. Perhaps humans will evolve and be able to process much more information, and perhaps the march of time will change the discipline of history altogether. For now I’ll note with a true sense of irony that one day I’m sure I’ll look back on this post (which will no doubt be cached somewhere, even if this blog no longer exists) and hopefully be able to ascertain its proper place in the minutiae of my life!

What do you think is the role of historians and other students of the past? Is it up to us to maintain (establish?) an acceptable level of depth/breadth in our analysis to avoid becoming irrelevant? As the tellers of stories that influence how others think about where we’ve come from, is it also our role to limit their perspectives? Let me know your thoughts.