Networks, Narratives, and the Future of History

“In a distracted world where even undergraduates at top universities are increasingly challenged to read the kinds of books we have traditionally written, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past…what is the future of history?” (Cronon, 5)

After completing the readings for this week, I found myself exhausted, mentally and emotionally—is that odd? Of course I would be mentally worn out…late nights and early mornings with seminars and work in between would spell exhaustion for even the most lighthearted or easygoing individual. But the emotional exhaustion I get from reading the deluge of words and concepts we have thrown our way every week is striking. I attribute this to two things: first, that most of the readings take us all on a rollercoaster ride from dire texts heeding us to change the track we are on, to thoughts of hope and suggestions for development; second, that I am completely invested in this field. And I rationalize this investment by thinking, “This is what the field needs—people who are invested. People who care this much.” And I do.

But I digress.

I took that familiar rollercoaster ride this week in the readings, specifically between the Weinberger and Cronon readings. The Weinberger reading was actually extremely compelling. It introduced ways of thinking about “information overlaod” that I had never considered. Specifically that the notion that the newest phase in our system of knowledge—networking—is changing, even uprooting the very foundation of knowledge. The concept that limitless access to knowledge could be a negative thing seemed contradictory—isn’t that what we as historians, not to mention humans, are always trying to do? The more we know, the more we can make sense of the world around us and how it came to be. At least, in theory. Weinberger does well to dash that assurance, stating:

Our new medium of knowledge is shredding our old optimism that we could all agree on facts and, having done so, could all agree on conclusions. Indeed, we have to wonder whether that old optimism was based on the limitations inherent in paper publishing: We thought we were building an unshaken house based on the foundation of facts simply because the clamorous disagreement had no public voice (41).

And with Chapters 1 through 4, Weinberger essentially shredded my optimism. What is the old saying—“we fear what we don’t understand”? Well, I don’t fully understand the capacity of this new medium of knowledge, and I think that’s Weinberger’s point. Because networking contains and shares limitless knowledge, there will be a limitless amount of “facts” and a limitless amount of “evidence” to disprove said facts. Without the filters traditionally used to determine what information was important, and what was a “fact”, the foundation upon which we have built the ideas and institutions of knowledge seems a little less solid than it used to.

Thankfully, the Cronon article swept in and saved the day. Pointing to additional issues caused by the Digital Age, such as the loss of the ability or desire of students to research or read offline, Cronon asserts that the future of history is in a desperate state. However, he also offers a substantial suggestion to alleviate the issue: storytelling. Cronon suggests a return to the basics to which anyone can relate. His point draws (though inadvertently) from the Tosh Chapter 5 and the different forms of historical writing, emphasizing the importance of the narrative. Tosh states, “…[H]istory without narrative is a non-starter. It is narrative that gives shape and direction to what would otherwise be a formless, incoherent mess…” (258). Cronon takes this thought a step further, affirming that, “From these most basic stories about the past flow myriad others. They are part of the common heritage of humanity, which is why we share their telling with everyone else who narrates the past. That is what makes them so powerful and why it is so crucial that historians never tire of telling them…”(19). With this suggestion, I think Cronon incites hope for the future of history. It is imperative to go back to basics, especially in a day and age when the quantity and access to information is inexhaustible, and when “professional boredom” and “overloads of overloads” have become the norm (Cronon, 6; Weinberger, 9).

Thanks to Cronon, I finished the readings this week on a high note. However, I am still a little uncertain about how to return to the rudimentary from the matrix of knowledge. How can we get free of the wicked world-wide-web in order to tell the stories that really matter? How can we convince others to do the same?

…I suppose I could just Google it.

One thought on “Networks, Narratives, and the Future of History”

  1. Hi Carmen,

    I agree with you that Cronon is offering a solution to the problem of inattention and lack of interest in the digital age. I actually thought that Weinberger was more optimistic than Cronon about what we can do with the internet, but they were addressing somewhat different issues. In suggesting storytelling as a way to re-engage the audience in history, isn’t Cronon kind of asking us to re-examine an older way of relaying historical information, while Weinberger is theorizing about what this new world of “networked facts” means for information?

    Claire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.