March 2009

“Would a complete chronicle of everything that ever happened eliminate the need to write history?” — St Andrews final exam question in mediaeval history, 1981

“To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine” — Max Beerbohm

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About a year ago, I took a short creative non-fiction course on the topic of writing historical narratives for a general audience. The instructor, Dr. Richard Mackie, emailed the class the above quotes, to stimulate thoughtful reflection about the nature of history and historical writing. (The first quote was actually a question that Dr. Mackie himself encountered as a History student at St. Andrews in the 80s.) These quotes have come to mind lately as I’ve been ruminating about the implications of doing history in a digital age.

The era of the Internet has, I think, made the idea of a “complete chronicle” of our current times more conceivable than ever before. The Web has certainly made it possible for virtually anyone, irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, etc., to share their thoughts, ideas, photos, videos, even “statuses” (i.e. what one is doing at a precise moment in time) continuously. Provided that all of this electronic data is adequately preserved, there is going to be a vast abundance of information available for anyone a generation or two (or more) down the road who is curious about the interests, opinions, tastes, preoccupations, etc. of ordinary people in our time.

Yet, such information, no matter how detailed, is not the same as history. The chronicling of people’s lives, even on as minute a level as that expressed in an article about “lifelogging” by New Yorker writer, Alec Wilkinson, [1] results only in the production of information. It is the interpretation of that information, the piecing together of disparate parts into a coherent and (hopefully) elegant narrative which pulls out (or, more accurately, constructs) themes and patterns, that transforms it into history, into a meaningful story about the past.

What’s interesting, of course, is that although no historian (I think) would ever claim to write the history on any subject, discussions about the potential of history in the digital age has sometimes suggested the ability for history to be more complete than ever before. The idea of hypertextual history, for instance, where readers of a historical account can click on links leading them to pertinent primary source documents on the topic, say, or to other similar or divergent viewpoints about the particular subject they’re examining, has almost a decentring impact at the same time that it provides more information. It can be easy for readers, I think, to be overwhelmed by the profusion of hyperlinks within a text, and perhaps to never finish reading the actual article to learn the historian’s particular approach to the past.

The beauty of history, I think, is not that it claims to be a complete, exhaustive chronicle that leaves no stone unturned in its examination, but that it presents one angle on the past, a new way of understanding something that is extraordinarily complex and, for that reason, is open to — and I’d even say requires — multiple interpretations. History is, after all, a story as opposed to a record book, a narrative as opposed to mere facts.

[1] Wilkinson’s interesting article recounts how computer guru Gordon Bell has been involved in a “lifelogging” experiment, in which he wears a Microsoft-developed device called a SenseCam around his neck that takes continual pictures of his day-to-day experience and allows him to record his thoughts at any given point in time if he so wishes. According to Wilkinson, Bell “collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.” Alec Wilkinson, “Remember This? A Project to Record Everything We Do in Life,” The New, May 28, 2007,

Sometimes, I wonder what historians of the future are going to be writing about, when they examine the early twenty-first century. No doubt, the term “digital revolution” is going to creep in to more than one monograph of the future about our present-day times. Cultural historians (if cultural history is still in vogue) might also, I think, take some delight in tracing the ways in which Google has entered into modern consciousness. Perhaps they’ll trace the moment when Google ceased to be only a proper noun, when the phrase “Let’s google it!” first appeared, and then flourished, in popular discourse. Or maybe they’ll explore the ways in which Google has become a part of popular culture and everyday life, to the point of inspiring satirical responses expressed in, you guessed it, digital ways.

Here are some anecdotes to help that future cultural historian.

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Awhile ago, a friend told me an amusing story about how the father of one of her friends was confused about the nature of the Internet. He had never used it before (yes, there are still such folks), and he didn’t quite know what it was all about. So, one day, he asked his son to explain, framing his question according to the only term that he was familiar with – or had heard often enough: “Is Google,” he asked innocently, “the Internet?” The son choked back a gasp of unholy laughter, and proceeded to explain the phenomenon of the Internet to his father. However, if he had simplified his response, if he had said that Google was, in a way, the Internet, he may not have been all that wrong.

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During Christmas dinner with my family this past winter, Google (of all topics) entered into our conversation. I don’t remember how exactly. All I recall is that my mom, who (yes, it’s true) had never heard of Google before, perked up when she heard the term at the dinner table, probably because of its odd sound. “Google?” she said, brows furrowed, “what is Google?” To that, my dad, without missing a beat, responded (in Chinese) that Google “is the big brother of the Internet.” Now, “big brother” (or “dai lo”) in Cantonese, when used in a figurative sense, simply means someone who is to be respected, some important or dominant figure or force. But I couldn’t help laughing at the Orwellian overtones that my father’s comment had unwittingly implied. He had meant big brother; I, of course, had heard Big Brother, Chinese-style.

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Back in September, Dr. Don Spanner, my archival sciences professor, showed the class a video clip called Epic 2015. Its opening lines were captivatingly ambiguous: “It is the best of times,” said the solemn narrator, “It is the worst of times.” We were entranced by the video’s fictitious yet somewhat chilling projection of the world in 2015, which involved no less than the merging of two powerful companies (Google and Amazon) to become Googlezon, an entity whose information-making and dissemination power had reduced even the might of the New York Times. At the end of the clip, Don joked that the first time he watched it, he just wanted to sit in a corner and stare at paper for a long, long time. We all laughed – and, perhaps, shivered inside a bit too.

Subsequently, I mentioned the clip to a friend, remarking how it was so interesting to see just how big Google had become, as evidenced by the fact that it was inspiring such responses as Epic 2015 with its subtle questioning of the Google empire and its cultural hegemony. My friend in turn enlightened me further about other similar responses. He asked if I had ever heard of “The Googling”? I hadn’t. So he emailed me links to several clips on YouTube, which explore Google’s services (such as their mapping devices) in a new – and, of course, hilariously sinister – way. To view them…simply google “The Googling.” 🙂 (There are five parts.)

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To the cultural historian of the future:

It was true. Google was (is?) ubiquitous, to the point that it entered into dinner table conversations and was mistaken (or correctly identified?) for the Internet. Even to the point of inspiring satirical YouTube clips and prophetic visions of a Google-ized world. That is, of course, when you know something is big – when it becomes the subject of cultural humour and unease, negotiated and even resisted in satirical ways.

So, we embraced Google even while scrutinizing it at arm’s length. We questioned Google even while googling. It’s what we did in the early twenty-first century.