Convergence Culture and the Future of History

I have always firmly believed, along with Pieter Geyl, that the historian is tasked with the protection of the collective memories of society’s past—all of them.  But the historian of one-hundred years from now will have a difficult task ahead of them.  In the field I will soon enter, the study of the ancient past is one where the information is lacking.  However the historian of 2110 will have a whole new problem.  The field of twenty-first century history will be overburdened with information.

Not all of this information will be useful, but this is only part of a situation that is steadily beginning to show itself.  In our world today, convergence culture is the mainstream and any social historian of the future will need to take into account the degree in which society changes and adapts and how technology will have adapted with it.  That we have commodified, in a very real sense, the information we exchange and the manner in which we exchange it, has also changed forever the face of history as an entity which exists as something external from society.  It can no longer be ignored: history, as an entity of the past—once thought to be something near dead—is no longer this stagnant thing but one which weaves itself in and out, over and under, along with, and in some ways ahead, of society.

The blog has replaced the water cooler, the cell phone has altered how we interact with entertainment and each other, and we, as individuals, have continued to push the technologies into smaller, more convenient packages, with more features and more interactive capabilities than ever before.  As we change with technology, we are participating in the continued process of forcing technology to change with us.   It’s a vicious circle that cannot be slowed, cannot be stemmed but only accepted.  How does this effect history and the field in the future?

For years now, the benefit of blogs in academia has been under debate.  On the one hand, there is a strong distrust of blogs as a source of information; blogs are generally free from peer review in the same way a journal would not be, they permit comments (most do, anyway) so the community (lay and academic alike) can participate in a discussion about the material, and they are difficult to source or cite, as the material can be edited, changed, or removed completely.  After all what might be next?  Some of the more fearful academics dread the day when an SBL or JSOT treatment cites a twitter reference or a text message.

On the other hand, blogs can be quite comprehensive, if not on the same level of some journal articles.  The same sort of media is used (a word document can just as easily be pasted into a blog as it can be sent to a copy-editor).  Additionally, some argue, the blog is the fastest way to get a new idea out to the community of experts and nonexperts alike.  Since popular media channels like the History Channel or Discovery have already started to popularize history for the lay audience, often spreading misinformation or false information displacing (at least for the layman) credible historical investigations on the subject.  It might be useful, some say, to use the internet and popular media to correct the damage done by many of these shows which have turned history into a series of dramatic cuts and edits.

How we teach history has changed as well.  Classes have moved from stuffy rooms into our own homes, with online courses, online lectures, podcasts, and even Youtube videos.  Professors now can make video logs on certain class assignments, give lectures using online video tools, create apps which provide the student with incredible access to the information on a scale never before seen.  In the future, how will history be taught?  Will convergence culture force it to become more interactive in order to keep up with a society which seems hell-bent on moving faster, more efficiently, on a coffee break, during commercials?

Indeed, the very definition of history seems to be changing.  History is no longer the study of the past; it has become much more than that.  As a result of the so-called information age, it is much harder to not participate in world, human events.  When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the area affected by the disaster was grand, but hardly experienced in mainland Spain and it is very unlikely that the native peoples living in the Americas had any clue about it.   Today, however, when a volcano erupts, the event causes the whole world to pause.  Flights are delayed, business meetings are canceled. When an earthquake or a tsunami tear a country apart, the whole world feels interconnected–economically, socially–to the point where even some of the poorest nations seek to give assistance in whatever way they can.

The social historian who might study the Jewish communities in ancient Egypt, for example, is faced with some similar questions when compared to those who might today study the current immigration issues taking place in our own United States; but the convergence culture in which we live has complicated these questions to a large degree.  What happens, for example, when an illegal immigrant does the right thing, calls 911 to save someone, but faces deportation as a result?  What about the thousands of Hispanics living in this country who work hard and strive to live better lives, who obey our laws, even learn the English language, but are afraid to be denied citizenship?  The media has played into these questions and the speed with which information is made readily available to society via the internet makes it difficult for the average citizen to come up with any definitive answer.  For the historian looking at these issues in the future, the decisions we make now—ultimately influenced by convergence—will be that much more blurred.

Why more blurred?  The digital generation in which we live has allowed us, individually and culturally to transcend geographical boundaries, replacing ideas of nationalism and even family ties with much more general concepts of what it means to connect with people on a deep level.   Online message boards or internet gaming communities have eroded the concept of local friendships, allowing close relationships–even romantic ones–to develop without either party ever meeting in person; in some instances, relationships can be kept simply through texting.  Suddenly it isn’t about whether someone is “American,” for a growing generation of youths, it is more about which internet community you belong to and can relate with.  Technology is even altering the synchronic language system, forever changing the diachronic system for the future.  The concepts that plague the older generations of Americans are becoming less and less important to us.  After all, what is the big deal if Latinos are crossing the borders when you can span oceans with the touch of a button?  Technology is making, and will continue to make, old prejudices obsolete.  Of course, as a result, new ones are developing.

What do you think?  How is history, its portrayal, its influence, changing in light of convergence culture?  How have those of us within the community changed with it?

3 Responses

  1. Technology will drastically reshape learning both inside and outside academia. I would not be surprised if 40% of all classes go online in the next 10 years. It’s just a cheaper medium.

    This is also a big win for self learners since they now have access to more educational content than in anytime in history!

    Berkeley now provides free recorded lectures online

    And Tunes university pairs the internet,opencourseware and mobile listening device all in one.

    As far as history most people will get it from Wikipedia but at least that’s better than the history channel!

  2. Tom,
    Nice work! This is a very timely subject.

    “It can no longer be ignored: history, as an entity of the past—once thought to be something near dead—is no longer this stagnant thing but one which weaves itself in and out, over and under, along with, and in some ways ahead, of society.”

    This point is well taken. It conjures the image of history as a function of society, not as mere social-memory-reconstruction, but as a political tool. This is nothing new, of course, people have always “used” history. But I’m thinking of how the Mexican might construct a “history of immigration” vs the Tea Party American who might construct a “history of law” or how a Conservative Christian might construct an “apostolic history” and, say, you would construct a “literary history” How might those messages become clearer, or less so, within a convergence culture is a question that very much resonates with me.

    “…but the convergence culture in which we live has complicated these questions to a large degree.”

    Indeed! Whether the protests in Iran that we all saw on Twitter or the more recent Arizona SB1070, this convergence culture has allowed communication of ideas to rapidly spread, often preempting national media. The implications for nationalism and national borders are vast. If the present angst concerning these matter are any indication, proponents have a dim future, imo.

    Once again, nice work!


  3. […] community will approve, some may worry, others may ponder the implications (as I have done in the past), but none the less, I will be participating.  This is quite exciting news indeed. Advertisement […]

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