The Dangers of Microwave History: Myth or Reality?

The rapid success of Wikipedia has demanded the attention of both writers and users of history. There is still much debate over whether Wikipedia has had a negative effect on the Historian’s Craft. To understand why many writers and users of history are divided on this topic, we must first understand the different objectives and concerns that shape their perspectives. Understanding these differences will also reveal why in the face of all its criticisms, Wikipedia, “In a few short years, has become perhaps the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource available on the World Wide Web.”1

Despite its success, some writers of history have voiced their criticism of Wikipedia. Much of the criticism stems from the belief that works authored by single authors is the standard and good professional practice requires attributing ideas and words to specific historians. Wikipedia on the other hand, is a historical work without owners and with multiple, anonymous authors, which is not in line with the culture of history professionals, and is characterized by protected individualism. Many professionals are not willing to abandon individual credit and individual ownership of intellectual property rights as do Wikipedia authors because of potential credit issues and interpretive disputes. This is especially true for collaborative works. Some history professional regard Wikipedia as more informal and more casual than one would expect in a professional setting. Entries are often choppy, resulting from combining sentences, paragraphs and complete works written by different people, which means that Wikipedia sometimes gets things wrong in one place and right in another. Users of Wikipedia have also found that it has a considerable amount ill-informed and amateurish work, (anyone can use it). And what happens when one person’s interpretation clashed with the collective narrative? These cases increase the potential for unverified, incorrect and even vandalized work to be propagated to millions of potential readers.

In defiance of all these criticisms, Wikipedia has been described as “one of the most fascinating developments of the Digital Age; an incredible example of open source Intellectual collaboration.”2 Amazingly it’s widely read and cited information has grown to “3 million articles (1 million of them in English). History is probably the category encompassing the largest number of articles.”3 And, “More than a million people a day visit the Wikipedia site.”4 According to the Alexa traffic ranking, Wikipedia ranks well above The New York Times, the Library of Congress, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.   So to what does Wikipedia owe this success? Wikipedians seem to agree that three key advantages are the instruments of its success. First of all it’s free to be used by anyone who has internet access. And this capability on the common cell phone contributes to Wikipedia being considered the most accessible sources of historical data. Its vast collections of historical information are readily available at the tip of your finger for free, which is in contrast to most academic scholarship which lies on library shelves or behind electronic subscription paywalls. Another key advantage of Wikipedia is the freedom and ease of its use. As the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) states: “You may copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or non-commercially, provided … you add no other conditions whatsoever to those of this License.”5 One further implication of Wikipedia’s implementation of free and open-source software principles, Roy Rosenzweig argues, is that “its content is available to be downloaded, manipulated, and “data mined”–something not possible even with many resources (newspapers, for example) that can be read free online.”6 Showing up at the top of Google rankings reinforces students’ tendency to use the most recognizable source they encounter first, rather than searching multiple unfamiliar sources of information. Wikipedia’s ease of revision is also considered by history writers to be an advantage because they have the ability update or revise their work instantly and easily. This enables them to quickly remedy defects or provide alternative perspectives to critiques of their work , which is considered to be an advantage, because its contents tend to be more current than a traditional encyclopedias. Some historians also believe that Wikipedia’s ease of use and accessibility to the common man has the capability to enhance history by linking historians with anyone who may have some memory of an historical event. Rosenzweig writes “If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.”7

So, it appears that the key to Wikipedia’s success is not necessarily that it is a better source of historical material, but because its free and it satisfies the preferences of our “Microwave Society,” The mindset of wanting everything “Quick and Simple”. Even the name Wikimedia is derived from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, meaning “quick” or “informal.” Technology has made gathering and providing information extremely quick and relatively simple, and we’ve begun to think that everything in life should be available instantly and on demand to the point that “Quick and Simple” is becoming a core value of our society, outweighing some traditional and institutional values. Quick meals…microwave, quick information…Internet, quick mail… Email, quick music ITunes, quick friends…Facebook,     quick relationships…Online dating, quick history…Wikipedia, and the list goes on. As Daniel J. Cohen has argued, “resources such as Wikipedia that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better.”8 Access to these “Quick and Simple” services are not is bad things at all, but for many it has created a false sense of what it takes to be successful in different areas of our lives. The quest for “Quick and Simple” everything is making us more dependent on providers of “Quick and Simple” services. This is OK as long as we don’t stop there and forget where and how to get what we need on our own. So, what are the dangers (if any) of relying too heavily on the service of quick history that Wikipedia provides? Does this service “strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery?”9

 

 Notes

    1. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006), 119.
    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid.,117.
    4. Ibid.,118.
    5. Ibid.,123.
    6. Ibid.
    7. Shawn Graham, Guy Massie, and Nadine Feuerherm, “The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History,” in Dougherty and Nawrotzki, http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/.
    8. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006), 112.
    9. Rebecca Onion, Snapshots of History, Slate, February 5, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2014/02/_historyinpics_historicalpics_history_pics_why_the_wildly_popular_twitter.html.
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Dark Matter in a New Light

The blog “Dark Matter” by Michael Peter Edson, compares the 90% of the Internet’s capability that are not being utilized by museums and other cultural institutions to the dark matter which comprises 90% of the mass of the universe. You may ask “what is dark matter?”   Well, according Edson, evidence of dark matter in the universe was discovered in 1967 by Vera Rubin, a junior astronomer fresh out of graduate school. And, the existence of dark matter has been proven in every measurement of over a thousand galaxies that Rubin or any other astronomer has taken since. Rubin said:

“We became astronomers thinking we were studying the universe, and now we learn that we are just studying the 5 or 10 percent that is luminous.”

In comparison, Edson believes that like the dark matter in the universe, 90% of the Internet’s capabilities to accomplish the missions of museums and other cultural institutions has not been explored. Edson states:

“Dark matter—whatever it is—seems to comprise 90% the mass of the universe—hard to see, but so forceful that it seems to move every star, planet, and galaxy in the cosmos. And 90% of the Internet is made up of dark matter too—hard for institutions to see, but so forceful that it seems to move humanity itself.”

“Despite the best efforts of some of our most visionary and talented colleagues, we’ve been building, investing, and focusing on only a small part of what the Internet can do to help us accomplish our missions.”

Edson also uses the success of the John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 videos as an example of the types of Internet dark matter that appears to have been overlooked or perhaps rejected by museums and other cultural institutions. Edson writes:

“Hank and John Green are working in, and they’re part of, a kind of Internet production—a kind of interaction—that is difficult for institutions to think of as legitimate, sufficiently respectable, educational, scholarly, or erudite.“

“If you announced to your museum director or boss that you intended to hire Hank and John Green to make a series of charming and nerdy videos about literature, art, global warming, politics, travel, music, or any of the other things that Hank and John make videos about you would be thrown out of whatever office you were sitting in and probably be asked to find another job.”

However, it appears that the public agrees with John and Hank’s unconventional use of the Internet’s capabilities, because according to Edson:

“In seven years, the two lovable nerds used YouTube and their own creativity to build what amounts to a vast educational content community that any museum or cultural institution on the planet would be proud to call their own. They’ve got millions of avid followers, they’ve helped give millions of dollars to charity, they’ve elevated and sustained a discourse about culture, science, thought, suffering, and existence—and they’re having a blast and making people happy.”

Another common theme between the discovery of dark matter in the universe and John and Hank Green’s discovery of new creative uses for the Internet is that these discoveries were made in ways you would not expect, and by people whom you would not expect. The Dark matter in the universe was discovered by Vera Rubin a junior astronomer fresh out of graduate school on her first night of her first job, rather than by a credentialed astronomy scholar. And the dark matter of the Internet was discovered by the Greens, two nerds utilizing YouTube videos, rather than by credentialed institution professionals.

Both Rubin and the Greens gained credibility by their discoveries and accomplishments and not as a result of scholarly or professional credentials, which supports my position on the subject of credibility and how it is gained, which was discussed during the 28 January 2016 UMSL Museums and History in the Digital Age class. In fact, there are many examples of people who lived extraordinary lives and made incredible accomplishments and discoveries, yet few people had ever heard of them prior to their accomplishments.

This is especially true for many African Americans like George Washington Carver.   According the article by Dave Meyer “Honoring A Godly Hero,” Dr. Carver developed over 418 inventions through his experiments with peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans, including cosmetics face powder, lotion, cold cream, shaving cream, salad oil, flour, rubbing alcohol, instant coffee, printers ink, leather stains, paints and nontoxic colors from which crayons were eventually created, to name a few. He also made a number of medical contributions such as Phenol and a cure for infantile paralysis. Interestingly, Dr. Carver named his laboratory Gods Little Workshop. He never took any scientific text books into it. He simply went in, locked the door behind him and asked God how to perform his experiments. During one of his lectures, he told an assembly, God is going to reveal to us things He never revealed before if we put our hands in His. The things I am to do and the ways of doing it are revealed to me. I never have to grope for methods. The method is revealed to me the moment I am inspired to create something new. Without God to draw aside the curtain I would be helpless.”

Dr. Carver’s practical yet profound insights not only enlightened minds but also touched the hearts of people from all walks of life. Dr. Carver was visited by Vice President Calvin Coolidge and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became a close friend and adviser to leaders and scientist from around the world, ranging from Thomas Edison to Mahatma Ghandi. Henry Ford also became a personal friend of Dr. Carver. Ford was fascinated with Dr. Carver’s method of making rubber from milkweed. He tried many times to get Dr. Carver to join him in business, but Carver never accepted. He remained steadfast and committed to helping his people in the south. In 1921 he accepted an invitation to address the United States Senate Ways and Means Committee in Washington D. C., regarding the potential use of peanuts and other new crops to improve the economy of the South. Carver was given 10 minutes to speak, but once the committee became captivated by his words and delivery, the chairman granted carver unlimited time. At the end of his address, which lasted for an hour and 45 minutes, the committee chairman asked Dr. Carver how he had learned all the things he had spoken about. Dr. Carver answered: “from and old book.” “What book?” asked the Senator. Carver replied, “The Bible.” The senator inquired, “Does the Bible tell about peanuts?” “No, Sir” Dr. Carver replied, “But it tells about the God who made the peanut. I asked him to show me what to do with the peanut, and he did.”1 The most interesting part of this example is that Dr. Carver, an accomplished scholar himself, attributes his discoveries to his faith in God rather than scholarly endeavors. And like power of dark matter and the Internet, Carver discovered that the power of his faith, was waiting to be fully explored.

In conclusion, accepting the following paradigms will help us to “see the light” in dark matter:

  • The decision making processes of museums and other cultural institutions may need to place a higher priority on “social acceptance” and serving communities to accomplish their missions, which are becoming less about the exclusivity, academic scholarship, institutional professionalism or accreditations, and more about relevancy and giving people what they want or need to succeed.
  • Although academic scholarship and professional credentials have merit, we must be careful that in the quest for credible sources, that we don’t overlook, discourage or exclude the 90% of dark matter that is not considered scholarly or professional, because it may contain the missing ingredients that are needed to accomplish our goals.

 

Notes and Links

Michael Peter Edson, “Dark Matter: The Dark Matter of the Internet is Open, Social, Peer-to-Peer and Read/Write—And It’s the Future of Museums, May 19,2014.  https://medium.com/tedx-experience/dark-matter-a6c7430d84d1#.n7rbitvn9

Dave Meyer, “Honoring a Godly Hero,” Enjoying Everyday Life January 2006

Wiliam J. Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis: Ameriseach, Inc. 2000) See note 2, p. 96.