Friday, November 18, 2011

Disposable History: Tweeting World War Two; Tweeting The Middle Passage and Slavery; Losing Ourselves

I am a bit ambivalent about "tweeting" World War 2...

There is a great deal of pressure to make the study of history and politics "relevant" to "the general public" and "young learners." The arguments are familiar: history must be made to come "alive" if it is to remain relevant; technology is an aid, an enhancement to how we share information and communicate with one another. Thus, it must be embraced, lest our culture stagnate.

I am not a Luddite. However, I do not think that newer is necessarily better. In the case of "tweeting" World War 2, I am unsure if there is any value gained from the exercise. Moreover, there is a wealth of film, radio, and other footage about World War 2--much of it still not seen or heard by the general public--so why reinvent the wheel?

Alwyn Collison is ambitious and should be commended for his efforts. Nevertheless, the question remains: what does an instantaneous, blow-by-blow accounting of World War 2 "as it happened" on Twitter expose, accomplish, or make more clear?

My worry about these types of projects is not that Google (and the Internet, more generally) is making us more stupid (which remains an open question). Rather, that some experiences are cheapened, and basic misunderstandings of the complexity of social/historical and political events furthered, by a limitation of form. Can a person really capture the spirit of World War Two in bits of text that are no longer than 140 characters?

Reality is mediated. We learn about the world in part through the mass media, and are also bounded by the limits of our own sensory perceptions. These limitations are important: they form the experience of a moment, and color how we locate a specific historical event in the proper framework and context.

For example, World War 2 was a war of radio and film. These mediums were central to how publics understood these world-changing events. The Civil War was a war of the telegraph and photographs. The Great War straddled these two moments. For outcomes, both ill and good, The Gulf Wars and the Afghan campaign are conflicts typified by immediate and near-instantaneous communication.

The lag between events, and how people removed from those direct happenings experienced them afterward, is part of the spirit of that age; in turn, distance and removal impacted how policy makers, the public, and elites responded to them. The closing of the distance between the front lines, war fighters, and commanders has changed how wars are fought. Ironically, the American public now gets its information "instantaneously" too--but, only after it has been sterilized and processed into an approved package by the propagandists, spin doctors, and dream merchants at the Pentagon and White House.

But, what of events that are made too comprehensible by Twitter, and thus in their immediacy gain "a matter of factness" which robs them of their import and historical weight?

For example:

How would one "tweet" the uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto?

"The fighting is intense. We are out of ammo. Being killed and surrounded."

How would one "tweet" their being set upon by the SS as they are herded into cattle cars to the death camps?

"So scared. What is happening. They are taking our luggage, robbing people, beating them."

How would one "tweet" the bombings of Nagasaki or Hiroshima?

"I heard a noise, There was a bright light. I can barely see. I am burned all over. What happened?"

Reaching to another moment, how does one "tweet" The Middle Passage and the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

"Went to the other village. There was a raid. We are being locked up in this castle. Losing reception. So hot, scared, people dying."

How flattening and banal.

Some events ought to be incomprehensible. These same events also benefit from the distance of the photograph, the radio, the page, or perhaps even film and TV. But Twitter? I will have to pass.

Tweeting World War 2 is a well-intentioned effort, but one which is a sign that our culture, and its legacy and meaning, are becoming (if they are already not in fact) utterly disposable and transitory.

We are left with a meta-level, ontological question: How do we communicate meaning in a substantive way, when technology is making so much of our shared experiences utterly ephemeral? Is there even "history" anymore? And should we dare to care?

1 comment:

fred c said...

Flattening and banal indeed. It's tempting to extend those comments to the Twenty-First Century in general.

The kid in the video, well, I wish him luck. This project will be a lot of work, and it will bring him no glory.