Riding the "Wave of the Present"

Janice L. Reiff, February 1998

The wave of the present. That is how Christopher Tomlins elsewhere in this issue so evocatively describes the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the changes both are bringing to scholarly publishing. Powerful and appropriate, the wave of the present is a useful image around which to organize my valedictory statement as contributing editor for Computers and Software. Computing and communications technology were the wave of the present when I was first asked to solicit articles for Perspectives late in 1989. They are the wave of the present today and they will continue to be the wave of the present in at least the foreseeable future. But, as the articles that appear in this issue illustrate so well, what that wave means for the practice of history remains an unanswered question. Will it be as gentle and easy to accommodate as the waves on the beach at Santa Monica three hundred and thirty days a year? Or will it be like the spectacular, El Ni&ntildeo-driven waves that FEMA and local newscasters warn Southern Californians of almost daily?

Past experience suggests that it will be a combination of both. Back in 1989, when the AHA decided that it should formally address the topic, computing and communication technologies had already brought fundamental changes to the way in which we historians accomplished the tasks of our profession. Computers and word processing software of all types had replaced typewriters on many desks. Physical card catalogues were disappearing in university libraries or were becoming the domain of those of us who regularly used materials acquired before some fixed date when the online catalog had been put into effect. Any number of colleges and universities had introduced e-mail and, thanks to the Iran-Contra investigation, historians were even starting to understand how electronic communications would change the archival research of their students and their students' students. A handful of colleges required incoming freshmen to have a computer for their coursework and were suggesting to faculty that they might design ways to make those computers relevant for all classes. Teaching packages like David Miller's Great American History Machine suggested that computers might, in fact, have more use in history courses than just to spell-check essays.

The challenge, as the editors of Perspectives saw it then, was how to keep historians on top of the wave of computing technology and give them some control over where they were being pushed by it. If the last eight years have proven anything, they have shown just how difficult meeting that challenge continues to be, as old considerations remain and new ones appear.

Take, for example, the challenge of "computer literacy." As Charles Evans and Robert Brown demonstrate so well in their essay, even today's college students, many of whom were born after the first Apple computer, have little experience with or knowledge of computers. Despite the hopes and plans of every university committee that discusses computer literacy for either students or faculty, this is a challenge that will never fully go away. Mastering it is not like mastering the typewriter--the old analogy that was regularly made. That is because the computer along with its applications and contents are infinitely expandable and changeable. In that sense, the technology is more akin to the technologies of paper and the book--the greater the skill and the imagination that one brings to it, the more both the user and producer can do with it.

But unlike book and paper, computing and communications technology seems to change continuously. The best evidence of this lies in the technology discussed in the essays in this issue--the Internet and the World Wide Web. In 1989, the Internet was already 20 years old. However, in October of that year there were only 159,000 Internet hosts (as compared to the 19,540,000 hosts that were connected in July 1997).1 Tim Berners-Lee had just proposed a global hypertext project for the first time, a project that would not be realized until 1991 and would not start to become generally available until 1993 when the NCSA introduced the web browser, Mosaic. The theory of the web had been around since at least 1945 when Vannevar Bush published his Atlantic Monthly article and Theodor Nelson had defined hypertext and implemented examples of it in the 1960s. For most computer users in 1989, however, even hypertext was new and only familiar, if at all, as HyperCard, a program Apple was bundling with every new Macintosh. No one but a few visionaries and zealots would have predicted in 1989 that by today there would be literally hundreds of millions of pages on an international World Wide Web which then did not exist.

These kinds of remarkable developments create a situation where historians, and most others without the time and financial resources to stay at the cutting edge, are regularly stranded between the old and new technologies. Certainly that is part of what Andrew McMichael describes in his essay when he points to the limitations of both the "older" technologies like mailing lists and the newer technologies like the web. Just as we learn enough about one technology to bend it to our needs and to understand the ways it can help us to redefine our questions and tasks as historians, a new technology appears that creates a whole new set of techniques to learn and possibilities to consider.

The essays by Patricia Seed, Tomlins, and Carl Smith demonstrate the imaginative results and critical issues that arise when historians actually ride the wave of one of the new technologies. Taken together, they address most of the tasks historians do: research, teaching, and publishing. Seed demonstrates how the web and its internationalization has opened new possibilities for her students to do research that had previously been unavailable to them and to visualize and interpret historical data that, in other media, had been difficult to understand. Equally important, she argues, the "democratic reach provided by the World Wide Web" opened up new understandings of cultural and political dynamics that would not have emerged so quickly, if at all, without it. Tomlins's confrontation of the challenge of technological redefinition in the arena of scholarly publishing is something that every scholar interested in publishing, whether electronically or not, should read for what it says about the place of publishing in the historical profession. But it should also be read for what it reveals about the diverse assumptions that drive the application of computing and communications technology in the academic environment, the potential implications of those assumptions, and his insistence that we, as historians and scholars, understand and control as much of the wave as possible.

Smith's positive answer to the question "can you do serious history on the web?" not only demonstrates how the properties of hypermedia can lead historians to approach historical questions and present historical answers in new ways, but also challenges us to reflect on how we think about technology, theory, and the practice of history. It reminds us that when we, as historians, define computing as simply a technology, we overlook the fact that it is also rich in theory. Only by considering those theoretical aspects of hypermedia as scholars like George Landow have done, can we begin to answer Tomlins's concern that hypertext is less friendly to linear argumentation or explicit interpretive narrative.2 They would argue that hypermedia allows more complex argumentation and multiple interpretive narratives along the lines suggested by many postmodern theorists, especially if links and design are conceived of as part of the argument rather than as just footnotes and aesthetics. Certainly, Smith's The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory demonstrates a rich, multilayered narrative that is explicitly interpretive. In doing so, it raises the possibility that one way to bridge the gap between historical practice and contemporary theory might be by using new technologies to present new narratives.

Smith's article also raises, indirectly, another wave of the present that is challenging historians--commercialization. The Great Chicago Fire, like Ed Ayer's often-cited Valley of the Shadow, was the result of a joint effort involving historians, computer experts, designers, and funders. Both projects were expensive not only because of the scholars' time, an expense we all know well, but also because of the technical staffs, the rich visual and audio components, and the cost of the design. The results are impressive--good history and a design that places them among the top historical sites in the marketplace of the web. But most sites constructed by historians, some of which we all might agree are excellent history, attract little notice at all, in large part because their design is not competitive with commercial vendors of history. As audiences and expectations change with the web, historians will have to understand both better or accept the fact, as one commercial web designer announced to a class of mine, that the commercial entities will "show historians how to do history." The need to understand those audiences and expectations will be especially important as colleges and universities start to make decisions about how they want to use the new technologies to "sell" course content to students on campus and beyond. At UCLA, at least, that wave is certainly part of our present.

So what does all of this tell us about riding these waves into the future? Perhaps inspired by Tomlins's advice not to mourn but to organize, I would like to close with the image that his phrase first brought to my mind, an image that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 11, 1894. In it, Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, uses a broom labeled "strike and discontent" to stir up a gently rolling sea labeled "labor unions." Although the Tribune cartoonist was parodying him, showing the crown on his head melting into a fool's cap, Debs was no fool. He understood that the technologies then changing so many peoples' lives were not value-neutral and involved issues of control over what was produced as well as what was consumed. He understood the importance of collective action in achieving goals. And he knew that one could not simply ride the wave but must also try to channel it as he demonstrated when he observed that "the very sea has to be consistently agitated to prevent its becoming stagnant." We, as historians, need to follow his advice by understanding the technologies of computing and communications not just as consumers but as critics. We need to understand our relationship to the technology as content producers as well as sellers. When we do, we, like Debs, may feel the need to do something shaping it to our own purposes.

—Janice L. Reiff teaches 20th-century U.S. history and quantitative methods at UCLA. Her forthcoming book is entitled Manufacturing Communities: Pullman Workers and Their Towns. A new edition of her helpful introduction to computers, Digitizing the Past: The Use of Computers and Communication Technologies in History, will be published by the AHA in fall 1998.


1. HIT: Hobbes' Internet Timeline (http://info.isoc.org/guest/zakon/Internet/History/HIT.html).

2. George Landow's Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Parallax: Re-Visions of Culture and Society) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) provides an excellent introduction to the relationship between hypertext and, in this case, literary theory.