Sunday, June 15, 2008

is social study of the Internet akin to writing a history of the present?

This weekend I´ve read two history books (Beevor on the spanish civil war, the other Garton Ash on Europe in the 1990s). And it is prompted by Timothy Garton Ash´s musings in the introduction to the volume named "History of the Present", that I now write here. I mention both books since they seem to deal with two different kinds of History scholarship: the one more traditional, the other not so; and so formed an interesting contrast for me.

In said introduction Garton Ash contemplates if not elucidates the differences between writing a history of the present versus writing journalism or say literature. What separates the first two from the third is "the kind of truth being sought" and that, for both History and Journalism the facts cannot be played "fast and loose" with. For one, he says that Historians always need at least thirty years to elapse before they tend to study an era or event what by then has been deemed to be "historical". And since his (Garton Ash´s) works have always been more about "the present", in the interstice between recording recent history as historian versus journalistic recording of what has happened, he goes on to distinguishing the two professions from one another, and in turn, from literature. As I read this intro it made me think about what differentiates good scholarly work in the area of studying the Internet, versus something as being more journalistic. For, after all, in studying technology, and in particular the Internet, are we not engaged in an exercise of writing, in a mode similar to Garton Ash, a kind of "history of the present"? In this regard, I wish Garton Ash would write a manual of praxis for his art/science, if only so that I could ponder more on what it can mean to do "social studies of the Internet". But then again, maybe my stance contradicts his closing "argument". He writes and concludes as follows:

"So I maintain that, for all its pitfalls, the literary enterprise of writing ´history of the present´ has always been worth attempting. It is even more so now, because of the way history is made and recorded in our time. And it has suffered from developments in the professions of journalism and academic history. Yet you can soon have enough of such methodological self-examination. Altogether, the habit of compulsive labelling, pigeon-holing and compartmentalizing seems to me a disease of modern intellectual life. Let the work speak for itself. In the end, only one thing matters: is the result true, important, interesting or moving? If it is, never mind the label. If it isn´t, then it´s not worth reading anyway."

(Garton Ash, T. 1999. History of the Present: Essays, sketches and despatches from Europe in the 1990s)

Links FYI publisher/purchasing info:

Garton Ash


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