Fact, fabrication, and the Internet

I love pondering issues like this. The Atlantic headline and subtitle pretty much explain it:

"How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit"

T. Miles Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet. 
 

Yes, truth. And the Internet. As the article points out, trust is often built in (or is lacking) in the types of communities depending on it to get the hard facts, the real truth, about things like, oh, history. And with the fractured and anonymous nature of communities and identities online, the entire process of garnering truth and facts from the Internet poses problems; there is a lack of distinct trust.

This is what Reddit, the social news website, does have compared to a website like Wikipedia. Reddit users, with their internal community and forum-based responses and discourse, were able to see the clues and suspicious bits surrounding T. Miles Kelly's students' fabricated experiment in Internet deceivery--an intentional task aimed at exactly this point: who and what is the source of the information you find online?

The Georgia Mason University professor spends a whole semester on this point, in a course he teaches called Lying About the Past. And even though, this time around, Reddit broke open the whole faked case in a matter of hours, the lesson was still there:

The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. "Why would I design a course," Kelly asks on his syllabus, "that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?" Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into "much better consumers of historical information," and at the same time, "to lighten up a little" in contrast to "overly stuffy" approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian's craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

There were certainly people, like the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who are enraged by this kind of flagrant misuse of a website like Wikipedia--where the point is to fabricate on purpose, adding plausible, if slightly far-fetched, tidbits to historical Wikipedia entries and seeing how much they can get away with.

But the whole point is to think more carefully, more deeply, about the source of information. His approach is stunning to me, who until very recently had been a constant student of history courses over the span of two degrees. It is essential to make sure young historians understand these lessons. So I am all for his unorthodox methods. After all, with an online encyclopedia that is built on trust, and especially, on goodwill and a common interest, one can spend a bit of time ruminating on what might occur if someone sought to sabotage such an effort, with tiny and insidious bits of fabricated "history." It is an extreme example of what we know to be existent in many other kinds of sources too, including the heralded Ink-and-Paper-Book.

 

Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

My bread-and-butter

Having finished the first half of the semester, I have finished writing one of the two main research papers that have been assigned to me this spring. The first was the easier one, and also the less interesting of the two. The second is the one I turn to now, to focus my attention and tackle head-on. Sitting at the very beginning of projects like this is the worst part for me; the whole thing looming in front of me is intimidating. The paper is not due until the final week of class, around April 21 I think, but this is going to require a lot of thought and time. I also hate hate the crunch feeling of finishing a huge assignment the day (or even last few days) before it is due. So, ahead I charge. The assignment (for my World Since 1945 class) is to research an event of international political significance that has taken place between 1945 and 1999. Approaching it at a specific angle-- versus just attempting to do "the Vietnam War"-- we need to examine three primary sources relating to that event. So basically, I need three sources coming from the time period that the event occurred, analized and compared in 5 pages. I've not done much yet in my career in history with primary sources, and that is essentially the bread-and-butter of an historian's job. Examining the documents (journals, letters, government documents, etc.) that remain from history give us the real insight. It is when the analysis comes in that books and essays are created, giving us the perspectives we may have on history. You have historians to thank for compiling and tidying much of the history you know.

For my topic, I have chosen the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that Mao Tse-tung began in communist China in the 1960's. His confidence that tradition and intellectuals would ruin the socialist society was so strong, thousands died in the wake of their attempted obliteration. This is when the Red Guard came to be, and images  still linger of young children in their Maoist uniforms patrolling their country for "revisionists" who posed a threat to the state.

From this period of Chinese history I will draw several primary sources and narrow it down to the three that best bring varying viewpoints to the table. My initial research returned several works of compiled documents from the state and Mao, a compilation of first-person accounts of the response of Chinese villagers and peasants, and several works from reporters and diplomats from abroad who experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand while there. I will be going through these sources and others, and hopefully narrowing it all down to my main three points of view on the singular movement. From there, I will look at the Cultural Revolution as an entity and use those three viewpoints to analyze it; vise-versa, I will use the context of the Cultural Revolution to analyze what is said in the documents I choose.

Sitting at the start, this seems like both a daunting and exhilarating project. But at the same time, this is an essential part of doing research-- looking at primary sources. And I couldn't ask for more flexibility in the topic, nor for a better topic. China is, after all, full of intrigue for a foreigner. So, I must get started.

Thoughts on History: Part II

Continuing my discourse on history, and what that concept means and entails, I will admit that I am skeptical of the history I have seen in China. A good illustration of my reasoning came with the field trip my history class took to Anyang, an ancient Chinese city and the location of the famous oracle bone inscriptions. Before visiting the site, we were assigned some reading about the meaning and significance of the oracle bones and their messages, the tombs of leaders and their wives, and the human sacrifices and huge graves that were prepared in their names, including the burying of entire carriages with the horses that would “pull” them in the afterlife. Although I found this type of tomb preparation a bit absurd, I felt prepared and was interested to visit these relics.

What I found were some rather subtly announced “recreations” of what the oracle bones might have looked like during the time of their use, which were displayed outside. Inside a little room, the “real” bones lay in a dimly-lit pit, in piles of indiscernible rubble. Owing to the condition of these, I was dubious to believe that even these “authentic” ones were the oracle bones, laying in that condition.

The clincher for my dismissal of authenticity came when looking at the human sacrifices: skeletons laying in pits under round glass enclosures, soaking in the sun so the tourists could marvel over them. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that “ancient skeletons” would be exposed to various weather and temperature conditions for the sake of attracting tourism?

Seems to me that thousand-year-old human remains might have to be contained in proper storage. Upon close inspection, it was clear that some of the skeletons were real. I don’t doubt that—I’m sure some humans were sacrificed, or at least utilized after dying anyway, when this site was being established. Perhaps during the Cultural Revolution? Punishment for political insurrection?

Another example is the Shaolin Temple. It’s beautiful, no denying that, and the site itself has a long and significant history in China and within Buddhism. The tour guide then explains that the temples were destroyed many times, and the most recent ones were built in the 1980s.

Oh, OK. That takes away some of the grandeur the visit may have held for me. I’ve lived in houses much older than that.

The phrase I like to use to explain my process of viewing history now is the old aphorism of taking life “with a grain of salt.” I can absorb the things I see— the temples, museums, mausoleums, relics, pagodas, walls, and their stories—and appreciate what they stand for, and what they mean to the nation who holds them as part of their past. I then move on, knowing that what these stand for is much more important than the actual items or sites themselves. It is unwise and unnecessary to consider these things as more than they are—and placing undue authenticity on them just doesn’t make sense to me.

This process builds on something I learned last fall in a “world language and culture” class. In reading any set of statistics, one can often see the agenda of the publishers of such information. My professor— herself an absolutely brilliant and delightful intellectual—emphasized the importance of also approaching maps and history this same way. Cartographers also have an agenda; they are out to prove their point.

Political maps? Chock-full of biases. Maps detailing which languages are spoken where, or which religions are practiced most? That research changes according to who is retrieving it.

The same is the case with history. As I said in my previous discourse, history is distorted over time, across borders, in various contexts, for different races, religions, and economies

I take it all with a grain of salt. I learn as much as I can with the best use of the resources available, and also keep in mind that I’m storing this information in a western-bred mind. Being outside one’s own culture does emphasize what is not consciously considered when within it—how deeply people are defined by their society.

This resonates with the studying of history; ask a Ukrainian child and American child about the Cold War and you will get two different accounts. Ask a Japanese student and a Chinese student about the presence of Japanese military in Nanjing, China, and you will hear two different tales, with different enemies and reasoning behind the event.

So can I really blame the Chinese for wanting to present a rich, deeply archeological past? There’s no doubt they have this history. Seeing the relics and sites so far, I have established my own perception of all this history, and it has altered the way I see history. It is an important revelation; for the rest of my life, I will see history in other countries and other contexts and take it all in with a grain of salt, stepping away from the biases presented at face value, and appreciating it all for what it stands for.

Thoughts on History: Part I

The more I learn and see in my life, the more I am convinced that “history” is a multi-faceted term, and that history itself is largely subjective, relative to time and location, and deeply influential in national psyche. Within each city, museum, temple, mausoleum, and other culturally significant thing I have visited, I am reminded constantly of China’s truly ancient civilizations. This is something that is remarkable in the mind of an American, as my nation’s history stretches only so far as the discovery of the Americas in the late fifteenth century. Compared to China, North America and the United States specifically are infants in terms of social evolution, innovation, war, and cultural identity.

China was also the homeland of one the four academically accepted “cradles of civilization,” the areas of earliest known human habitation. While I might consider my own nation’s history—early New England settlers, western expansion, the famed founding fathers, entrepreneurialism, the advent of television, rock & roll, and fast food, for instance—to be lengthy, progressive, dynamic, and influential, it is relatively uneventful compared to the thousands of years that China has been cultivating its own stories.

While touring half a dozen museums full of relics from the past does lose its novelty, there is something remarkable about statements like, “This was from the Shang dynasty, dating back around three thousand years.” It makes centuries of history seem frighteningly minuscule in relation to the life span of individuals, and puts in perspective the relative significance of different nations and civilizations and different times in history.

As an American in the 21st Century, I tend to think of the U.S. as an everlasting leader, more owing to my American psyche than by my understanding and education. While I have always been fully aware of the fleeting leadership of any nation, mine included, being in China and learning about its long and dynamic history have put that idea into more literal and realistic terms

One thing my history teacher in Zhengzhou mentioned was that Chinese people tend to each claim a favorite dynasty from their nation’s past, and that which one they choose is largely suggestive of that person’s character. This is an interesting observation, and I have found China’s past to indeed be largely influential within the nation and upon its citizens.

What comprises history and fact changes depending on who one asks, the context in which said information is analyzed, and its relation to other, correlating and opposing histories. I find that the more I interpret and understand Chinese history, my grasp on world history and U.S. history is also challenged, reaffirmed, and adjusted.