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.


On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

A city, not a blank slate. More like "an empty and brightly lit stage with lots of directors, scripts, auditions, designers, audiences, and reviewers."

I haven't written recently, but it has not been for lack of compelling ideas and discussion in my classes and reading. It has been in fact because of too much of it, alongside a new, second job that I have taken on, and the regularly hefty amount of school work. But I just finished another book for class, that has again drawn me into contemplating a few other compelling books and themes, and alas, this is the place where I can put those thoughts concretely.

Historian Alison Isenberg's 2004 book Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it is in fact a testament to the people, more than anything, who are responsible for the good and bad and the complicated personality of U.S. cities today. Oftentimes the city holds a nostalgic identity for people, a loss of something bygone, a sort of deflated self that holds some sort of hard-to-define sadness. Isenberg reminds us however, that in considering our efforts today at defining our downtown economic areas and "Main Streets," we must recognize that "the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed." Certainly there was never a democratic reality in the segregated shopping districts of the early and mid twentieth century, yet it is oftentimes portrayed or revered in memoriam as having been a free-wheeling, glorious environment. That may have been so, but for a very selective group of individuals; for everyone else, it has a much more complex definition, a much less rosy spot in memory.

She also sheds light on the criticism of some of today's shopping centers that hark back to historic facades or utilize (some might say exploit) nostalgia in the creation of their urban commercial centers. This is not a new desire, this image of a tidy, historical ideal. In the early twentieth century, there was an entire industry around artists' renditions of American cities, which the book's images show to be very much tidy clean-ups of what the actual cityscapes looked like.

This is not a criticism of either the 1920s-50s, nor of the most recent efforts, either by Isenberg or myself. Rather it is part of her argument that it has been and will continue to be the people who construct the cityscape, both literally in physical development, and ideally in how they invision their city and its image.

It got me thinking of another study on the American city, or one in particular--the public history project that has resulted Lowell, Massachusetts as the subject of an entire National Park, and the recent book on its history. One of the questions at the core of Cathy Stanton's whole study of the city is whether or not economic development and interest is compatible with public historians' goals of preserving and interpreting a city's past and its meaning in American history. Both sides can be argued, I am not here to answer this, but this same thought came back many times while I read about the larger developments of the economy of "downtown America" over the years, and the many vested interests that laid at the heart of each decision within a city's planning. Most often, it was businessmen, investors, retailers, and real estate appraisers who were making the biggest decisions, but in the wake of urban renewal projects and other controversial methods of "cleaning up the downtown," historians and preservationists had their say as well, spanning much of the city's recent past (1980s to the present).

Most compelling to me is the way in which every vested party uses the past to their own ends, and how many of the symbols of the past appear very differently depending on who is looking at them. This was most explicit in Isenberg's description of the 1997-98 exhibit "Main Street Five-and-Dimes," which was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Building Museum. The exhibit's interpretation says nothing about the enormous effects of integration of the downtown, and how many of the department stores had not been serving African American urban citizens. She uses the comment book to show just how much people really did want to talk about the effects of a separated society on the downtown, even if the curators only wanted to show nostalgic "thingamabobs" and enlist positive images of the way things used to be.

Some of those are truly thought-provoking, so much so that I will post the entire excerpt a little later on. But it reminded me again of how much specific images and symbols from the past are used to many different ends. To investors and retailers, symbols of the past utilize memories, or perceived memories, to add significance to their project. To some white citizens, like this guestbook commentators, it was a vision of a "happier, kinder world," while to other less-than-subtle commentators, it was a positive memory of "'whites only' drinking fountains--the way it should be." To black visitors, it was that "some change is good," and that these old department store must be considered in the wider context of the times they were in, including the fact that while they no longer exist, life itself has in fact gotten better for many people who live around the same places the stores were located. One guest book writer agreed that yes, it was a look back on a simpler time. "Simpler perhaps but was it better?" Indeed, a more complex interpretation that gives us more to consider.

Surely I have gone past making a concise point. But my intention was just to unite the discussion in the Lowell Experiment about what history means to certain people while having wholly different definitions to others, and trying to reconcile every group and perspective when your goal is to consider the larger narrative of an entire community, or city, or even a larger metro area. In Lowell as well, part of the complicated story was often the notion of history on an upward ride, that we have surely improved our lives from those of our grandparents, that we no longer suffer in factories. And in the case of Lowell, residents could tout its more recent past as having also given this same improvement to new immigrant groups. One of the corkscrews thrown into its cohesive interpretive plan has been that complicated truth that this reality has really only moved to another part of the world, and that there are people in other countries who would like this to someday be their story too. That is something that Lowell has recently included in their story, making it altogether more complicated and global, but also reflecting much more accurately the world we live in, as one that is connected to the past, rather than separate and removed from it.

This trajectory is indeed a labyrinth of complicated stories, controversies, diverse groups with specific vested interests both in their past and present lives or portrayals, and when it comes down to it, questionable whether it truly is an upward climb of improvement at all points in time. Almost certainly it is not.

But that doesn't get Isenberg down. "It remains to be seen which constellation of values and participants will chart the course of downtown real estate and urban commerce in the twenty-first century," she says, bringing it back around to her book's economic focus. But, during the twentieth century, "Main Street [was] a place to teach, debate, exclude, fantasize, argue,  include, make new dreams, and visit old ones." Maybe we start there to find the best way to write inclusive, thoughtful histories of our city spaces, and of the communities that live in them. Lowell is certainly one prickly example of this, are there will surely be more.

(The colorful quotation that is the title of this post is by Isenberg, found on page 313 of her book.)

Through the Disney lens

Atlanta got about five inches of snow last night, and in a city with very little equipment for clearing the roads and a populace that doesn't often drive in snow, it means the entire city pretty much took a snow day. The free day allowed me time to finish up some projects around the apartment, and to read a few chapters ahead in one of the few books I already have for the semester (others are delayed with the UPS trucks).

Disney World as a part of popular culture and the most visited tourist destination on the planet is an interesting place to me, and has been for its classic characters long before I had interest in its history or in the way it subsequently tells history. (There was a brief period in high school when I really wanted to go into the animation film industry, as a writer. Then I realized I did not like to draw at all and art school was far too expensive.) But the farther I delve into history and its relationship to the public, the more significant a case study it becomes, as a place where people encounter historical interpretation that they consume as a commodity, and as a form of entertainment. While history should not be boring, it should also be handled with care whenever it nears the entertainment minefield, and that treacherous area where regular citizen meets interpretive history meets patriotic sentiments ends up defining much of the field. Wrap all this up inside a theme park, and it only gets juicier.

Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History: And Other Essays on American Memory earns its title from the chapter on Walt Disney's and, later, Disney Enterprises, Inc.'s interpretation and execution of the historical narrative, in "Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World." Walt Disney's approach to the history that appears in the Magic Kingdom echoed the historical interpretations of the consensus-inspired 1950s, but translated into a theme park, took an extreme step further for the sake it tidying up the past for visitors. Says Wallace, his "approach to the past was... not to reproduce it, but to improve it." The excuse, that it's only a theme park, not a museum, hides below the fact that many may never know the difference. People who take in the past via a Disney presentation file this away in their brain as part of history and as a bit of knowledge to recall later, promulgating  misinformation, and making it harder for people to accept more accurate histories when they are confronted with them.

The park presents pseudo-menaces, like the "natives" you encounter on your ride along the Congo River, and then reassuringly reminds visitors of Main Street's triumph over things that challenge it. ("Main Street" literally being that core street at the front of the Magic Kingdom park, and figuratively representing civilized and clean America.) Each part of the park--Frontierland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, and others--also contribute to the eraser of "depressions, strikes on the railroads, warfare in the minefields, squalor in the immigrant communities, lynching, imperial wars, and the emergence of mass protests by populists and socialists" in the same era that Main Street and the surrounding parks aim to represent.

EPCOT has an array of complications all its own in terms of historic interpretation, being--as it has long been--backed by corporate sponsors who at their best explore the challenges and triumphs of a world that is ever marching forward and improving technologically, and at its worst, ignoring the fact that man's technology has not always had positive impacts on the progression of mankind. (And it would, of course, never be the corporation's fault; they would instead be the ones seeking to find solutions to problems). Each pavilion stands as a tribute to technology and the future, as a permanent World's Fair. Then across the waters lies the World Showcase, where countries' marketable goods are for sale and each destination has been designed to demonstrate the distinct features of its culture.

As Wallace points out, "all historical interpretations [done by Disney Enterprises] are necessarily selective in their facts, but [in EPCOT] the silences are more profoundly distorting. Consider, for example, that in all EPCOT's depictions of the past as a continuous expansion of man's possibilities through technology, there is not a word about war. Nothing about the critical impetus it provided through ages to scientific development, nor about the phenomenal destruction such "development" wrought."

Two other things struck me about the interpretation of the past that we find all around us in a Disney park. First, it presents history as unidirectional, that in fact there was no point that the trajectory could have taken another path. "There were never any forks on the path of Progress," he writes, "never any sharp political struggles over which way to go." The other fault in the clean, unoffensive, and vacation-ready historic package is that it makes the past into a "pleasantly nostalgic memory, now so completely transcended by the modern corporate order as to be irrelevant to contemporary life." We can consume the stories so long as they entertain us, and move on to the next thing. "This diminishes our capacity to make sense of our world through understanding how it came to be," says Wallace.

When the only versions of history people encounter are commodities--theme parks, but also docudramas, Hollywood movies, and even historic fiction--I fear it becomes the norm for them, deepening the chasm between people and their pasts and their understanding of the world. This seems to be OK for people when they can draw intelligent conclusions and have a grounded base of knowledge, but it can by no means be ignored as an insignificant influence on a people's vision of their history, in the midst of a thousand museums that don't draw nearly as many visitors.

For me it is something to ponder on a personal level as well, because, while I can dig through the cleanliness and disregard the stereotypes in the narratives, I highly doubt that is the mental lens that everyone else brings with them to Disney World. And on the other hand, I love the magic of Disney World. Far beyond the history that entrenches it, there is the imagination, the dazzling effects and the ability it has to transport you into another world--not to mention, back a little bit into your childhood. It is a place I will surely take my children someday, although what I do with the historic interpretations and how I explain them might be a little different than the approach others take.