What is Real? New Ways of Thinking in Our Brave New World

March 23, 2010

As part of my work, I present programs to people of all ages and backgrounds on our collections, including those that are partially displayed in exhibits. At my paying job we have a permanent exhibit that includes a variety of scenes taken during the Civil Rights movement. I answer questions from the people in attendance, and as one might expect I get an entirely different focus from the older crowd who remember the events, and the younger ones who cannot comprehend segregation. In fact, this last group tends to meet me with wide eyes and audible gasps when I tell them that these events happened before the existence of McDonalds. Their world view is different indeed. Of course, as they grow older, their concept of time and space will change, for better or worse.

What I have found interesting, and something that I think is important for historians of many stripes to notice, is a way of viewing the vehicles of history, i.e. the images, documents, etc. that we use to preserve and communicate information over time, that seems to be changing. Many of us have noticed that people of all ages have begun to expect all the documents in an archive to not only be available in digital form but searchable by topic or keyword. Although fewer of us seem to have acknowledged it, the printed paper and book are becoming rarer than they once were. Many libraries use digital subscriptions to journals and magazines, provide eBooks and down loads for videos. I know a man who refuses to read blogs or use Facebook, but loves his Kindle. Many newspapers are going to online editions only and many private and government documents are created and stored in only digital formats. This is not a surprise to most of us, although I know quite a few who will not accept it.

What I have found conveyed to me during the past few months by way of the questions asked of me by children is a little different than all that. There seems to be a lack of connection between what the youngest generation understand as “evidence of human activity” and what the rest of us understand. I find it a bit startling. I can connect it to other thought processes I have seen and dealt with in the past, and, in fact, last night I found a small paper I had written in which I wrote a few years ago suggesting this phenomenon. I had just forgotten it.

What I wrote then was:

“[Therefore] the process will continue. Younger generations will continue to develop new ways to process and use information and this will be reflected in their chosen forms of communication, their language, so to speak. If we do not “speak” these languages, that is, not only use and understand these forms of communication but “think” them, we will fail in our communication to the same extent we fail to utilize this thought process…We will also discover that, as in the case of our not being able to understand the thoughts that seem to only be possible to express through digital communication, those who learn to think “digitally” will one day have difficulty understanding our thought processes. It is not something to be unexpected, as their experiences will be so radically different than ours and throughout history one generation has been unable to understand the experiences that they do not share with other generations.

“The difference is that the speed in which this gap in understanding and experience is happening seems to be increasing logarithmically. While we do not understand the experience of the horse-and-buggy days, we have some common experience with our parents who drove automobiles, and thus some common understanding on which to base communication. Yet I attended college with people who never listened to a vinyl record, well certainly not a 45 r.p.m., and know many who are not much younger than I who never touched a typewriter. The compact disk is already being replaced by the DVD, which will likely be replaced by some type of solid-state device, and digital print versions of books will likely become more popular than hard copies. I can foresee the day when digital photography will be on the way out and the idea of a photograph that one can hold in one’s hand will seem as odd as the Daguerreotype seems to folks today. The difference is that this will come about in just a few years, rather than over 150.”  [Emphasis added. The quote is from “We’re Not Done Yet, But We Could Be! Additional Comments on ‘The World Turned Right-Side Up Again: A Response to Terry Cook’ and the Role of Technology in the World of Archives.” 2006. Not formally published, though distributed through various means.]

Yes, that has happened. I have been questioned by children in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade about the validity of photographic images. The questions yesterday came from 3rd graders who wanted to know if the pictures on the wall of an exhibit room were of real things and wanted to know if the person who took them was actually there when the events happened. They wanted to know how the pictures were taken. I have been asked why pictures were not on a screen, what type of computer they were made on, and even had children express shock that there were cameras “back then.” (This one isn’t so surprising as the images are 50 years old. That is forever to a child.)

The real issue here, though, is how we are to communicate the validity of our collections to a generation that puts no stock in such things. If you grew up feeling that any image could be created on a computer screen and that there was no connection between images or documents and reality, save what authority you personally chose to give them, would you view our collections as having great significance or value? I think most of us would find such things as important to our research as we do the 8-track tape player to entertainment. [Note: For those of you who are more than 10 years younger than I, either Google it or visit a museum.]

We are not going to undo what has been done. The change in thought has already occurred, although the process is not complete. Evolution rarely is. But what do we want to do about it?

 The Heretic

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2 Responses to “What is Real? New Ways of Thinking in Our Brave New World”

  1. Jim said

    An interesting post. I have been wrestling with this a bit from the side of teaching undergrads about working with primary sources. Used to be that we’d get them to brainstorm where they might find certain types of information. This worked well because they all had a reasonable frame of reference for those types based on their own life experiences. They knew what a letter was, a diary, a photograph – even a ledger looked enough like a checkbook that they could figure out that financial transactions were being recorded there. The forms of expression and language were different, and the way people dressed was different, but there was still familiarity in the general physical form of delivery of the information.

    That familiarity is all but gone, now. The goal is to connect in their minds the forms of communication they use today with their equivalents of past ages so that they may start to find, use, and understand primary sources better. The fact that “today” keeps changing is the real challenge.

  2. The Heretic said

    A challenge indeed. It is, in a way, nothing new in the sense that technology has always advanced and we have always dealt with one generation’s inability to relate to another’s perspective. That is, of course, one of the major challenges of history; how do we judge the actions of past people by today’s standards?

    The problem, of course, is the change appears to happen so quickly. My Grandfather is over 100 years old and has seen a huge amount of change in his life, but it seems as if there was less change in some areas, particularly in those related to communication of ideas and data, during that century than we have seen in the past decade. I was at a staff meeting the other day and mentioned YouTube just celebrated it’s 5th birthday and showed an article from a few years ago that explained Facebook was coming off the college campuses and wanted to be the new Ning.

    When the reference points change like that, how do you anchor the past and tie it to the present? One thing’s for sure, we won’t be able to do it if we don’t understand some of the present technology, because the new generations surely will not understand the old. It is up to us to do the bridging, I think.

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