Conferences, online learning & the past

Okay, so this post isn’t completely about screened history, but it is connected to thoughts I have had about the places history may be ‘done’ and ‘found’ in the future – online.

Am at a 2 day conference on Online and eLearning and it has, like many conference experiences, resulted in a mixed bag of inspiration and frustration. Inspiration about what is possible, and frustration about the limits of time and workloads.

It is mind-boggling to consider how far university learning has come in such as short time. I can remember hand writing assignments, then handing in printed out hard copies of essays, yet now I teach students in Far North Queensland from the comfort of my own couch. Submission, marking and return are all online.

It makes me wonder, what will this mean for history, a discipline so embedded in the objects of the past?

Of course in the future the online world will be part of ‘the past’. This is the reality that originally sparked my interest in screened history. 

From my earliest studies in history – at primary and in high school – the ‘past’ was something explored through physical objects, things ‘left behind’ (mostly by accident, sometimes good management) and especially the written word. As I moved into university level studies I began following my fascination with the silences and gaps in the past – ‘reading between the lines’ as it is called. Trying to find in amongst the millions of pages of written information the voices of those not normally allowed to speak. 

I never was very good at dates, famous names and politics. I always found my interest falling on the forgotten, the silenced and the rebellious. 

This is why, when students ask me ‘why history’ my answer has remained much the same over the decades: it awes me how often we can discover ourselves learning about, listening to the voices of people who never, ever imagined their lives would be of importance 50, 100, 200 years later. The ordinary people who never considered themselves extraordinary. 

Yet most of the time we find these people, we meet them and learn about their lives, through the written word, which is why I continue to wonder, what will happen in the future? 

How will someone like me in 200 years time learn about our present? 

The very act of writing this, on a little iPad in the lobby of a hotel waiting to go to the first session of a conference, is this an act of which the outcome will vanish?

In the future how will we be able to access these kinds of ‘writing’, the blogs, the tweets, the snapchats and even the emails or SMSs? 

Will the online world vanish? 

Will it take our voices with it?
For me, this was a key spark to looking at film and television. Will these – and forms they take in the future – be where we can go to see how the ephemeral, digital lives of today can be seen or heard?

Within the thousands of fictional worlds that form on film and television, will the fictional use of digital communication be archived for future historians?

Yet, film and television are not robust forms, from the beginning their physical existence has been fragile, even combustible. 

Nonetheless, we can see frames, fragments of the first feature length film – The Story of the Kelly Gang – because film can, with just light, be seen. Yes, not as its originators intended, but there is an advantage in the fact we don’t have to have complete access to projectors and other technology to view celluloid or acetate film stock. Also, many projectors and other film and television technology has been painstakingly kept working by collectors and museums, allowing us rare opportunities to see the moving image as it was meant to be. With much now being digitized and made accessible online.

But digital is a double edged sword. 

It enables film and television to be transferred into bits and bites and while it is not an archival in standard, at least it is more stable than celluloid and acetate. 

Yet, and here’s the real bite – it requires a different kind of technology to view, to access, to store; and will we be able to access it in the future? 

Yes we keep computers in museums of technology – but will they really be workable into the future? With more and more ‘in the cloud’ – what happens if the that cloud blows away? No electricity, no cloud, no access.

Blogs and tweets and SMSs are – by the essential nature – emphemeral.

Film and television are also fragile, like so much in the world.

But will they, and their future replacements, be our window to the past in the future?

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