Social Media Won’t Improve History

Filed under: General — ryan @ 10:30 am

“Serial web entrepreneur, sci-fi author, and aspiring world changer” Ben Parr has posted a piece listing 5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History. The rhetoric Parr employs is typical of contemporary tech evangelism: X will be great, X might have some negative side effects, but X is inevitable, so we’d better start preparing for X. X in this case is the “permanent recording of social interactions” through social networking services like Facebook. So, about what you would expect from a breathless proponent of contemporary marketing techniques.

But it’s interesting to see how Parr’s list exemplifies the common popular misunderstanding of history as a kind of immature science, a science that will finally be brought to maturity with access to adequate data. In Parr’s view, the problem with doing history in the past was lack of data: “Newspaper clippings, a few historical documents, speeches, but not enough information.” If only we could obtain access to “the day-to-day interactions between people… permanently recorded and formatted in easily organizable segments of information” then history could finally fulfill it’s promise of not only telling us exactly what happened in the past, but also predicting the future. Social media services are the key to recording these segments of information, Parr believes. And yes, there may be some pesky ethical complications around privacy, but the benefits to history will outweigh them. And Parr’s example of the kind of “history” social media records will enable? Flu tracking, the very same “killer app” that Sergey Brin uses to justify Google’s massive archiving of personal information. Never mind that understanding the spread of flu pandemics does nothing to “prevent the outbreak of the next drug-resistant virus.” What’s telling is that Parr conflates “history” with epidemiological modeling: it’s all just science, right?

What pissed me off, though, was the response from Tom Scheinfeldt, director of the Center for History and New Media. Rather than taking on any of Parr’s misconceptions, Scheinfeldt endorses them, suggesting only that social media services aren’t doing enough to archive their users’ personal information. In fact, he says, he is organizing a workshop next year at which the major social networking services will be lobbied to ensure that their logs are “permanently recorded and properly formatted for scholarly access.” Scheinfeldt’s effort is in direct conflict with the efforts of privacy advocates to limit the longevity of such logs.

“Perfect” archives of social media services won’t result in a more perfect history. Parr’s major mistake is that he believes historical evidence can be taken as transparently presenting facts about the past. But historical evidence is never transparent. If someone writes in their diary about what they did on July 14th, 2008, the words they wrote can’t be treated as facts about what they did on that day. All we can say is that someone wrote those words. At best, we might be able to confirm who wrote them, or that they did indeed write them on July 14th, 2008. But we can’t simply take those words at face value. Records are performances or utterances, not crystallized facts about the past. And the same goes for all records, whether they are diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, blog posts, status updates, or server logs. The complex information technology infrastructure that surrounds social media records makes those records even less transparent, as now historians are faced with untangling not just the context of an individual author but multiple contexts of system design, operation and recording, with all the new contingencies those contexts introduce.

So yes, social media records will change some aspects of history, just as the advent of recorded records of economic transactions did, and just as the advent of widespread recorded news and entertainment media did. But like those changes, social media will simply add to the possible stories that can be told about the past. History will continue to become less unified, less certain, less precise, as the archive in which historians seek meaning becomes more vast. And that’s great: history isn’t about precision and prediction, despite what Parr believes. My worry is that a well-intentioned but misconceived effort to “preserve” social media will do serious harm to privacy without achieving any of its unachievable goals.



Filed under: General — ryan @ 7:59 pm

Apparently I don’t blog anymore.


Rejecting Charity

Filed under: policy — ryan @ 11:15 am

Nicholas Kristof claims that liberals are stingy, citing research showing that conservatives donate more to charities than liberals. But these findings do not surprise me at all. I am a liberal and favor broad government investment in public services (and not just for the needy, but for all of society). And I rarely contribute to charities. Why? Because the vast majority of charities are organized around narrow, single-issue agendas. By giving money to charities we encourage a piecemeal approach to solving problems that are better solved through an integrated approach. We also risk allocating funds on the basis of what issues arouse the most emotion rather than what projects could do the most good. Furthermore, charities are rarely transparent and tend to be run by people with specific ideological goals. I believe it is far better to take the money that would otherwise be spent on charity and give it to the government as taxes, and then to demand transparency and accountability from our elected officials to ensure that those taxes are being used in a way that realizes the kind of society we collectively envision. Social entrepreneurship is another non-charity option that may be more palatable to those who still believe the market knows best. I believe both approaches are probably needed, and both are preferable to the charity system which has failed to provide a social safety net despite conservative enthusiasm.


Don’t Leave Stewardship to the Companies

Filed under: library, museum — ryan @ 11:29 am

Via the Powerhouse Museum blog comes the bad news that George Oates has been laid off from Flickr (along with a lot of other people laid off from Yahoo this week). George was the person in charge of Flickr’s much-publicized collaboration with the Library of Congress. That’s bad news for the projects George has been spearheading, but I doubt she will have any problem finding a new position, even in these tough economic times.

What this does spotlight, though, is what I feel has been some magical thinking on the part of the library and museum community regarding collaboration with corporate entities. Blinded by the wealth these companies seem to command, non-profit institutions forget that corporate dominance can be fleeting. In the short term, libraries and museums should definitely be experimenting with publicizing themselves through commercial services. But believing that commercial services like Flickr, or even Google Books, represent long-term solutions to fulfilling library and museum missions is a mistake. In the worst case, it may lead to the non-profit institutions being marginalized without providing any real long-term replacement.

Google may believe it will be around for 300 years. But in a year when we’ve seen some of the best-known and longest-surviving corporations disappear in a matter of days, we should treat such boasts as the ranting of a corporate Ozymandias.


The Omnivore’s 100

Filed under: drink, food — ryan @ 2:29 pm

Via mralarm, my tally of the Omnivore’s 100. Things I’ve consumed (73 of 100) are in all caps, things I have no interest in consuming (3 of 100) have been struck out. Of the things I’ve had, I like steamed pork buns, gumbo, eel, eggs Benedict, and catfish the best. Of the things I haven’t had yet, I’m most interested in trying bagna càuda and lapsang souchong.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake


Edit Huge Files

Filed under: editing, tools, unix — ryan @ 3:40 pm

Ever need to make some minor edits to a HUGE file? Like a 30GB XML file? Old standbys like vim don’t handle it too well. Fortunately, there’s tweak. Recommended!


A Great Night

Filed under: berkeley, politics — ryan @ 10:37 am

Flag on Telegraph Berkeley went nuts last night. Yesterday around 3PM I went to Triple Rock to start watching the returns roll in. At around 7 or so, once we realized that the geniuses at Triple Rock weren’t going to turn on the sound on their TVs, and not wanting to miss the speeches, we headed up to Haas to watch on the big screens there. On the way there we heard cheers erupt from all around the city–they had just announced Obama’s victory. We got to Haas just in time to see McCain’s concession speech and, of course, Obama’s long-awaited victory speech. Afterwards we went outside to see masses of students filling Bancroft, climbing up on traffic lights, waving flags, chanting U! S! A! (something I don’t think I’ve ever heard in Berkeley)… Every car driving down Shattuck was honking like crazy, fireworks, sparklers, and drums everywhere. A great night. I couldn’t be happier.


I voted

Filed under: General — ryan @ 8:47 am

This morning, in the game room of the Frances Albrier Community Center, in between Dance Dance Revolution and an air hockey table, I cast my ballot. And I’ve never been happier to do it.


Face Techno

Filed under: music, video — ryan @ 8:39 am


The McCain/Palin War Machine

Filed under: art, berkeley, politics — ryan @ 9:46 pm

In honor of the last debate, a slideshow of a mural that recently went up a few blocks from my apartment:

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