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I am a bit ambivalent about "tweeting" World War 2...

There is a great deal of pressure to make the study of history and politics "relevant" to "the general public" and "young learners." The arguments are familiar: history must be made to come "alive" if it is to remain relevant; technology is an aid, an enhancement to how we share information and communicate with one another. Thus, it must be embraced, lest our culture stagnate.

I am not a Luddite. However, I do not think that newer is necessarily better. In the case of "tweeting" World War 2, I am unsure if there is any value gained from the exercise. Moreover, there is a wealth of film, radio, and other footage about World War 2--much of it still not seen or heard by the general public--so why reinvent the wheel?

Alwyn Collison is ambitious and should be commended for his efforts. Nevertheless, the question remains: what does an instantaneous, blow-by-blow accounting of World War 2 "as it happened" on Twitter expose, accomplish, or make more clear?

My worry about these types of projects is not that Google (and the Internet, more generally) is making us more stupid (which remains an open question). Rather, that some experiences are cheapened, and basic misunderstandings of the complexity of social/historical and political events furthered, by a limitation of form. Can a person really capture the spirit of World War Two in bits of text that are no longer than 140 characters?

Reality is mediated. We learn about the world in part through the mass media, and are also bounded by the limits of our own sensory perceptions. These limitations are important: they form the experience of a moment, and color how we locate a specific historical event in the proper framework and context.

For example, World War 2 was a war of radio and film. These mediums were central to how publics understood these world-changing events. The Civil War was a war of the telegraph and photographs. The Great War straddled these two moments. For outcomes, both ill and good, The Gulf Wars and the Afghan campaign are conflicts typified by immediate and near-instantaneous communication.

The lag between events, and how people removed from those direct happenings experienced them afterward, is part of the spirit of that age; in turn, distance and removal impacted how policy makers, the public, and elites responded to them. The closing of the distance between the front lines, war fighters, and commanders has changed how wars are fought. Ironically, the American public now gets its information "instantaneously" too--but, only after it has been sterilized and processed into an approved package by the propagandists, spin doctors, and dream merchants at the Pentagon and White House.

But, what of events that are made too comprehensible by Twitter, and thus in their immediacy gain "a matter of factness" which robs them of their import and historical weight?

For example:

How would one "tweet" the uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto?

"The fighting is intense. We are out of ammo. Being killed and surrounded."

How would one "tweet" their being set upon by the SS as they are herded into cattle cars to the death camps?

"So scared. What is happening. They are taking our luggage, robbing people, beating them."

How would one "tweet" the bombings of Nagasaki or Hiroshima?

"I heard a noise, There was a bright light. I can barely see. I am burned all over. What happened?"

Reaching to another moment, how does one "tweet" The Middle Passage and the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

"Went to the other village. There was a raid. We are being locked up in this castle. Losing reception. So hot, scared, people dying."

How flattening and banal.

Some events ought to be incomprehensible. These same events also benefit from the distance of the photograph, the radio, the page, or perhaps even film and TV. But Twitter? I will have to pass.

Tweeting World War 2 is a well-intentioned effort, but one which is a sign that our culture, and its legacy and meaning, are becoming (if they are already not in fact) utterly disposable and transitory.

We are left with a meta-level, ontological question: How do we communicate meaning in a substantive way, when technology is making much of our shared experiences so utterly ephemeral?

Ultimately, is there even "history" anymore, and should we dare to care?

Originally posted to chaunceydevega on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 03:50 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Playing the "What if?" Game... (13+ / 0-)

    Going back several hundred years, imagine how much more the literary world (not to mention all of us) would have been enriched had our favorite author in the English language, William Shakespeare, been able to access this wonderful new technology.  "Et tu, Brute?" indeed!

    48forEastAfrica - Donate to Oxfam - A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

    by JekyllnHyde on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 04:06:48 PM PST

  •  You're diaries are consitently (10+ / 0-)

    thought provoking, which is more than many diaries, including my own, often are.

    We are left with a meta-level, ontological question: How do we communicate meaning in a substantive way, when technology is making much of our shared experiences so utterly ephemeral?

    Twitter likely changes the meaning is so dramatic of a way as to lose much of it.

    More jobs equal less debt, even our kids can understand that.

    by TomP on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 04:27:08 PM PST

    •  how kind (6+ / 0-)

      don't be too hard on yourself, you know you are on point.

      i hate feeling like a Luddite, but something about this is amiss. just off.

    •  Possibly twitter is utterly inadequate to convey (5+ / 0-)

      history, but I'm reading William L. Shirer's The Nightmare Years 1930-[black swastika on red disk]-1940 documenting the rise of Hitler, the fall of German culture, and the serendipitous "creation" of radio news (on the fly, under difficult circumstances virtually from the get-go) by Murrow and Shirer...and most of it comes from Shirer's diary entries, many of them no more than 140 characters each.

      Admittedly, Shirer had to go back and do some correlating with external writings (his notes, his own contemporaneously published by-lines, govt documents, what have you), but when he set about to publish this diary-come-memoire, he did so because in reading his (dare I write this?) "tweets", scribbled on low-tech paper with low-tech pencil, he realized the story was leaping right off the page, tweet by tweet, into a meaningful set of facts, even though at the time of their writing, he could not really see where life/times of Europe and the world were actually going.

      That writ, I myself do not tweet (altho I am a twit!), do not use a cell phone, and only minimally use digital technology.

    •  cdv: a fine question (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TomP, Red Bean

      which has stimulated a fine discussion, to which i'll chime in:

      i don't twitter, so am guessing someone is describing events of wwii similarly to your examples

      if that's correct, isn't it possible that, since kids are into twittering, messages in that medium will get to them in a more vivid way than reading or hearing about what was happening to people back then?  it might even spark interest in learning more;

      the important thing is to make history relevant in the hope that enlightened people will insist on a better world

  •  Some students (8+ / 0-)

    who do this exercise might actually take the chance to look inside and consider what it would feel like to hear the door of a cattle car slam shut and to find themselves in the dark on the way to their deaths.

    If they find terror, incomprehension, nausea, this is a successful assignment. Admittedly the idea of tweeting from Auschwitz seems hopelessly banal and absurd. But I would say anything that gets contemporary students to put themselves into the experience of the victims, the soldiers and all the other players of the drama of history, is valuable.

    What would Chris Hedges do?

    by Red Bean on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 05:04:13 PM PST

  •  CDV an interesting point, but I think learning (0+ / 0-)

    occurs in different ways for different people.  

    Just about the most controversial teaching tool I can think of is a reenactments of a slave auction.  I can see both sides of the issue, but I think a truthful reenactment would be very powerful, and indeed, maybe it should be in modern dress so the audience has less chance of separating themselves from what is occurring.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 06:05:33 PM PST

    •  got to disagree (6+ / 0-)

      one of the worst things that someone can do is try to make the incomprehensible relateable.

      I have written about this on WARN.

      So some folks stand up there and get "auctioned off." They don't get raped, killed, sodomized, dehumanized, seasoned upon arrival in the New World, stuck in the hellish bowels of the slavers for months, their families torn asunder, and exist in a state of perpetual dread.

      In a post-racial moment where conservative colorblindness reigns, one of the most dangerous things responsible folks can do is make this history seem "not so bad." A post-Civil Rights myopic student could easily say "oh that wasn't so bad, what is the big deal about slavery, why are the blacks complaining still!"

      In fact, I have both heard of such instances and indirectly witnessed them myself. A colleague at a very elite liberal arts college was asked to participate in this "sleep on the quads" exercise to simulate "homelessness." She said that was absurd because these privileged college students know it will be over in a day and they can go back in their comfy dorms.

      To script, many of the students thought being homeless wasn't a big deal after sleeping outside for only 1 night.

      •  I see what you're saying, but that's a limit to (5+ / 0-)

        all history.  Want to learn about Antietam?  You can look at the photos of the dead bodies but you don't get the smell.

        Back on the Tweet thing, I think there's something to it.  History is of course what we know, or think we know about the past.  But what is our past was someone else's present, and what we think important now, may not have seemed so at the time.  I think Twitter may help recreate the feeling of uncertainty and lack of an overall view.

        You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

        by Cartoon Peril on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 07:16:35 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I may be a relic myself, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lorikeet, freedapeople

    But I think history is fascinating and always relevant. In fact anything from reenacting to this tweeting seems to cheapen it, at least to me. It's playing at history and feels like historical fiction. I fell in love with history in elementary school, so there is that. I also prefer to listen to baseball on the radio.

    However, looking at my kids, I see that when they get history straight, they can't get enough. When it gets dressed up with making them do podcasts and such, it becomes like play-acting and they see right through it. Last year my fifth grader had to a semester long project on pioneers where they had to recreate a pioneer journal even down to yellowing the paper by dipping it in tea. He hated it. Rather than making history more "accessable," it just made it seem pointless.

    Thanks for posting this.

    I know which side I am on: the one that does the math.

    by Grassroots Mom on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 06:41:09 PM PST

    •  I taught history for 30 years (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril

      primarily at the Jr. high and high school level with a bit of community college thrown in. One thing I learned was that kids learn in different ways. What inspires one may leave another indifferent.

      In my class we would sing the old union songs, imagining that we on the picket line. Now being inside a warm classroom in no way comes close to the experience that the working people faced, but I have fromer students who still remember the songs and, more importantly,  still understand the point of the lesson.

      While I agree with CDV that we must avoid cheapening history, nonetheless it is important IMO to to whet the appetite for history. Too many people are ignorant of our past and the consequences of such ignorance are very apparent.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 08:04:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  if the medium is the message (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the message here is simplified beyond meaning and relevance. even to begin to address realistically the issues of the past or the present or the future requires an attention span that our mass media often deliberately fragments. twittering history may be its nadir.

    48forEastAfrica - Donate to Oxfam (The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers)

    by Laurence Lewis on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 01:57:02 AM PST

  •  I think it's valuable in one way. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    isabelle hayes

    It teaches that there are some ways in which warfare is similar regardless of the time in which it takes place.  Today, wars and revolutions are written about on Twitter by the people involved at the very moment.  Being able to compare what it would have been like had Twitter existed when unarmed civilians were set upon by the German, Italian, and Japanese armies to today when the Syrian military does it to their own unarmed civilians may help students to understand that the horrors of war that they see today are similar to the horrors of previous decades and not the glossed over and celebrated events that they often see in modern movies and newsreels from the era.

    There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? -Robert F. Kennedy

    by JSCram3254 on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 02:58:17 AM PST

  •  the hope is that it's a rabbit hole (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm currently at the Museum Computer Network conference - a conference about museums and technology. I am only aware of one project out of a museum (John F. Kennedy), and it's actually a pretty poor use of the medium, IMO. Museums, at least, mostly use Twitter for marketing, communication, outreach, factoids, and insiders views, not for single-subject, long-term renderings of past-events.

    I was in a session about small history museums, technology and access to context yesterday. We didn't talk about Twitter specifically, but one of the methods we try to do is to provide thought nuggets here and there, so as to lead people into the contextual content we're suited to provide. I doubt anyone would do what this student is doing, for some of the reasons you've mentioned, but Twitter does have its place.

  •  I don't think Twitter would be helpful in (0+ / 0-)

    accessing history. To me, pictures are more useful, and as someone says, even they can't transmit the smells, which could produce truly visceral reactions.

    He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. Kris Kristofferson

    by glorificus on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 05:37:41 AM PST

  •  well... (0+ / 0-)

    ...twitter seems like a fail...but its true the past is a another country, and people like travel stories, have always liked travel stories.    So when we have ways to enhance that -- a skin over a gourd, some sheep gut strings, or twitter on our smartphones -- we will try them out.  Some will work and some won't, so much...

    Our history and our horrors are getting thrown up on youtube.  At some point, All Quiet on the Western Front will be in public domain and on Gutenberg.  This twitter project seems like an easy ways to inhabit history go, this seems pretty shallow and sad.  

    But...of course we try to imagine history.  To visit Yad Vashem is to imagine Warsaw and the camps.  To read the letters of our grandparents...all of it...we imagine ourselves there.  Its one of our best people parts, that leap of imagination.  And sometimes...we do it badly.  But I'm not sure that's the same as perniciousness, unless it becomes the only way the story can be told, a pornographic nationalism or mashed up triviality at the core of what everyone knows.  We all tell stories badly at first and get better, as our imagination dwells on it, our empathy and intellect is engaged...

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 06:01:29 AM PST

  •  this is about the "lived experience" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I sympathize, Chauncey, and I agree with Red Bean.  Anything that makes the past more accessible to students is helpful.  Think of the recap of the Civil War going on at the New York Times right now.  I did an exercise in a US in the Twentieth Century once, in a three-hour class, where I played all 40:38 minutes of LBJ's March 31, 1968 speech so they could be as surprised as we were when he closed with his announcement that he wouldn't run for reelection.  It sort of worked.

    If the problem is twitter, think about how we receive news about material the media don't cover well now.  Consider that Alwyn Collison might not restrict himself to one tweet a day on the important events.  Progress isn't always a bad thing here.

    All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 06:28:32 AM PST

  •  Isn't it about who writes the history? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    the fan man, Ajipon, Cvstos

    And so this kid's idea, in my opinion is a brilliant one. Because the tweets come from actual events, as they happened and news feeds. I think of these historical tweets as "reminders." The mistake is to think that this is the only place where someone will learn history because, let's face it, if you're getting all of your historical information from a tweet and it doesn't make you curious to know more--then you probably don't give a damn about history in the first place.

    i think these tweets will serve to encourage those who know very little about WWII history to seek out more information. For others who want to read tweets on a subject they care about--it sounds like fun.

    I look on it as a welcomed addition to the library, the classroom, the book, the google. The more the merrier.

    Don't think for a moment that power concedes. Obama

    by weegeeone on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 07:10:16 AM PST

    •  Exactly! (0+ / 0-)

      I am personally quite enjoying the WWII tweets. It presents a new view on the events of the war, in a very interesting fashion.  I see no loss of value from the lessons of history by adding a new take in this new medium.

      The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them. - Albert Einstein.

      by Cvstos on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 10:31:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  So, is the medium the message? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Twitter is much like telegraph communications: short and to the point, (telegraph communications were 10 words or less in fact). Telegraphs also developed its own shorthand to fit longer messages into shorter packages. But telegraphs were person to person for the most part and cost money, tweets aren't and doesn't, which may be why some tweets are pointless. I also think of Simon's song "Miracles and Wonders" "Staccato signals of constant information". Twitter is good for immediate short status reports, not analysis or at length accounts.

    WWII was nothing if not "sterilized and processed into an approved package by the propagandists...." There was a war on after all and censorship and propaganda was used by both sides to gin up moral and keep the enemy (and its citizenry) in the dark as much as possible.

    “The first principle [in science] is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Richard Feynman

    by the fan man on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 08:10:36 AM PST

  •  So true (0+ / 0-)

    I am not a big fan of the trivial, the soundbite.  We have become a culture of people with no attention span.  If we cannot "get" something within an instant, it takes too long.

  •  Twitter in isolation is useless (0+ / 0-)

    However, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and the Internet in general are really just components of a global system of communications and need to be evaluated in the context of that system.  I think it is fair to say that Internet media greatly enabled the Arab Spring uprisings in ways that print and broadcast news could not.  Further, I think it is fair to say Internet media helped push print and broadcast media toward a more honest reporting of events.

    Twitter as a news dissemination tool has merit.  In that sense, Twitter as a history recording tool has merit.  It gets those of us involved today in what will be tomorrow's history.  Imagine if the slave trade could have been photographed to the extent that the Civil War was photographed.  Would slavers been able to maintain a political upper hand in the face of stark, awful, and honest imagery of their practices?  Would Stephen Crane have needed to write "The Red Badge of Courage" if Hemingway, Pyle, and a host of other news journalists and their cameramen had covered Bull Run?

    Twitter as a history teaching device appears to be useless unless the intent of the teaching is to spark interest--and further research--into the topic.  I can't see Twitter as a stand-alone means of teaching anything complicated, for instance aircraft maintenance:

    "Don't move the yellow handle or..." (whoosh as the ejection seat piles the hapless mechanic into the hangar roof).  Some topics require more depth than Twitter can provide.

    Great diary, Chauncey.

    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win". Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by DaveinBremerton on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 10:28:57 AM PST

  •  I don't like Twitter. (0+ / 0-)

    You cannot pass much information in 140 characters.  It appears that Twitter was designed to give immediate feelings and location.  I do not feel any need to know how everyone is feeling or exactly where they are every minute of the day.  For history it is almost useless.  The medium of history has always been the book, which has enough space to reflect and really consider what is happening and why.

    For the same reason I greatly dislike the way presidential candidate debates are run now.  There is only enough time for marketing slogans.  Maybe that is the only thing the candidates are able or willing to say.  It sounds like "How would you deal with the economy?  You have 30 seconds."  How absurd can you get.

    "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." Bertrand Russell

    by Thutmose V on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 11:27:07 AM PST

  •  seems like we have current examples (0+ / 0-)

    of the value of social media in its ability to influence history, like the Arab Spring and the use of Facebook and Twitter to spread ideas and organize people.

    I'm not sure how effective these media would be to actually educate students on history, though.  I'm not a teacher, but I do see applications being created for social media platforms my my field (construction and engineering.)

    One thing I do know is that good teachers are incredibly resourceful and adaptive to their students.  I believe that a good teacher very likely could figure out a way to integrate history and current events using these social media.

    A hungry man is an angry man. (Bob Marley)

    by montanamatt on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 12:56:14 PM PST

  •  Would it have been flattening and banal (0+ / 0-)

    if they had all raised cell phone cameras and chanted "The whole world is watching"?

    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Mohandas Gandhi

    by 2dimeshift on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 01:25:37 PM PST

  •  Thank you. (0+ / 0-)

    If corporations are people, then I want to see some birth certificates and talk to their parents.

    by Onomastic on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 03:43:25 PM PST

  •  much love and hope for speedy recovery (0+ / 0-)

    "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Franklin Delano Roosevelt

    by respectisthehub on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 09:05:14 PM PST

  •  Fascinating. SOrry I missed the discussion. (0+ / 0-)

    I think I disagree and that to read, digest, retweet, and react - to relate to evil in its most banal state - is to have increase the chances of improvement. To avoid the cancerous banality metastasizing.

    The reportaging tweet is just one element. It's the growing sphere of linkages, the sphericalization, that presents a new way of communing and therefore participating and influencing.  

    Thanks, very good diary.

    Eliminate the Bush tax cuts Eliminate Afghan and Iraq wars Do these things first before considering any cuts

    by kck on Sun Nov 20, 2011 at 11:17:56 AM PST

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