Saturday, March 28, 2009

Recent thoughts on Big History

Big History

Cynthia Stokes Brown, in the preface to her book Big History; From the Big Bang to the Present, presents Big History as the scientific creation story. She asserts that by looking beyond the written sources traditionally considered by academic historians, “We are now able to think in scientific terms about the timescales of the universe we are part of...”1 She continues, “By the late twentieth century, scientists had invented instruments that could begin to view the macroscopic heavens and the microscopic domain. Knowledge about these worlds has recently expanded exponentially. Now everyone can understand the amazing universe that is our home.”2 This wealth of recent information has not only given us a better understanding of our physical environment (large or small). It has also developed our understanding of where we fit chronologically in the time-scale of the universe. With technology, we are able to see the edges of our universe, calculate the rate at which it is continually expanding, and from that information, gauge with some degree of accuracy the amount of time the universe has existed. While written records give us a window into the last few thousand years of human history, science and technology have provided a window to the past 13.7 billion years. It is the goal of Big History, then, to place human history within the larger context of the universe. Surely, by better understanding broad trends which are beyond our control, we will be better able to understand our particular animal and how we are distinct.

Subaltern Studies

The South Asian Subaltern Studies Group was founded in the early 1980's and marks one of the fundamental challenges to any history claiming to be inclusive. As described by John Beverley in his article, “Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge,” the process of accurately representing the views of a subaltern group is impossible. In any attempt to portray the outlook of a person or persons which are in some way subordinate, there is the inevitable application of resources, be it means of portrayal, acquired knowledge, or so forth, which that subaltern does not have access to. Therefore, in attempting to create a reproduction of that subaltern perspective, the representation is being made from a standpoint that is conforming to the oppressive system that has been the cause of their social position.3 Beverley’s argument is meant to apply to subordinate human populations. However, the argument can be generalized. Never having experienced life as a tree, for example, we cannot understand the tree as an agent. This view goes beyond the Subaltern Studies Group. Haines Brown, in an article titled “The Reconstruction of Objectivity”, argues, “Since the Second World War (although it has deeper roots), there has been an assault on the ideal of objectivity that we might very loosely call postmodern deconstructionism”.4 Brown goes on to identify several issues that make any form of objectivity impossible. Subaltern Studies and postmodern deconstructionism are obviously not an attempt at universal understanding. Rather, they seem to be the opposite. Argued to its fullest, it would assert that being ourselves, we are limited to knowing only ourselves.

This introduction, hopefully, has provided a brief overview of two historical viewpoints that, despite having been constructed within years of each other, seem diametrically opposed. The point of this introduction has not been to question the value of the postmodernist critique of Subaltern Studies, nor the macro histories of Big History. Rather, the goal of this brief (but necessary) exposition has been to demonstrate that many framing methods may exist simultaneously, and that they may seem (and may be) incompatible. Big History is a project which engages the entire globe and all of those communities and cultures within it. Its purpose is to connect the whole of human knowledge. But Big History, like any other belief system, is rooted in a particular intellectual, geographic tradition. It was born out of, and pre-existing set of scientific beliefs. David Christian, in the introduction to his seminal book in the field Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, writes, “I intend this book to contribute to the larger project of constructing a more unified vision of history and of knowledge in general. I am well aware of the difficulties of that project. But I am sure that it is both doable and important, so it is worth attempting in the hope that others may eventually do it better.”5 (MofT pg5) Christian has provided us with a framework for thinking globally. The rest of this paper will attempt to address the value of creating a global perspective that, despite its best efforts, remains firmly rooted in a particular cultural and intellectual tradition. To do so, this essay will explore several topics. The first section of this essay will seek to more accurately define Big History's origins. Hopefully, by understanding how Big History came to be, we can identify the audience it was constructed for (and therefor will be useful to). Once we have established that Big History, as with any other history, is a specific tool, useful to a specific demographic, we can begin to evaluate how exactly it is supposed to be useful within that specific context. Only after examining in detail how Christian's paradigm works, can we begin to critically evaluate those areas where Big History must be improved if it is to continue being a useful.

Modern Creation Myth

David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and other 'Big' historians often refer to Big History as a 'modern' or 'scientific' creation myth. This term is essential to field, and the implications of the term may lend some valuable insight into how the framework is constructed. For this purpose, the term can be deconstructed. To begin, it may be useful to see how Big History sits in relation to other creation myths.
I soon realized that Big History is in some important ways similar to traditional creation stories. These also used the best available information in the societies in which they were constructed, to create credible stories that gave people a sense of their bearings in space and time. And that was what made them so powerful. they offered maps of space and time, within which people could say, 'that's where I am'.6
Our ability to consider Big History a creation myth, then, must be seen as a consequence of the framework's scale. Because the limits of Big History are defined only by our scientific knowledge, it allows us to situate ourselves within the broadest imaginable context. Chronologically, Big History (unlike other histories) allows us to trace our origins back to the beginning of time. In terms of breadth, Big History's directive to connect knowledge from all communities and perspectives allows us to locate ourselves geographically, as well as in relation to other existing social and cultural traditions. Because these two boundaries of big history (chronological scale and scope of sources considered) have been stretched to their scientifically measurable limit, an individual familiar to Big History is able to situate themselves within the context of everything that exists, or has ever existed around them. All creation myths seek to achieve this end.
However, like all other creation myths, Big History is rooted in a particular tradition. There is an obvious reason Christian attached the word 'modern' or 'scientific' to his creation myth. These words hint at the tradition from which Big History arose. More importantly, they may be helpful in identifying who Big History was constructed for, and for whom it will be useful method of framing.
To begin to understand the tradition which Big history originates from, it may be useful to explore Christian's origins as a scholar. So much of Big History has been constructed by Christian alone, that he seems a logical place to start.
My own somewhat confused background is relevant here. When someone says to me 'Where are you from?', I'm frankly never sure of the best answer. This is the problem. My father was English. My mother was American, though she was born in Beijing. My parents married in Izmir, in Turkey, at the end of the war. I was born in Brooklyn, despite the accent. I lived as a child in Nigeria. I went to school, and then university, in England. I married in Canada. And I studied in Russia – in fact, I had a fascinating year as a graduate student living in Leningrad, today's St. Petersburg, in the Brezhnev years. And that was a wonderful introduction to what seemed at the time during the cold war a completely different world, a sort of dark side. - Then, I completed my PHD at Oxford. And I got a job in Sydney, Australia. And there I taught for 21 years before coming to the U.S. in 2001.
That mixed background may explain why I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of history as essentially a national story, or the story of particular cultures, or particular groups; and always interested in the idea of some sort of global approach to the past.7
Christian's argument is clear, and seems logical. And surely he has had a more cosmopolitan experience than most. It makes sense that a global theory should be produced by someone whom has been forced to think globally since youth. But how global has his experience been?
Three decades have passed since Christian had the chance, as a graduate student, to glimpse into the 'completely different world' that was then the Soviet Union during the 'Brezhnev years'. While during the cold war, this may have seemed the most obvious way to engage with a cultural or intellectual 'other', the distinction between the two sides of the iron curtain is less clear now. The other cosmopolitan bits of his past may be similarly linked. England, China, Turkey, the U.S., Nigeria, Canada, Russia, and Australia, while diverse in geography, may now be more easily seen as a system of nodes in the developed world. Though some are more firmly rooted in a global network than others, these locations act as hubs of modernity. They are deeply entrenched within economic, political, cultural, and social systems which ensure their continued involvement with other similar areas around the world. Christian's personal history, then, was not entirely global. Rather, he should be seen has having lived between several hubs of the developed world. In this way, he has not grown up on within a global tradition, but a tradition of the modern (developed) world.
Under scrutiny, Big History's global framing methods can be similarly linked back to a similar tradition. Big History's closest predecessors, as far as historical framing methods are concerned, are world histories. The first history of this sort may be traced back to the Annales school. Developed by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in 1929 France, the Annales soon became known as an interdisciplinary institution. Christian, in his lecture series on Big History, says, “The Annalles school had an immense impact on historians of my generation. One of the things they did was insist on seeing human history in its geographical and ecological context.”8 Fernand Braudel, when he published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949, was the first to publish what would later be considered a world history. The types of information that both framing methods attempt to organize and make sense of is similar. William H. McNeill describes, in his book Human Web: A Birds Eye View of World History, briefly describes the structure of world histories.
A web, as we see it is a set of connections that link people to one another. These connections may take many forms: chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition. In all such relationships, people communicate information and use that information to guide their future behavior. They also communicate, or transfer, useful technologies, goods, crops, ideas, and much else. Furthermore, they inadvertently exchange diseases and weeds, items they cannot use but which affect their lives (and deaths) nonetheless. The exchange and spread of such information, items and inconveniences, and human responses to them, is what shapes history.9
The two historical frameworks (Big History and World History) are similar. They both account for historical change over a long period of time, and they both consider many of the same sources. Where Big History expanded upon world histories was in its chronologic scale. McNeill's history focuses solely on human history, whereas Christian, “...unites natural history and human history in a single, grand, and intelligible narrative.”10 Effectively though, the two are very similar. Christian takes the first 3 sections of Maps of Time to address history before the evolution of man. For the remainder of the book, he addresses the same period, and largely tells the same story, as McNeill. Another book similar to McNeill's, which is currently quite popular, is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. During this period of history – that marked by the presence of humans - Christian follows many of the same organizational tactics as his predecessors (periodization, themes etc...)
But the Analles school too, must be rooted in tradition. So, to stretch Big History's roots back one final step, we must examine the origin of the very sorts of sources that Braudel, McNeill, and eventually Christian, have created frameworks trying to organize. The economic, political, social, and cultural factors considered by Braudel were only in this period beginning to be produced. A new way of thinking, a scientific way of thinking, had taken hold by the mid 16th century within the geographic world of the Mediterranean. This is not to say that the kind of politics, economy and culture described in The Mediterranean did not exist before the mid 16th century. Rather, the sorts sources considered by world historians, those sources that we take as evidence of such activity, only became available during this period. Alfred Crosby addresses this phenomenon in his book, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society,1250-1600. He describes a fundamental change in the way Westerners perceive reality which occurred during this period,
In practical terms, the new approach was simply this: reduce what you are trying to think about to the minimum required by it definition; visualize it on paper or at leas in your mind, be it the fluctuation of wool prices at the Champagne fairs or the course of Mars through the havens, and divide it, either in fact or in imagination, into equal quanta. Then you can measure it, hat is, count the quanta.11
This new frame of thought, Crosby argues, applied to more than those disciplines which we currently associate with quantification (physics and economics for example). Rather, this shift was predominant throughout all of western thought, forever altering the way Westerners think about art, music, bookkeeping, mathematics, time and space. Furthermore, due to its emphasis on literate physical articulations, this period has left a wealth of information to be considered as sources by future historians. He continues later in the same chapter,
The New Model, visual and quantitative, was one of its antidotes for the nagging insufficiency of its traditional explanations for the mysteries of reality. The New Model offered a new way to examine reality and an armature around which to organize perceptions of that reality. It proved to be extraordinarily robust, providing humanity with unprecedented power and many humans with the comfort of a faith – it lasted for centuries – that they were capable of an intimate understanding of their universe.12
The reason, then, that Braudel was able to construct the first world history surrounding the period of Philip II, is because Philip II lived during a period when quantification had first inspired the desire to use science as means of a creation myth. In this sense, it is not the connection of Big History's framing methods to McNeill, or Diamond or the Analles school that is potentially troublesome. Rather, through this tradition, Big History can be directly connected to belief structure which is distinctly scientific in its origins.

Who is Big History useful for?

But why is it important that Big History is rooted in a scientific tradition? How does that effect the way we must understand it? Many aspects of modern academia bear roots in this tradition. Why is it such an obstacle for Big History in particular?
This becomes an issue of particular importance to Big History, again, because of its scale. Christian repeatedly suggests that Big History must be seen as an attempt to link together existing knowledge13 (as we have seen, these bits of knowledge are scientific) into an intelligible whole. As such, Big History must be seen as an attempt to create something in the way of a scientific global image.
The book Earthly Politics: Local and global in Environmental Governance may help to illustrate some of the issues inherent in constructing a global image. The introduction to the book, written by Marybeth Long Martello and Sheila Jasanoff and titled Globalization and Environmental Governance, attempts to problematize our current notions of what constitutes a 'global' and a 'local' community. She argues that a truly global society is a fallacy. Rather, a somewhat global network may exist, but it is still constructed out of particular 'local' areas and cultures. In this way, New York and New Guinea are similarly 'local'. A global image then, has come to rely on information provided from local areas and cultures of exaggerated importance. Like Christian's laundry list of places he had lived and visited, these emphasized 'locals' have been situated within the scientific tradition. Sheila Jasanoff elaborates on this claim in the following chapter of the book, titled Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images. Throughout the past century, and at an accelerated rate in the information age, contributions toward the creation of a global image have come from sources that are firmly rooted in science. She addresses several instances, including the discovery of the hole in the ozone, the re-writing of maps following WWII, and the respective American and Soviet successes in reaching outer space, in which the global image was forged from distinctly scientific contributions. Possibly the most powerful image which has contributed to our scientific global outlook, and certainly one which has reached iconic status, has been the image of our planet from space.
Even celebrated icons, however, are made, not born, and the most familiar image of earth ever created is no exception. It can be tied to three successive levels of meaning-making: first as an extension of the military adventures of twentieth century superpowers, second as a symbol of environmentalism, and third as a foundation for scientific investigations of the global environment.14
This seems to suggest that our global view is disproportionately shaped by those local communities that posses the ability to embark on large scale scientific projects. She goes on to elaborate this point later in the chapter, “Producing facts on a planetary scale requires not only scientific instruments and work, but also institutions capable of interpreting and disseminating knowledge.”15 This forces us to question the extent to which our current global image is, in fact, global. While these developed nodes may dispersed across a vast geography, they are joined by their shared scientific, and modern values.
Big History is in the business of presenting this scientific global image. But, like all creation myths, Big History is a tool that can only be useful by those within the community it represents. The previous section of this paper has been an attempt to identify the tradition (and therefor community) Big History belongs to. Because of its origins in scientific thought, Big History can only be an effective tool for those adhere to the scientific assumptions on which it is based. What does this mean? While other creation myths can be located within Big History's timeline, for those who adhere to those alternative creation myths, Big History is of no use. Presumably, just as Big History has its roots in scientific belief, alternative creation myths are founded in other sorts of belief, and have alternative ways of coping with the information of their environment. For an individual who adheres to an alternative creation myth to use Big History effectively (as a tool that can be used to locate them within their spatial and chronologic environment), they would first have to adopt basic fundamental scientific assertions about space and time. Other cultures and other creation myths, then, while having a place within the Big History's scientific creation myth, can only be viewed from the perspective of a Big Historian. Big history, then, must be seen as a tool that can only be effectively utilized by individuals whose existing beliefs are based on scientific ideals. Although this prerequisite is not necessarily rooted in a particular geography, Martello and Jasonoff have demonstrated the process by which particular locals based in scientific thought have come to be disproportionately represented in our global image. Given this understanding, Christian's own cosmopolitan history can clearly be seen as a network within the scientific world.

How to Proceed

If Big History can be understood from the outset as a tool born out of, and useful to, a particular community, then its value can only be measured solely within the parameters of that community. That is to say, the scientific creation myth cannot be expected to hold up to scrutiny from other belief systems. There has been sufficient suggestions from within the scientific community, however, to compile a necessary directive for Big History if it hopes to retain value as a framework in the future. Two recent perspectives have offered both encouragement and caution for the future of Big History.
The first comes in the form of a flood of recent support for such a project from the digital humanities. Kevin Kelley, in a New York Times article published May 2006, “In several dozen nondescript office buildings around the world, thousands of hourly workers bend over table-top scanners and haul dusty books into high-tech scanning booths. They are assembling the universal library page by page.”16 Kelley is describing the effort amongst digital humanists globally to make accessible the information which is already available to us. This is a massive project, which involves the scanning of millions of books. But its benefits are far outweigh the necessary effort. Once digitized, it becomes possible to link information in a way never before possible.
Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.17
Kelley's article serves as a reminder of Big History's responsibility to make use of available technologies. As in the case of traditional text based sources, technology has come to offer a method of scientific organization which surpasses the capacity of a single individual. As technology changes, similar methods of digitally linking information should be explored for other, non-text, sources. This capacity of digital technology to present information in a way that is novel and particularly of use to the Big Historian. An example can be seen in Google's recent invention of a 4D interactive map. The program works as an extension to google earth programs which allows the user to interact with maps of previous time periods; zooming in and out, investigating terrain, etc... One could easily imagine the value of such a platform if applied to the wealth of information covered by Big History. From a historian's perspective you could move spatially around the universe, galaxy, and globe; as well as backward and forward in time. At any point of interest along the way, you could zoom directly in on any part of the map to divulge its individual history. Such a framework would connect the knowledge of the scientific tradition, at its many scales, like never before.
The second perspective is reflected in an article titled The Ashkui Project: Linking Western Science and Innu Environmental Knowledge in Creating a Sustainable Environment. This article, using the Ashkui Project as an example, attempts to create some sense of the ways in which those of a scientific belief system can, in the future, responsibly interact with those of other belief systems. Sable argues against imbedded traditions within academia which have largely ignored sources of knowledge not based in a scientific belief system. Sable also argues against any sort of systematic and measurable incorporation of local knowledge. She outlines, in 6 points, a few principles which should govern future interaction between scientific and local knowledge bases.
1.Have all people been engaged in determining the motivation to undertake the project.
2.Does the research serve the community as well as the investors? Who is the ultimate beneficiary of change?
3.Who is defining the knowledge being gathered and documented? Is it inclusive of all stakeholders?
4.Who is governing the decision making process and to what end?
5.To what extent have avenues of communication, e.g. different languages, been included and respected?
6.To what extent have cultural land use practices and values been included in co-management agreements?18
Through these 6 basic principles, she recognizes that both participants in this exchange come from valid, yet incompatible ground, and suggests that the two take a more qualitative approach in coming to understand each other. With this understanding, the two opposing perspectives can more effectively and equitably engage in a common shaping of our global future.


Big History is only one of many framing methods employed globally. It comes from a specific tradition. Traced back, from Christian's own personal experience, to the Medieval quantification of reality described by Crosby, Big History is based at its core upon a fundamental belief in science. Since the Crosby's scientific revolution in thought, the fluidity of information through existing borders (presumably through the human networks described by world historians such as McNeill) has seen the spread of scientific ideals to other specific 'locals' around the globe. And in turn, the knowledge provided by these 'locals' has played an exaggerated role in our formation of a global image. Identifying the roots of Big History has shown us its limits. It is a framework that presupposes its user's belief in science, and therefor cannot be a viable framing method for individuals governed by alternative belief. For those who do have a pre-existing belief in the principles of science, the scientific creation myth offered by Big History may be a viable framing method. However, recent commentaries from within the digital humanities and the social sciences must serve as reminder of the tenants which must guide Big History in the future. The scientific creation myth must navigate carefully between its need effectively consolidate all worldly knowledge, and its responsibility to respectfully interact with all other creation myths.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Local Knowledge

I have always been an advocate of alternative resources. Things like songs, poetry, oral histories etc... I feel that they have allowed me to broaden my own perspective, creating research that reflects sides of an issue that need to be heard, but often are not. Especially now, in our digital age, where innovations in communication technology are occurring at a rate never seen before, it seems that there is the potential to revolutionize the relationship between academics and the rest of us.

Not to downplay the significance of academic learning. Quite simply, there are some things that can only be learned in a university. University, though, is not the only source for knowledge. There are vast stores of untapped local knowledge as well. Given academia's tendency toward written sources, local knowledge is not always well represented in research and findings. Given a topic such as migrations of fish, though, it is clear that a collaboration between academic and local sources of knowledge (maybe marine biologists and local fishermen) could contribute to a fuller understanding of the topic.

Incorporating these two, however, is not as easily said than done. Recently I came across a couple of articles that have helped me in thinking about how to incorporate local knowledge and information from alternative sources into academic research. The two articles, Integrating Local and Scientific Knowledge by Steven Mckinnon and Linking Western Science and Innu Environmental Knowledge in Creating a Sustainable Environment by Trudy Sable, attempt to address the issues inherent in this topic.

As his title suggests, Mackinnon proposes a method for integrating local knowledge into mainstream research. Through a series of heuristic rules, all pieces of information, whether scientific or from a local source, are to be weighted based on existing evidence, notoriety of the individual providing it, and the number of times it occurs. Based on this weighting, all pieces of information are presumably incorporated equally in order to create a better understanding of the topic. At one point, Mackinnon asserts, “Remarkably, there were no instances in which knowledge accumulated from any single source opposed another or diverged from that found in scientific literature. Information either complemented previous knowledge (from interviewees or literature) or added additional understanding.” This, it seems, is an amazing occurrence in itself. Surely, in most areas, disagreement exists. He argues that in such instances of disagreement, a rule would be created in order to allow for both pieces of information. This would necessarily lead to an excessive amount of heuristic rules in situations of great complexity and disagreement. Though he has good intentions, his method seems impractical.

Sable identifies several issues surrounding the relationship between local knowledge and scientific knowledge that Mackinnon doesn't touch on. Firstly, this relationship is usually characterized by apprehension on the part of the scientific community to accept the offerings of local knowledge. This apprehension, however, Sable suggests is shared. Using Innu aboriginal communities as an example, she remarks that local communities such as the Innu have a long history of neccassary apprehension toward outsiders of their community, and showed frustration when scientists claimed to hold a better knowledge of their ancestral lands. They had watched as technology and industry affected their environment, altering migration patterns of the animals they traditionally hunted, and they now saw their children being taught in a foreign language. In the case of the Innu, very real concerns exist that future generations will be assimilated, losing their traditional culture and, by virtue, their local knowledge.

Sable's argument is more qualitative than that of Mackinnon. It is less based on complex series' of rules. Instead, Sable seems to be searching for a more effective interaction, attempting to establish a tangible middle ground between two communities of equals. In six points she outlines the prerequisites to effective interaction between local and scientific communities:

1.Have all people been engaged in determining the motivation to undertake the project.
2.Does the research serve the community as well as the investors? Who is the ultimate beneficiary of change?
3.Who is defining the knowledge being gathered and documented? Is it inclusive of all stakeholders?
4.Who is governing the decision making process and to what end?
5.To what extent have avenues of communication, e.g. different languages, been included and respected?
6.To what extent have cultural land use practices and values been included in co-management agreements?

Sable's argument is not perfect. Again, the relationships between academic and local sources of knowledge are complex, and as with Mackinnon, it may not be possible to develop, improve or understand these relationships based only on a series of rules. The issue, however, is important and one that we must be aware of. Though these authors haven't yet revolutionized our knowledge base, they are working in the right direction.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

As part of an MA course work program, I am sure that I am not the only one feeling the crunch. It is coming to that point in my program where I am expected to produce my little chunk of research; taking all of those lessons I have learned in the past several years and transforming it into a piece of writing that reflects both my interests and my capacity as an academic.

I have, however, hit several road blocks along the way. For the most part, this has been because those lessons which have informed both my interests and my academic capacity Keep Coming! When producing a work that is so representative of myself, that I have an extremely personal connection with, I have been feeling a lot of pressure to get it right. I have learned much this year and am now trying to come to terms with how to incorporate it into my research.

As such, I thought it might be useful to post my working project to date. I do this in the hope that I will receive feedback and suggestions that will aid me in shaping the trajectory of the project henceforth. Mostly, I am concerned with my analysis of the modern period. I have several ideas for improvement already, but a bit of direction is always helpful. Also, to those of you whom haven't yet been introduced to 'Big History', this essay may serve as a brief (but imperfect as mentioned) introduction to the subject. Either way, here it is...

Framing: The Methods of the 'Big Historian'

David Christian, in his book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, writes a history of everything. Christian’s entry point, the central image through which he frames his argument, is that of a nearly infinite web. Stretching back to the big bang and contemplating distant futures, Christian links all events of known history (and beyond) through a single grand narrative. His is a necessary history. Modern technologies and population density have greatly expanded the confines of the individual’s known world. Is Christian’s ‘big history’ unique in its ability to explain ‘everything’? Herodotus was able to write, in The Histories, an account of everything within the confines of his world by profiling influential people. Ibn Khaldun also gave an account of his known world, but by analyzing political, economic, and cultural systems. These must also be considered histories of ‘everything’. As the limits of a historian’s known world have expanded, they have required increasingly abstract methods of framing. While Herodotus may have been able to organize much of the information of his world in the history of a single individual, the sheer scope of today’s world requires the world historian to step back, using a more theoretical entry point.

Before it is possible to examine where ‘big history’s’ grand narrative framing method sits in relation to those methods of previous histories, there are other questions that must be answered. For the purposes of this paper, it is first necessary to define precisely what is meant by ‘known world’. Also, what is it exactly to ‘frame’ an argument? Only after operationally defining these working terms is it possible to situate the methods of ‘big history’ amongst those of past histories.

The term ‘world’ is relational. Certainly it is not an inclusive term. One could study a religious world, a political world, a global world, a world of technology, etc. It is a flexible term and, to be a useful unit of analysis, some parameters must be set. For the purpose of this paper, it may be more accurate to say ‘known world’. Background radiation from the big bang was definitely present during Herodotus’s time.1 It was not until much later though, that technology has granted the ability to perceive it. In practical terms, the big bang played a major role in all of history. However, because previous historians were not aware of it, it could not tangibly be a part of their world. The opposite is also true: there may have been, for example, a megafaunal creature of which we have no oral, written or archeological records. Our inability to perceive its existence, despite it having once been a part of our globe, excludes it from our ‘known world’.
A world then, should be seen as the whole of all known information. This means technology plays a major role in defining known worlds. Population growth and density must also be considered. A larger and denser population not only provides more information to be considered in one’s world, it also enables a heightened ability for that world to learn collectively. Christian links these factors (population growth, technology and innovation) in processes he refers to as Malthusian cycles. 2 While there are other sources that contribute to the expansion of worlds (indeed, many discoveries may occur purely by chance), these factors will allow for a study of the significant trends involving ‘world’ expansion and historical framing methods.
Oswald Spengler, in the introduction to his book The Decline of the West, describes the discipline of history:

Nature is the shape in which the man of higher cultures synthesizes and interprets the immediate impressions of his senses. History is that from which his imagination seeks comprehension of the living existence of the world in relation to his own life, which he thereby invests with a deeper reality.3

For Spengler, history is the attempt to coherently organize everything we know. To do so, however, implies the use of some structure or set of constraints capable of organizing ‘everything’. These are the framing structures. Any individual holds the ability to sense and perceive their environment. Framing then, is a common linking structure: a central idea through which individual sensory experiences may be interpreted. One could have the sensory experience of an earthquake, for example, but it is only through some abstract idea such as plate tectonics, God, or another figure, image, or idea capable of explaining your sensations of an earthquake, that one is capable of contextualizing their experience.

The ability to frame is not necessarily linked to written language. (Indeed it is most likely an element of both human and non-human life.) Certainly, non-literate populations are capable of contextualizing individual experiences into long and rich oral narratives. Alessandro Portelli, in his book The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, highlights the complexities of oral histories4 This ability to frame despite the presence of written language suggests that framing methods were a significant aspect of what is traditionally referred to as ‘pre-history’ (that is, the time before written record).

While framing methods outside written language is an interesting, and important topic, the goal of this paper is to contextualize the methods of ‘big history’ amongst those of other written histories: specifically those which attempt or claim to explain ‘everything’. While this assessment of written histories cannot be exhaustive, it is an attempt to place ‘big history’ amongst the larger trends of world histories. However, arguing that trends exist between framing methods, or that ‘big history’ is somehow related to other histories is, in itself, an argument based on contingencies. This paper requires framing structures just as does any argument. The progression of framing methods in world history is being examined, and ‘big history’ is the most recent, and effective, approach available.

It may seem as though any analysis of written framing methods must begin with the first written arguments. ‘Big history’ though, is part of a specific tradition. While the epic of Gilgamesh and the works of Homer may lend great insight into the societies in which they were produced, they were not world histories. Rather, they were mythical anecdotes, offering moral lessons more than attempting to accurately understand ‘everything’.

The first history that attempted such a task was Herodotus’s The Histories in the fifth century BCE. Any account of world history’s written framing methods must, then, begin with Herodotus. Christian would argue that Herodotus lived in a unique period of human history. “[W]orld populations”, Christian asserts, “grew exceptionally fast between 1000 and 1 BCE”.5 He attributes this population growth to an increasing ability of individuals to live in increasingly large societies. This speaks to the developing abilities of both individuals as well as the states they now found themselves a part of. “Political systems were getting better at judging the appropriate levels of tribute-exaction, and people (and their immune systems) were getting better at coping with infectious diseases”.6 This process, he argues, allowed for a level of political and social organization not seen since ancient Mesopotamia. Certainly, it was the first time that large, structured civilizations emerged after the development of complex writing systems. This suggests a possible link between the degree to which people were becoming increasingly connected through political systems and population density, and the efforts of individuals (such as Herodotus) to contextualize their personal experiences through historical narratives.

How did Herodotus manage to organize the increased information that came with connected living? Instead of examining the tribute-exacting structures or strengthened immune systems that Christian argues developed during this period and allowed for complex state formation, Herodotus conceives of his world only by collecting the unique experiences of important individuals.

Croesus was a Lydian by birth, son of Alyatts, and sovereign of the nations on this side the river Halys. This river flowing from the south between the Syrians and Paphlagoians, empties itself northward into the Euxine Sea. This Croesus was the first of the barbarians whom we know of that subjected some of the Greeks to the payment of tribute, and formed alliances with others.7

From such examples it is clear that, by engaging these important individuals, Herodotus was able to construct a narrative capable of organizing all the information (be it the geography of rivers, tribute exaction, political alliances, etc…) he saw as part of his ‘world’. The second book of Herodotus’ The Histories, “Euterpe”, devotes a large section to comparing which civilization is “the most ancient of mankind”. Even this section, though, is framed through an individual:
The Egyptians, before the reign of Psammitichus, considered themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. But after Psammitichus, having come to the throne, endeavored to ascertain who were the most ancient, from that time they consider Phrygians to have been before them, and themselves before all others.8

Using Psammitichus as an entry point, Herodotus goes on to perform a comparative study of cultures, geography and technological achievements. While Herodotus recorded history, these important individuals were the people to whom he attributed the making of history. Through them, he was able to give an account of his world.

The histories produced by Ssu-ma Chi’en and Plutarch come just at the end of the population boom described previously by Christian. They appear in distinct cultures separated by a century and a vast amount of territory. Despite this apparent separation, there are distinct similarities in the way they framed their known worlds. Plutarch, of the Roman Empire, and Ssu-ma Chi’en, of the Han dynasty, belonged to (apart from the Achaemenid Empire of Iran) two of the largest political systems on the globe to that point.9 Both Plutarch and Ssu-ma Chi’en employ a method similar to Herodotus in contextualizing their respective societies. Their biographical histories are those most commonly associated with a ‘Great Men’ method of framing. While the number of others included in their collection is, however, significantly limited, the power of these individuals is greater. By chronicling the lives of extremely powerful individuals (General Li Kuang for Ssu-ma Chi’en10, for example; Marc Antony for Plutarch), these historians attempt to appeal to a higher authority. In this way, it is not the man Marc Antony that is being studied, but the idea of a single man who controls the entire world. Philip Stadter’s Plutarch and the Historical Tradition suggests that Plutarch embellished both Antony’s power over his empire and his obsessive relationship with Cleopatra. This allowed him to explain the stability of the empire: the waning of Rome was because Antony ignored politics for his mistress.11 Because these powerful individuals held influence over vast territories and numerous cultures, they served as accessible entry points for discussing information from those territories and peoples. They are the agents of their histories.

This speaks to the social and political developments of the centuries between Herodotus, and Ssu-ma Chi’en and Plutarch. While Herodotus was part of an expansive political system, it lacked the ability for strong central government. The political systems of Ssu-ma Chi’en and Plutarch, while still not living in the kind of centralized government found in modern states, witnessed a rise in central authority. “Most [states] ruled through chains of intermediaries, with little knowledge of or interest in the lives of the majority of those they ruled. Yet undoubtedly states slowly got better at what they did, and managed their power with great skill and efficiency…”.12 While Plutarch and Ssu-ma Chi’en still relied on individuals to frame their histories, the use of fewer, more powerful individuals, must be seen as an abstraction. The idea of their political power served as an entry point capable of linking vast territories and peoples.

By the fourteenth century, framing through individuals had become a less viable method of framing. This is shown in the writings of Ibn Khaldun. Khaldun takes a novel approach in presenting history: an approach that he defines explicitly for his readers in the introductory section of his work:

From the various possibilities, I chose a remarkable and original method. In the work, I commented on civilization, on urbanization, and on the essential characteristics of human social organization, in a way that explains to the reader how and why things are as they are, and shows him how the men who constituted a dynasty first came upon the historical scene. As a result, he will wash his hands of any blind trust in tradition. He will become aware of the conditions of periods and races that were before his time and that will be after it.13

Essentially, Khaldun is engaging with the structures of civilizations themselves. He is critical of the approach of his contemporaries, blaming them for relying too much on the methods of older historians. “They [his contemporaries] disregarded the changes in conditions and in the customs of nations and races that the passing of time had brought about”. Even in Khaldun’s age, using entry points of individuals had become too specific a framing method. As he points out, continual growth of information can quickly lead to oversimplification: “Other historians, then, came with too brief a presentation (of history). They went to the extreme of being satisfied with the names of kings, without any genealogical or historical information, and with only a numerical indication of the length of reigns”.14 Just as Plutarch and Ssu-ma Chi’en had, by writing history through political figures, abstracted their entry points in order to cope with increasing amounts of information, Khaldun, by writing history through civilization and race, had again relied on abstraction. Royal authority and government were still agents in his history, but so were other elements that contribute to civilizations.15 The use of an abstract idea of civilizations as his entry point allowed Khaldun to organize his known world with much greater efficiency.

Why though was it necessary, in Khaldun’s period specifically, to reevaluate historical framing methods? Once again, the period in which Khaldun was writing as one of tangible expansion. “In the fifteenth century, after the long slump associated with the Black Death, populations rose again throughout Afro-Eurasia. Once again, population growth stimulated commerce and urbanization”.16 This process would have greatly influenced Khaldun. He spent his early life between Granada and Tunis, but later would come to spend much time in Cairo. The boundaries of the Islamic empire had been broadened, making long distance travel plausible.17 The geographic area to which Khaldun felt connected (and therefore felt the need to explain) had greatly increased the amount of information he needed to synthesize.

Khaldun’s known world had expanded so much that he required an entry point that was even less specific than those of previous historians. Not only was he immediately a part of a political empire that exceeded in size those of previous historians, but the written records left by those historians forced Khaldun to include earlier empires in his known world. He therefore sought not only an understanding of his life in relation to his immediate society, but also in relation to the whole of known history before him.

Spengler developed Khaldun’s method of examining cyclical history through state structures. He outlines, in the introduction to The Decline of the West, that it is the responsibility of the historian to create a near mathematical method, capable of “following objective connexions of cause and effect”.18 Applying this mechanical philosophy to his cyclical theory of states, Spengler saw potential for historians to not only examine the past, but also to contemplate, and even predict, the future. To accomplish this, Spengler redefined the units of analysis used by the historian, devoting entire chapters of his work to “Music and Plastic”, “Philosophy of Politics”, and “The Form-World of Economic Life”. These were the essential components of civilizations: the structures that were capable of explaining all of history.

There was something besides cultural, political, and economic systems, though, that Spengler attributed to the making of history.

That there is, besides a necessity of cause and effect - which I may call the logic of space - another necessity, an organic necessity in life, that of Destiny - the logic of time - is a fact of the deepest inward certainty, a fact which suffuses the whole of mythological religions and artistic thought and constitutes the essence and kernel of all history…19

Spengler compels us to consider an alternative method of framing: one that, through religion, also allows for a study of history that “covers the whole world”. The only difference between this method and the one he applies, Spengler suggests, “…is only in the eyes by which and through which this world is realized”. By this, Spengler alludes to framing methods. He is suggesting that both political/economic systems and religion, given their expanse, have the capability of framing the history of the ‘whole world’.

Toynbee, like Spengler, acknowledged two competing agents of history. He critically analyzed history through both state structure and religion. In so doing, he combined Spenger’s logics of ‘space’ and ‘time’. Christian would argue that religions are like political or economic systems in their ability to expand.

Though associated in practice with particular dynasties or empires, they [universal religions] proclaimed universal truths and worshiped all-powerful gods. It is no accident that universal religions appeared when both empires and exchange networks reached to the edge of the known universe, controlling populations with diverse belief systems and lifeways.20

Universal religions, like powerful individuals such as Psammitichus, Marc Antony, and General Li Kuang, served as linking structures capable of explaining the growing territories and peoples under their control. As a framing structure, universal religions proved as malleable as political systems. As the historian’s world expanded, religion could be studied in increasingly abstract terms, eventually including multiple religions and culminating (as is seen in the work of Toynbee) in a theoretical discussion of the nature of religion. While religion may be used as a method of framing, it has been, just as other methods, subject to abstraction given an increase in the information that must be framed.

This identification of specific structures within a civilization (a further abstraction in methodology) is again linked to practical expansions of the known world in which Spengler and Toynbee lived. Christian refers to the past 200 years of human history as taking place after the ‘Modern Revolution’.

Those regions that found themselves at the hub of the new global network of exchanges were the first to experience the high rates of innovation and the extraordinary energy flows characteristic of modernity. By the late nineteenth century, their industrial lead gave them a decisive economic, political, and military advantage, which enabled them to put their stamp on the nature and form of modernity throughout the world. 21

The industrial and scientific revolutions had laid the necessary framework that would allow political, economic, religious, and cultural networks to expand in a way not seen since the agricultural revolution. By the 20th century, drastic shifts were beginning to occur:
Not until the twentieth century did the full significance of the Modern Revolution begin to reveal itself. Change accelerated so rapidly, and the ramifications of change were so universal, that this period marks an utterly new stage in human history and in the history of human relations with other species and with the earth. Indeed, it may be no exaggeration to say that the twentieth century marks a decisive moment in the history of the entire biosphere.22

Christian identifies this period as occurring during a wave of innovation. New technologies (such as the combustion engine) and the incorporation of oil as a major energy supply, made possible an economic and political expansion that dominated the globe. The increasing interdependence of the world’s states was made evident through the World Wars. These events served as a very easily recognized connection of peoples from around the globe. Once again, the historians pushing the boundaries of world history were part of a world that dwarfed those of past historians both in geographic scope and complexity.23

There is another wave of innovation, Christian argues, that succeeded that of Toynbee and Spengler’s lifetimes. “This wave is still in motion…”, he argues, “… early in the twenty-first century. Its dominant technologies are electronic and genetic, while its most striking early effect has been to draw all parts of the world more tightly together than ever before”. He continues, “Global flows of information and wealth have become so rapid, and have such little respect for traditional boundaries, that they have blurred the borders between states as well as between enterprises”.24 It is the lack of respect for ‘traditional boundaries’ that makes this innovative wave significant for historical framing methods. The boundaries of civilizations were being traversed so readily that, suddenly, framing through structures of civilizations was no longer an effective method of organizing worldly information. International corporations, rather than states, were now the most influential societal structures. Given the change in commodities (from material goods to information), as well as the decreasing significance of state structures, it was becoming increasing evident that top-down methods of conceptualizing history were becoming less and less viable.

As one might by now expect, historians emerged in the midst of this period of expansion offering a method of conceptualizing history that attempted to eliminate the problematic issues posed by ‘traditional boundaries’. They offered interpretations of history that were no longer organized through elite structures of states or civilizations. As Manning describes in his book Navigating World History, “The scope of these analyses was less than planetary, but their contribution was to identify patterns of interaction more complex than the diffusion of influence from the powerful to the weak”.25 William McNeil in particular wrote history with this reevaluation of traditional boundaries in mind. In attempting to write a more effective history, McNeil, like historians before him, again relied on abstraction. His is the first history using an abstract web as its entry point. He describes, in his book Human Web: A Birds Eye View of World History, what he means by the word ‘web’:

A web, as we see it is a set of connections that link people to one another. These connections may take many forms: chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition. In all such relationships, people communicate information and use that information to guide their future behavior. They also communicate, or transfer, useful technologies, goods, crops, ideas, and much else. Furthermore, they inadvertently exchange diseases and weeds, items they cannot use but which affect their lives (and deaths) nonetheless. The exchange and spread of such information, items and inconveniences, and human responses to them, is what shapes history.26

This view of history posits all people as dots on map. It is the interaction between these dots that makes history. Contrary to previous methods, which identified political, economic, religious, and cultural systems as moving history forward, McNeil’s web allots agency directly to people (all people, not only the elite or powerful).

Christian has developed McNeil’s web design of history. The exact point of development, the abstraction in framing that Christian has contributed, is in sheer scope. Through an interdisciplinary approach to history, Christian has questioned the boundaries of even McNeil’s method of framing.

To understand your own country, you must travel beyond its borders once in your life. You will not understand everything you see; but you may begin to see your own country in a new light. The same is true of history. To understand what is distinctive about human history, we must have some idea of how a biologist or a geologist might approach the subject.27

This interdisciplinary approach has allowed Christian to examine history in a unique way. He has created a history that places humans within a larger narrative. While the entry point is still an abstract web, it is no longer a ‘human’ web. Rather, Christian posits every bit of information as an independent node on the web. In doing so, he assigns agency not only to all humans, but to all plants, animals, planets, quarks, and ideas. All of these nodes interact, some through humans and some not. It is his hope that by understanding phenomena that go beyond human history, the historian might better be able to understand where ‘our type of animal’ sits in the broader spectrums of time and space.

Once again, it is the expansion of the knowable world between the periods of McNeil and Christian that demanded re-conceptualization. The last paragraph of the introduction to Christian’s Maps of Time provides an account of how we might think about the relationship between one’s immediate world and the way we are able to understand it.

In their day, all creation myths offered workable maps of reality, and that is why they were believed. They made sense of what people know. They contained much good, empirical knowledge; and their large structures helped people place themselves within a wider reality. But each map had to build on the knowledge and fulfill the needs of a particular society. And that is why they don’t necessarily count as “true” outside their home environments. It must start with modern knowledge and modern questions, because it is designed for people who live in the modern world. We need to try to understand our universe even if we can be certain that our attempts can never fully succeed. So, the strongest claim we can make about the truth of a modern creation myth is that it offers a unified account of origins from the perspective of the early twenty-first century.28

Christian’s view of framing methods hardly heralds his own method as revolutionary. Rather, it posits Maps of Time as the same as all previous histories in that it offers a ‘workable’ way of making ‘sense of what people know’. Christian has not reached the apex of historical thought: he has not delivered the textbook with which all future generations will come to comprehend the living existence of the world in relation to their own lives. In the future, as in the past, people will be faced with a drastically different reality that we currently face. They will inevitably apply methods of conceptualizing that reality that suit their needs. Until this point, as the realities (worlds) have expanded, historians have relied on increasingly abstract methods of understanding. One can only assume that, should our knowledge continue to grow, pushing the boundaries of our world to contain even more information, this trend of abstraction will continue.

What is the significance of this abstraction in historical framing methods? It may be possible to address this issue by situating ‘big history’ amongst other current histories. In doing so, it is necessary to make the distinction between types of histories generally. Those previously mentioned have been explicit attempts at explaining everything within the limits of their authors known worlds. They serve the purpose of contextualizing the author within a broader reality. This isn’t the case for all histories. While all histories serve some purpose, they may be linked more to political, economic, or social motivations than to efforts at contextualization. Some of these histories stand in staunch opposition to the methods of big history, and while they must be interpreted critically, their opposition cannot be overlooked.

The grand narrative method of ‘big history’ has not been without opposition. The shift from histories employing top-down framing methods to those emphasizing web design carries significant implications. As nodes on Christian’s web, all information has agency. If the historian is willing to recognize this omnipresent agency, and wishes to make any kind of legitimate claim, they must assume to know something about everything. Is this possible? This is the question posed by the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group (founded in the early 1980’s: the same period that world histories were gaining popularity) and marks one of the fundamental challenges to any history claiming to be inclusive. As described by John Beverley in his article, “Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge,” the process of accurately representing the views of a subaltern group is impossible. In any attempt to portray the outlook of a person or persons which are in some way subordinate, there is the inevitable application of resources, be it means of portrayal, acquired knowledge, or so forth, which that subaltern does not have access to. Therefore, in attempting to create a reproduction of that subaltern perspective, the representation is being made from a standpoint that is conforming to the oppresive system that has been the cause of their social position.29 Beverley’s argument is meant to apply to subordinate human populations. However, the argument can be generalized. Never having experienced life as a tree, for example, we cannot understand the tree as an agent. This view goes beyond the Subaltern Studies Group. Haines Brown, in an article titled “The Reconstruction of Objectivity”, argues, “Since the Second World War (although it has deeper roots), there has been an assault on the ideal of objectivity that we might very loosely call postmodern deconstructionism”.30 Brown goes on to identify several issues that make any form of objectivity impossible.

Subaltern Studies is obviously not an attempt at universal understanding. Rather, it seems to be the opposite. Argued to its fullest, it would assert that being ourselves, we are limited to knowing only ourselves. This is an extreme view. Later in the same essay, Brown counters,
In any case, it does not seem the nature of things is “essential” to them, but is the effect of a constrained causal relation with the broader world. What is internal to it is only certain dispositions associated with its empirical structure. It may seem that we have wandered away from the issue of objectivity, but that is not the case. If objectivity depends on universality, truthful knowledge of a system that necessarily includes its relation to the broader world seems to open the way for us to acquire objective knowledge of it.31

By creating a framing method that is non-hierarchical, ‘big’ historians have distributed value evenly throughout time and space. By not emphasizing the role of humans (much less the ruling elite or elite structures) ‘big’ history has provided all elements of our known world with a voice. This voice ensures that, because everyone and everything is capable of telling its own history, some level of objectivity (a universal subjectivity) is possible.

This is not to say that the postmodernist critique is without value. If nothing else, it has alerted historians to issues of subjectivity and forced the discipline to re-examine its methodology. Christopher Lloyd, in his article “The Methodologies of Social History: A Critical Survey and Defense of Structuralism”, outlines the relationship between the growth of macro-histories and the developing research methods of social history in the past two decades. The adoption of a scientific mentality in historical studies has allowed historians to engage with their subjects in an equitable exchange.32 One of the responsibilities of Subaltern Studies, as argued by Beverley, was the need to build, “…relationships of solidarity between ourselves and the people and social practices we posit as our objects of study”.33 By integrating alternative research methods that are capable, through an interdisciplinary approach, of equitably engaging its ‘objects of study’, ‘big history’ has embraced the concerns of the subaltern historian. By abstracting the entry point into its narrative, ‘big history’ has created a research process that has allowed for more objectivity than any history that came before it.

Since Herodotus’ time, the known world has been significantly expanded. To account for this increase in information, historians have used increasingly abstract methods of organization. Once, rulers and the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems they represented could be used as entry points into understanding the world. These were the makers of history. Now, ‘big history’ argues that history is made all around us by everyone and everything. Agency is universal. We are able to understand it because we have eliminated the traditional boundaries of historical thought. Ultimately though, we have only eliminated those traditional boundaries out of necessity. Historical thought is a product of its own time and place. Dynamic shifts brought about by population density, technology, and innovation have demanded equally dynamic shifts in the way historians have conceptualized themselves in relation to their world.


Please reply for further information on 'Big History', information on sources for the above research, or if you have comments or suggestions for further research.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A friend of mine owns an x-box 360, Microsoft's latest gaming console. The other day, he received an email from Microsoft offering him a month of x-box live for free.

X-box live is the online gaming experience offered by Microsoft. For most games, it consists of some sort of online multiplayer game and a chance to compare your performance in a game with that of others.

It also has a chance to interact with other gamers more directly. Every gamer creates an account. Whenever you play a game online, your username appears for all other members in the forum to see. You can also send text messages and, in most games, there is the option for a shared audio channel.

When my friend received his free month of x-box live, and asked if I would like to create an account, I didn't think much of it. I entered an old email address from hotmail that I now have little use for. I was pretty surprised when, from that email address alone, the x-box told me my full name, phone number, and my home address including postal code.

Where did it come from. The information my friend's x-box regurgitated to me was taken from the user profile of my old hotmail account. Had I spent more time filling out the profile when I created it 9 years ago, the x-box would have been able to tell me more about myself.

I didn't know how to feel when confronted with this information. Having just given the machine my password, I didn't feel that my information was in danger of being leaked. It did make me realize, however, that there must be an amazing wealth of useless information stored somewhere in the bowls of the internet.

For me, the information was still fairly accurate. My name hadn't changed, neither had my phone number, and my parents still live at the same address. This certainly would not be the case for everyone who started an hotmail account 9 years ago. How much outdated information is hotmail hanging on to, if for no other reason than for it to pop up on a gaming console years down the road?

Having no easy answer to my question, I decided to do a little updating of my own. I went through all of the old emails still filed away in my hotmail account (my own outdated archive) and discovered several other accounts I had forgotten about. I remembered that I had an account at which still refered to me as "an aspiring teenage musician", and an online account with an east coast credit union that, while I closed my account with them a long time ago, was still able to identify my name in its records.

These are, undoubtedly, not the only places on the net that I have left my digital signature; just the ones I was able to stumble back across easily.

All this sifting through old information has given me some appreciation of the vastness of the internet. Like I said before, I did not feel scared or threatened by how well my friend's x-box knew me. It was only offering information I had at some point in time made available. It did leave me feeling that there must be an enormous amount of redundant and useless information out there to be sifted through; that the digital archive repeats itself endlessly.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Before arriving here in London, I was a living in Sydney, Nova Scotia where much of my time was spent either playing music or going to shows. My band (currently named Roots and Rhythm Remain but soon to be called something newer and shorter) was one of many in Sydney. For a small town (only about 40 thousand if you include the surrounding area) Sydney seems to produce quite a few aspiring musicians. We have a strong Celtic heritage, our main industry now-a-days is tourism, and other avenues for entertainment are few and far between. All this results in everyone's cusin's bruder being at least familiar with the fretboard of a fiddle or guitar; Or, if nothing else, being willing to pitch in with a vocal harmony at a kitchen party.

All right, enough perpetuating east coast stereotypes (did I mention we like to drink?)

So how do all of these tipsy rural musicians organize themselves? For me (biased by having been born in a digital age) the answer has always been the internet. Specifically, the website It has been my home page for years, and is the first place I go when wondering what is going on in the upcoming weeks, what is going on with my favorite bands, or what idiot ramblings my friends have gotten themselves into lately. The core page consists of a sidebar relaying all of the shows in Cape Breton between now and christmas, a place to post posters or important notices, and links to a message board, buy and sell forum, and media of all types.

In addition to keeping people up to date on the goings on of the cape breton music scene, the site has a backlog of all that has been going on since it started ten years ago. Its creator, Harry Doyle, was in a band back then (77 impala special) and continues to play these days under his new project Vibratonica. In the past 10 years the site has expanded, now being run and moderated 37 administrators. It has enjoyed over 32000 guestbook signatures, 175000 message board comments and many more hits. It is a resource run for and by local musicians, and besides the odd post that is taken down for being in poor taste, is largely self governed.

Cape Breton is not the only place for which such a website now exists. There is now a 'locals' website for Moncton, Fredericton, Halifax, PEI, Newfoundland, and Pictou (as well as a separate website for skateboard culture in cape breton) All of the sites operate under the same principles as that of, and some have enjoyed more posts. All of this amounts to an extensive archive of music news and history for Canada's east coast.

Alright... now for a bit of shameless self promotion. Of course, the beauty of the locals website is that (like most sites) it allows the viewer to get sidetracked, clicking links and wandering around virtual space for hours. Unlike other sites, and exponentially cooler for it, is the only site on the net that featured a link to my band. Ha! Anyways, I encourage you to perouse the locals website and, if you are interested, to check out some of my music. My band can be found at and a few solo songs are online at

Monday, September 29, 2008

Ive been thinking a lot lately on what digital archiving means for the 'Big' historian. It may help, before reflecting on the connections between the two, to briefly describe what I see as the fundamental viewpoints of 'Big History'.
'Big History' is, to my understanding, the most recent extension of 'world' or 'global' histories. Herodotus, Ssu Ma Chien and others way back in the day, constructed what they saw as complete histories. They related those facts and stories which were fundamental in understanding 'their' world. They traveled to the limits of their world and attempted to explain what they saw, knew or felt about it. There goal in doing so, I believe, was not just to relate this knowledge to others, but to better understand where they fit within it.
What do I mean by 'their world'? I think of world as a relative term . Everyone has their own. A world, then, consists of all of those things which an individual feels influenced by, connected to, or part of. For Herodotus, living on the outskirts of the Ancient Greek empire, the world consisted of the geographic area, politics, and culture which surrounded the Mediterranean. He was limited to this area for practical reasons. He was unable to travel further because more extensive networks did not exist (be it because of an absence of the technology which would have allowed him to travel further or the lack of linguistic and cultural similarities in more distant areas.) Ssu Ma Chien's world was similarly limited (his though, to the geographic area, culture and language of China circa 100 B.C.)
The 'Big' historian, then, would argue that through globalization and technological advances, the scope of the world one feels tangibly connected to has expanded significantly from the time of Herodotus until now. We now have at least some basic knowledge of the complex processes which formed the planet, galaxy, and universe in which we live. Surely we have to feel influenced by these processes. Had they not occurred, we would not be hire in the first place. Suddenly, if we are to understand the world in which we live, and our role within it, we must attempt to organize an exponentially larger amount of information. This is the attempt of the big historian.
Digital archiving is, I think, not dissimilar in its objectives. Using technology that was previously unavailable, it is the attempt, not only to amass, but to organize all the information available to us. Like big history, there is nothing novel about this objective. Also like big history, the amount of information has grown exponentially.
To me, though, the point at which the two seem most strongly linked regards access. Not necessarily access to that which has been archived or that which is written, but rather access to the process of archiving and writing. Perhaps it deserves the title 'potential to participate' more than access. As the information being compiled in either case pertains to (& in some way effects) a global audience, does it not seem problematic that those spearheading both movements are (if not western) from the developed world? If we cannot find a way to effectively incorporate opinions and information from remote areas and inaudible populations, how can we claim to provide a 'complete archive' or 'total history'. I believe this is an issue that must be addressed in order to preserve the integrity of both professions (if in fact the two are separate).
This is an issue I have thought about quite a bit. And no immediate answer or remedy presents itself. At the risk of sounding like a Marxist, or as if I am from the Subaltern School, until everyone has the ability to participate in archiving or history writing, we cannot claim anything as infinite, total, or complete. Until then, all I feel I can do is be aware of how limited my perspective is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Getting Started

This blog will serve (I hope) as an online discussion forum. I have long loved the process of historical research and writing, but have often been frustrated by the limitations of traditional academic learning. I was never a great student in grade school and it wasn't until I made it to university that I discovered avenues of academic development outside of books and lectures. I will do my best to post often and I encourage anyone interested the content of this blog to post comments, questions or criticism (just try to make it constructive)

As for the anticipated content of this, my little corner of the digital world, I haven't yet decided. Certainly it will have to do with history. More than likely, it will be the sloppy forum where I try to hash out all that is going on in my academic life.

We shall see...