Tag Archives: history

Historical perspectives

For those of you who have never read my About page, you may be surprised to know that as well as being a “techie”, I’m MA in Modern History (the story of how I came to have a career in technology is possibly less interesting than it might outwardly appear). As such, I wanted to take a moment to comment on a couple of things that have come up in the past week.

History teaching in the UK

I don’t remember my first history lesson, how I became aware of my own cultural background, or when or why I fell in love with the study of history. I just remember, when I came to choose exam subjects at 13/14, that for me History was a no-brainer, something I thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to dive deeper into. Despite my affinity for and interest in science (I was working on some Chemistry software for RISC OS with a friend of mine at the time), it was also a natural study for me to pursue into A-level and, eventually, as my Degree subject.

I won’t claim that the transition to a technical career was straightforward. It’s true that while (in my opinion) a History graduate has a range of flexible and totally transferable skills, recruitment out of universities in the UK 15 years ago (and, I suspect, even more so today) was limited in outlook. Although I’d a number of examples of technical knowledge and had my own business selling RISC OS software with a friend, many larger organisations simply wanted a science education, and I didn’t have one to show them. I was grateful of the UK Post Office taking a broader view of my skill set and taking me on as an IT Graduate (or, one of the “Graduates in IT Services”… yes, you work out that acronym… charming!).

Back to the subject though. Academically, philosophically, politically, and in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, I believe that History is vitally important. What did I gain from devoting a number of years of my life to that study? Strong analytical skills spanning multiple media; broad and I believe, sensitive, cultural awareness (yes, really – from a Brit!); and an understanding of how we became the human race we are today.

Facts about history education in the UK :-(

This past week, Professor Niall Ferguson published an editorial piece in the Guardian claiming that British history teaching was at a point of crisis.

[aside: Niall Ferguson is the best lecturer I ever had… I clearly remember his first lecture to my fellow students and I, which began with the clanging industrial noises of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, immediately capturing the attention of even the most feckless and disinterested mid-90s Oxford student (although my female colleagues seemed captured not so much by the audio, but by the visuals and voice…)]

I was disappointed to read about the state of affairs described in his piece, and the accompanying article describing the loss of cohension in the UK History curriculum. Now let’s be clear – to an extent, I was always in a privileged position with regard to education generally and to History education as well. If things are really in such dire straits today I do despair – I don’t get the same sense of ignorance from friends of other nationalities, and whilst I don’t advocate any kind of imperialist triumphalism in British History education, by ignoring trends, and what Niall Ferguson calls the “long arc of time”, our children clearly miss out. I’m not going to trot out cliches about how we have to understand past mistakes to avoid repeating them – we do that regardless, it’s part of the human condition and pride. The point is: there’s excitement and interest in our story. And honestly, how annoyed would you be if every story you ever heard, read, listened to or attempted to understand, arrived in disjointed pieces that were impossible to lace together?

I hope the UK teaching profession, and the appropriate education authorities, listen to reason. And I hope that the apparent focus on science as the be-all-and-end-all of education learns to flex in favour of other subjects, too – speaking as a STEM Ambassador, myself.

History on the web

I’ve remarked before about the web as a historical source. The death of archive services like DejaNews (it was the archive for Usenet, and finally bought by Google, which turned it into Google Groups, before burying / de-emphasising access to older content) was a terrible thing, even if it does mean that it is now very difficult to locate evidence of my embarrassing mid-teen and early 20s days online! The move to the real-time web, and the increasing focus on sites like Twitter and Facebook (through which historical seach is both de-emphasised, and technically virtually impossible), is increasingly reducing the value of the  web as a historical resource.

Suw Charman has written about this issue this week, and it caught my attention particularly in the context of the other issues currently exercising my brain.

I return to a thought I’ve expressed previously: sites that revolve around EVENTS have an opportunity here. When I wrote about Lanyrd I said:

here’s what I think is a really cool feature. You can attach all kinds of “coverage” to an event, be it slides, audio, video, liveblogged information, blogged write-ups, etc etc. So your point-in-time event suddenly gains a social and historical footprint with an aggregation of all the content that grew up around it, which people can go back to.

The thing that really grabbed my attention this week was the seemingly-minor and gimmicky discovery that someone has created an entry for the 1945 Yalta meetingsh on Lanyrd. This is awesome – a demonstration of what it can provide, and what we need – the ability to tie content together and aggregate, link, and retain related information in the context of people and events. All of which is only really interesting if we have a population that understands where we (globally) have come from…

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I’m an IBMer

When I see a piece like this it reminds me why I love doing what I do. Technology can take us forward and help to improve the human condition, and I’m part of an organisation that has been helping to shape that.

As an aside, I’ve been enjoying reading Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance recently. Nicely written, and an eye-opening study of where the company was in the early 90s before he took over (mentioned briefly in the film).

The IBM website is going to have an ongoing series of 100 innovations updated throughout the year, too.

Here’s a longer film that is even more fascinating (remember, I’m a techie, I work for the company, and I’m an historian – nevertheless, I urge you to take a look at these videos)

Never mention politics or religion

Disclaimer: as it says over in the right-hand sidebar of this personal blog which belongs to me, and no-one else, the opinions stated here are my own and not those of any organisation that employs me or has done so in the past. Just in case you weren’t sure.

All a bit exciting over here in wee old Britain lately. We had this General Election, you see, and nobody exactly, well, won. That hasn’t happened for ages.

So what happened next? Well the party with the most seats (Conservative) and those with enough to give them enough to govern (Liberal Democrats) have entered into a coalition. And we haven’t had one of those for, ooooh, ages, since the War, you know. And people are jumping up and down about a) the fact that the other lot didn’t win, b) the fact that a right-wing and centre/left-wing party can’t possibly get on and c) well it’s all so surprising, you know, what happens now? and d) well none of them have any experience, it can’t work and e) the last time that lot were in power the world nearly ended and just you watch, it will all happen again, they hate people and eat babies, you know.

One of the “rules” that I often read about blogging and social spaces like microblogs and social streams is that, as in life, it’s a good idea to avoid contentious topics like politics and religion, unless you have a point to make either way and that is the core purpose of your blog. Basically that’s for fear of showing what you actually believe in and having people point and laugh, or argue and dislike you. That’s an adage that I’ve generally stuck to and will go back to so doing shortly. On this occasion, just for once though, I’m going to comment, and admit that I’m struggling to understand the level of upset that I’m reading on “the Twitter” and “the Facebook”.

First of all, we had an election. Those that had a vote and chose to use it, voted. Those that didn’t do so can be quiet – I’m sorry, but they can, they had a chance to express a view[1], shocking and hardline though that may make me sound. Now, let’s put to one side some of the vagaries of the UK system whereby a party with a reasonable national percentage of the vote ended up with a relatively tiny proportion of the elected MPs, and just accept that the people voted, and we didn’t end up with a clear cut result.

No matter how things had gone, you’re generally going to end up with the supporters of one or more particular colour of politicians being put out that they “didn’t win”. That’s the way that elections work. If one party gets in and spends four or five years doing things which a majority of people then feel are “bad”, then you have the opportunity to remove them at the next election. That’s the system. So I think that whichever way I may lean politically, I have to just accept what “we all decided”[2], and not expect us to go on having weekly vote-a-thons until we end up with a result that I’m happy with.

Now let’s think about the possibilities of what we actually have here. This is where I get a lot more animated, in a positive way.

Whilst Labour and the LibDems may have seemed like more natural political bedfellows, being parties of the Left, or “progressive parties” as the outgoing Prime Minister would want to paint things, putting the two of them together would have been tricky. Labour didn’t “win” in terms of numbers of seats, and I’m inclined to think that the incumbent Government had run out of steam and needed some kind of a shakeup. There would have been a whole debate about “mandate to govern” had that combination worked out, too.

So we’ve got the Tories and the LibDems. But wait! They can’t possibly work together! One is historically a party of liberal freedoms and the other is a party of… small state and liberal freedoms[3]. Actually the thing that really struck me yesterday was when I heard the BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson remark on the PM programme on Radio 4 that Cameron was a student of Vernon Bogdanor at my alma mater, and that he admired Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was probably the archetypal radical liberal Conservative who made sweeping concessions and improvements to the conditions of the working classes in the late nineteenth century, extending the vote and conducting a remarkable kind of realpolitik that had been unknown until then. This is potentially a very interesting role model for Cameron. Another point is that those people who are concerned that the Conservatives are “the nasty party” run by right wingers who hate ordinary people and want to tax them to look after the rich whilst (preferably) bombing Europe and ethnic minorities [yes yes, I exaggerate for the sake of effect] should be positively welcoming the fact that under Cameron they have now entered into what appears to be a fairly wide-ranging deal, concessions on both sides, with a party that should help to draw them close to the political Centre and moderate those supposed nasty urges. Oh, and if Cameron is prepared to offer electoral reform now, which may in the future go beyond Alternative Vote to something more… well that would be a big change, but the history of the past 300 years of British politics has been all about change. It just may not seem like it when you find it difficult to look beyond an immediate generational horizon.

I’m excited. We’ve not seen such a coalition before in the UK. We’ve got two young party leaders of the same age and generation, both of whom were impressive on the campaign trail. Thanks to the large number of discredited MPs who left Parliament after the expenses scandal, we’ve got a large number of new, younger MPs who are untainted by the past. We’ve got an apparent spirit of cooperation. We’ve got a substantial number of apparently-talented new Cabinet ministers who impressed during the last Parliament. Oh, and there hasn’t been a bloodbath with lots of backbiting in the past few days – it seems as though our elected representatives have actually had mature conversations with one another, and the outgoing leadership has left with dignity[4]. And ultimately, a majority of folks potentially on both Left and Right get a little of something they’d hoped for.

It actually doesn’t matter what I think or what I believe one way or the other here – let’s all do something we don’t do very often in this country – let’s get behind the leaders and show some support. Let’s be positive and believe that this can work, at least for now. One way or another, we as a country voted for change this time around. We didn’t necessarily get the X or Y or Z party that we thought we might get, we got something different, but it’s definitely a change. Let’s go with it.

[1] … assuming that they weren’t unable to get into the polling booth on the day according to some press reports :-/ or that they weren’t Jamelia, who proudly and rather stupidly showed off that she’d never voted during Young Person’s Question Time before the election.

[2] … assuming that we accept that our system is “broadly” democratic… bear with me on that one

[3] … this is where I dust off my History degree! 🙂

[4] … although I’ll still look forward to reading the history of this period and all the inside stories in 10 years’ time!

Update 13/05: thanks for all the interest, comments, and tweets about this entry. Glad that the post seems to be resonating with folks – which just goes to show that “rules” about what to blog about can be bent to advantage every now and then 🙂 Really enjoying all of the feedback, thank you.

Daddy, where did the Internet come from?

I’m a big fan of podcasts. As a podcaster myself, you might expect me to say that. I know many people are not fans, and that’s OK – it’s a matter of taste, I think. For me, it’s convenient to be able to get information while I’m driving, or travelling via some other means or doing something else which makes reading difficult. I like some of the insight that comes out through deeper discussion of a topic, or even from the interaction of several people in a conversation, which you typically don’t get from a written post which is likely to be from one point of view. Audio can take more concentration than reading text, of course, and is difficult to scan, so I can understand objections – like I said, it’s a matter of taste. For me, podcasts need to be interesting, and ideally they need to be short (45 mins max) and easy to consume[1].

One particular podcast series which I came across recently (via epredator) is an excellent series of short pieces from the Open University – it’s called The Internet at 40 (iTunes link). It looks at the origins of the Internet and then covers a series of interviews with some of the pioneers like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee as well as less well-known people like Donald Davies and Ray Tomlinson. It’s mostly delivered in nice bite-sized 5-15 minute chunks, with only the first piece lasting longer than 20 minutes, and even then, that’s a compelling listen.

Ever wanted to know how this thing called the Internet evolved? I found it fascinating to listen to Donald Davies talking about the genesis of TCP/IP – I’d always understood it at a general level, but hearing these guys discuss the original thinking behind some of the fundamental concepts was really cool. As both an historian and a techie, it was great to listen and see my two worlds collide. Recommended.

[1] the one exception I make to the 45-minute rule are the shows from TWiTMacBreak Weekly and net@night are regular subscriptions, and the latter in particular is great for making new online discoveries. If you have the stamina for something a little longer, the TWiT network has some great shows.

Historical perspectives and propaganda

I work in the IT industry, and it often surprises people when I mention that my academic background is as an historian. Looking back on my school career, when I came to choose options for A-levels I had a fairly open choice between “arts” and science subjects, and I just went with my strongest interest – history. That extended on to university, where I studied Modern History.

When I was visiting my in-laws in Poland recently, they unearthed a couple of fascinating booklets – fascinating to me, anyway, since one of the the countries I specialised in during my academic studies was Russia and the Russian Revolution, covering the early 19th century through until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Krupska Lenin - 01
Kononow Elektrownia - 01
 
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF
 

The book on the left (published in the same year I was born!) presents a version of Lenin’s life, in the voice of a father talking to his child. It’s a highly and unsurprisingly romanticised account, talking about his struggle to free the poor, and how very hard he worked… ending with a note about how sad everyone was when he died, but how his ideas are remembered – “work and life are organised according to the new system”. The booklet on the right, published a year later, contains a number of stories. I’ve not had all of them translated to me, but one story involves Lenin getting a Christmas tree for all the poor children!

This portrayal of Lenin as the hero of the poor working classes, friend to children everywhere, is classic stuff – I’d read about the way in which his image was manipulated in order to romanticise and legitimise the Communist system, particularly under Stalin and his successors, but here I had two booklets which were being used as recently as 30 years ago to teach my wife and her siblings (although not all of them remember it so vividly, given that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Poland is now celebrating 20 years of democracy). The back pages of each booklet contain the publishing information noting that they were printed in “ZSSR”. The Communist themes, symbols and colours are prevalent. Of course, it also elevates Lenin to an almost religious position of reverence, ironic given the Marxist opposition to religion, but convenient for Stalin’s purposes in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. I felt very strongly that it was worth preserving them, so I engaged in a little digital archaeology / restoration with the aid of a scanner and Apple’s Pages 09.

Talking to my wife, she remembers these books being read to her as a child… she told me that she remembers her mother not seeming exactly sure about them or keen to tell the stories, but looking back she can see that it was because it was not the done thing to speak out against the materials – if her child had gone to school making comments against comrade Lenin it would have been a problem!

I do have to wonder just how many of the portraits of Lenin can ever have been legitimate. I particularly like the images of Lenin the worker and Lenin the family man. Absolutely fascinating.

It’s absolutely true that my own initial views of Poland were based on the grey news footage of Solidarity strikes in the 1980s, and when I first went to the country in 2002 I was astonished to find how “modern” and vibrant a place it is – of course, I can now see that I was just seeing the place through the filter of 15-year-old news coverage of a period of unrest and hardship, in a particular region of a large country. What I know now about the way people lived is based on memories which are fast slipping away. I can talk in very broken Polish to my wife’s grandmother who lived through the war and remembers it; to her parents about the hard times they lived through; and get the occasional remark about my wife’s childhood. Materials like these books make it much more real. I hope you’ll find them as interesting to think about as I did, even if you don’t understand every word written inside.