(20161208 Update: Since writing this opinion piece, I have learned that what I was feeling but not able to articulate very clearly was the “Death of Expertise”: The notion that modern collaboration platforms and social media have eroded the division between laymen and specialists. After reading this piece, you may want to read Tom Nichol’s piece on the same subject.)
I used to think that being an archivist automatically granted credentials to be a historian. I’m not sure that’s true any more. It’s not that I can’t perform the same job; I’m known for performing extensive dives into subjects I am considered an expert on. Rather, I now think it is impossible for any historian to do an effective job, because history no longer matters.
Stop screaming and let me explain. Of course the concept of “history” matters, but only as a concept. The reality in recent years has turned out to be something else entirely: People simply don’t care to benefit from it. Humans have a survival instinct that has evolved from protection of the body to protection of the mind, and people don’t want to be told anything that can upset or inconvenience them. Mentally harmful information is rejected, and whichever population has greater numbers gets to define history. Because the general population greatly outnumbers all professional historians worldwide, guess which group defines truth? Not historians.
Facts no longer matter. Everyone has an agenda. Before written records, information was passed down orally from generation to generation. Natural mutation of information inevitably occurred, but sometimes it was helped along by tribal leaders with ideologies to push. When written record was invented, purging or alteration of records was invented shortly thereafter. So, the modern era of perfect audio and video recording exists — will that save us? No, because people will either claim what they are ingesting has been subjectively edited, or subjectively produced, or will choose their own interpretation of what the speaker said (or meant to say). Facts have now become opinions; just like assholes, everyone has one.
Do you think written or digital archives will save history? Will digitally-signed binary information solve arguments or advance the sciences? Will it steer us away from war, mental illness, or famine? It hasn’t, so far. I think our ability to (mis-)interpret data is more powerful and widespread than we care to think about. I have spent hundreds of man-hours extracting and creating metadata for various archival efforts, and I think most archivists have done the same. How useful is that information if people are incapable of interpreting it, or worse, capable of doubting its authenticity despite indisputably-documented provenance?
Have you ever had an argument with someone online over certain facts about an object, something that is physical and present and obvious? I have. Writing about it, then taking photos of it, then shooting live video of it for the benefit of the other person still didn’t set them straight about the facts. I resorted to physically sending them the object — surely this would clear up any misconception, yes? They thought I sent them an altered version of said object. I gave up. I give up.
If you’ve read this far, and you’re familiar with the type of information I traffic in both above and below ground, you’re probably worried that this is my Raze Manifesto; that the last image anyone will ever see of me is of my silhouette walking away from a giant smoking hole in the ground as decades of archival work burn into ash. If you’re concerned, don’t be. I’ll continue to do what I do in the manner I’ve always done it. But from now on, I’ll do so without any belief that the work is important or valid. I will archive, document, research, and rescue for my own satisfaction and entertainment, not for the greater good — because there is no greater good to be had from this work. If you want to charge that windmill, knock yourself out, but don’t pretend for a single second that you’re changing the world. The world is changing every second without any regard to the past, as it always has, as it always will. A mountain of data ignored is just as useful as a mountain of data destroyed.
I sometimes wish I were not a subject matter expert in the few, narrow fields I derive enjoyment from. For once, I would love to enjoy something with the bliss that comes with ignorance. I think this is why some people long to return to their youth, to return to a time when they lived in bliss. That desire, I believe, is what creates archivists: We are desperate to preserve everything that made us happy, in the hope that it will still make us happy; that interest in our time period and its products will matter somehow, and provide some form of validation.
I don’t seek validation much these days. Seeking closure is probably more productive anyway.
I wonder if there is a specialized psychiatric discipline for treating disillusioned historians.