I've been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about our past. I've written before about the complexities of writing history, and it suddenly occurred to me that the medium is just as important as the message.
Stories we tell about our history that have the power to send men to war, topple governments and empower minorities do not lie in journal articles or a few brilliant minds - they are possessed by the public and expressed through collective memory (popular culture, ceremonies, media etc).
The power of stories cannot be harnessed unless they are shared, and they way we have told stories has always been shaped by technology.
In oral societies people often lived their entire lives in the same place. The historic record was meagre but knowledge of the past was widely shared - factors that ensured the group also shared a common worldview. During the Renaissance the printing press revolutionised the way that ideas could be communicated and the industrial revolution allowed mass production of books for the first time – both facilitating cultural relativism. The development of mass media during the 20th century enabled those in power to broadcast stories to huge audiences.
Today websites, blogs and social media including Twitter & Facebook have democratised storytelling. Millions of individuals broadcast billions of stories on a global scale however, paradoxically, this also enables us to select and consume stories that enforce the world-view we already have, rather than challenge it. As we splinter into homogenous online tribes reminiscent of oral societies, have we come full circle?
Is the quest for historical ‘Truth’ obsolete? In many ways the internet is the embodiment of postmodernism - there is very little shared experience, just competing versions of experience. Perhaps now it is more important for historians to pursue ‘many Truths’. The production of diverse histories from different perspectives reinforces the fact that there is no universal, objective Truth, but many.
Digital technology also offers up exciting new narrative mediums from which to redefine 'Truth' and reconfigure the way in which it is conveyed. For the first time in human history we have an opportunity to escape the narrative. The aptly named ‘World Wide Web’ organises information and social connections in networks as opposed to straight lines; perhaps a more accurate reflection of ‘real life’ than traditional linear storytelling. Faced with countless interpretations of the past it is possible the role of Historians may shift from ‘creator’ to ‘navigator’ – providing essential methodologies and platforms to celebrate the diversity of the human experience.