Friday, 4 December 2015

We are All ‘Super Slick Salesmen’: A life as a living historian in the retro-utopia, or, I have an amazing post-apocalyptic bug out team – probe on the MIT Media Lab

Most of the world today runs on ‘fixed-term contracts’ (Barbrook, 1995, p. 2). Long gone is the notion of staying in one job or company for an entire career. When I began my career as a historian, Mulroney had decimated the history staff at Parks Canada, and many of the community museums in Nova Scotia were only seasonal.  I knew early on that I needed to diversify my skills and always be ‘on the lookout’ for the next contract. There was no “guarantee of continued employment” (Barbrook, 1995, p. 2), there wasn’t even a guarantee of summer employment!  All that aside, for the most part, Nova Scotians have put their ‘big girl panites’ on and figured out how to live a meaningful life.  Like Europe, we understand the need “for an enlightened mixed economy” (Barbrook, 1995, p.8).  There is no job that is deemed ‘too menial’, in fact many of the people behind the counter at Tim Horton’s have degrees of higher learning, some of them multiple.  The running joke in my family has long been ‘Dr. Grant to the centre cutting table’ because to return to Nova Scotia may mean a return to working at Fabricville. 

So what’s a historian to do? 

In Robert Hassan’s article “The MIT Media Lab: techno dream factory or alienation as a way of life” he asks “what are some of the possible social, cultural and ontological consequences of ‘being digital’ within a hypermediated digital ecology of interconnectedness” (Hassan, 2003, p. 89)? Hassan tells us that the MIT Media Lab looks at ‘Sociable Media’ and how people percieve each other in a networked world, and the ‘Digital Life’ looks at connections between ‘bits, people and things in an online world’ (Hassan, 2003, p. 90). As I have mentioned in class before, part of my life is spent online interacting in online history communities. This is not really all that different from most people’s lives. Everyone has online communities that they frequent. What is a bit different for me, is that the online world is also my work world. “[T]he ‘real-time’of the online environment [has] become the ‘real-time’ of [my] everyday life” (Hassan, 2003, p. 90).  My peer-group has come to realize that we can use technology to create a space for working, sharing research, and networking with historians and museum sites all over the world.  We have found a space that is between the ‘good and evil’ of technology, in that we all use it, begrudgeonly for some, but that it can be a useful tool for us to develop the networks we need in order to remain in the history field (Hassan, 2003, p. 91). For many of us, dabbling in webpage development was just too cumbersome a thing to maintain. Facebook though, proved to be an easy interface to use. Add to this many blogging forums that we could publish in and hotlink to facebook, a network could be formed.  In a similar fashion to LaTour’s laboratory of a couple of weeks ago, we are able to read other’s research findings, share and collaborate on new articles, and be in a creative space together, even though we may physically be thousands of miles apart.  A cocktail party in our network would have to be done over skype, with each of us sitting in our own home offices, probably over coffee instead of alcoholic drinks. “Media has become critical in popularizing me as a person in the historical community” (Hassan, 2003, p. 92).

So my work life and personal life have become blurred into one.  My online prescence is strictly developed to provide ‘good press’ (cited in Hassan, 2003, p.93).  I am constantly reading about the eighteenth-century and its fashion, I am hoping to soon fully contribute to that discussion instead of just the occasional comment. My own trips to the past in the form of re-enactment are not only sales trips in that I am still making clothing for interpreters, but also research and networking trips as I learn of new pieces of extant clothing that I will want to study for the disertation. In both instances, I have to be ‘on my game’.  Unfortunately though, despite my offering a ‘commercially viable product’ (Hassan, 2003, p. 93), I am not being paid unless I have provided an article of clothing as part of the exchange.  I am still being paid for what I do, not for what I know, and that tends to relate to a lower dollar amount.  Hassan tells us that “ICTs have flooded the lives of many within the advanced economies, that it is increasingly possible to speak of life being conducted within an information environment, an informational ecology” (cited in Hassan, 2003, p.95). How to earn a living from this ‘interconnectiveness’ will be the question on many historians lips before too much longer.

I will admit that I am extremely privledged to be who I am in this world, an historian who is not employed in the traditional sense, a graduate student.  If it were not for my husband’s steady job, neither of these parts of my life would happen.  I would be that struggling, retail sales associate at Fabricville, cutting your fabric, asking you what you are making, and if you need thread (questions we all have to ask, not that we are interested).  I would not be sitting here at the computer thinking philosophical thoughts about ‘interconnectiveness’, I’d be worried about paying rent and buying groceries.  These two things are still in the back of my mind though, because I have been that retail sales associate.  And so this past week, along side my philosophical ramblings, I have been carrying out a time honoured tradion of processing the Fall harvest for consumption during the winter months.  Alongside my friends in other parts of New England and the Maritimes, I have been making pickled veg, filling my freezer with other freezable vegetables and meats.  If you live in an area where there are farms and farmers, food tends to be cheaper right now than any other time of the year.  Also, since I have just received my term disbursement cheque, I have money.  Money that was almost entirely spent on food for the winter months.  Other friends of mine are processing their flock of chickens and turkeys, others still have gardens full that need to be ‘put up’ for the winter.  Next summer, I too will have a garden full of things that we can eat.  This summer was a write-off, as we did not move here until mid August, instead of the first of June as we had originally intended.  I have other friends who are now finishing up their summer employment and are getting geared up to begin Winter projects for themselves, or to suplement their income producing items for museums trying to use up budgetary money before the end of March.

By now, you will have noticed that I haven’t cited the Brand reading.  Having tried to obtain a copy of the book to read, I learned that it is not available as an ebook (technology), nor, despite there being several copies available, is it available for shipping until after christmas, unless I sign up for a costly Amazon shipping package that I will never use.  In the meantime, I have been reading about the MIT media lab through other sources.  I have been thinking about technology and how it was supposed to make our lives so much easier.  One would think that by now, most books of this sort would be available as ebooks.  My mum devours fiction now only as ebooks or audio books, which saves our bookshelves for books on art and topics that we are constantly researching.  And then I think about what would happen without technology (there was a recent fiction novel about a post technology state and how re-enactors were able to build a new society, it was the SCA, but the skills are similar).  I still wouldn’t be able to read an ebook entitled The Media Lab:Inventing the Future at MIT.  I have been thinking about the community I have become a part of through the internet.  How I would miss those friendships that I have developed.  Hassan informs us that the time-space compression that technology provides was part of the acceleration of modernity, centrally connected to capitalist development.  He explains that tech has changed the lives of many people in profound ways on a macro level (Hassan, 2003, p. 102).  But what of the micro level?  My own life would change without technology, certainly.  I would have to think harder about the micro of daily life.  How important a good cooking fire is; that hot water is a chore and a blessing when it doesn’t come from the tap.  But then I think of the things that I know how to do, the knowledge that has been passed down to me from my parents and grandparents, the knowledge shared amoungst my peers.  Daily life would be harder, but livable.

Especially if we up and moved again, to be closer to our friends, our post-apocalyptic bug out team. 

Works Cited

Hassan, R. (2003). The MIT Media Lab: techno dream factory or alienation as a way of life. Media, Culture and Society, 87-106.

Richard Barbrook, A. C. (1995). The Californian Ideology. Mute, 1-8.

Works Not Cited

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Chapters 1, 6, 9, 13.

Post Script

Last week I wrote a whole other probe about tech and how I live my life with tech, but still do a lot of non-traditional, low tech things at this time of year.  That my life is a balance of tech vs. non-tech, leaning towards the non-tech.  I was missing the last readings, from the Brand book though, and even commented on how my inability to find those readings ticked me off.  This is why…

Thursday, before class, I went in to the Library and found a hard copy of the book.  Yes, I could have done this right from the beginning, but I was told ‘just go on to google docs and look for the readings’.  Having done that, I really could not find the readings.  Further searches informed me that there was ‘no electronic format’ of this book, but that I could buy it from Amazon for the low-low price of one cent.  I thought, ok, for one cent, that, even with shipping costs wouldn’t blow my budget.  I could do this.  I wanted a hard copy, printed out anyway, so that I could make my comments in the margins and highlight the hell out of it.  You really can’t do that with a library book, the librarians kinda frown on it.  The problem was, with regular shipping, the book wouldn’t get to me until February, unless I bought into Amazon’s expensive ‘free’ shipping program, Prime.  I could get six months free trial and then cancel without being charged.  Well two of my friends have fallen for this trick and have been charged, and have had a difficult time getting out of the contract, so I was hesitant…and so, I went to the library.

The thing is though, this book is about tech that was being developed 30 years ago.  Think about that.  Thirty years ago, I had no idea what the internet was.  No idea what email, or list serves, or even really what a computer could do.  Thirty years ago, I had just written my first computer program, one that made a turtle slowly walk across a bar of music that made the notes play as he passed over them.  This was four years before I would know about something called the intranet, four years before my family would own ANY kind of modern tech.  Hell, we had only just gotten a microwave!

As I have told you before, I spend a good part of my day on the internet, on social media, on J-stor, on youtube.  A lot of my social life is there, as my friends are far flung, not only in Nova Scotia, but in the US, out west, in the UK, Germany.  It makes me feel a little less alone.  I think J-stor is one of the very best inventions ever, and I am so happy that I will still have access to it, long after I leave Concordia. 

Youtube has become my television.  I have separated this one out because I think it’s as important as the fact that I couldn’t get the Brand book in electronic format.  Brand talks a lot about tech in the book, tech that has been developed in my lifetime.  Things that have caused me to have an easier life.  It started with the VCR, because at about that same time, my migraines started to get really bad, and I began noticing that I couldn’t watch movies in the theatre any longer without coming away violently ill.  We had a small screen TV at home, and my dad would rent a VCR on the weekends and a bunch of movies and we would have a great time, all curled up in my mum’s room until long into the evening.  We watched all the classics, concluding each weekend with another great Cheech and Chong movie.  Yes, my parents were/are weird, and I love them for it.  We had a great video store at home, whose staff were into some ‘other than normal Hollywood’ stuff.  I became a great fan of stuff produced in the UK and Europe.  The plots were often better developed, and the scenography ‘quieter’ on the eyes.  Now, I watch a lot of those films on Youtube.  The problem with Youtube isn’t the interface really.  That is really easy to use, and the search engine’s great, and the fact that it’s algorithm remembers me is really not creepy to me, and has been helpful in finding things for me to watch that I wouldn’t know to search for, like Timeteam.  The problem is that I have to wait for other people to upload the programs I would like to watch to Youtube.  I, living in Canada, do not have access to the programming of the BBC.  It is ‘blacked out’ here.  We have BBC Canada, but often it is just a rehashing of programs produced here in Canada, like Holmes’ and Baumler’s renovation programs.  Not the BBC at all.

is a UK based show where a team of archaeologists have two days to go into a site and do an archaeological survey.  The stuff they find is fascinating.  If the site is rich, then there may be follow-up digs on the site at a later date.  All the seasons are there, on youtube for us to watch.  I have gotten many of my friends hooked on the series.  Youtube is also where I ‘met’ Ruth Goodman, and her team of living historians doing a job that I could only dream about, actually living history for a period of time, in a historical place.
Living history allows me to have a better understanding of how historical clothing works.  In some of the historic sites that I have worked, we have been able to do experiments on clothing, noting wear patterns, how clothing is changed by the wearing, and how the body is changed by the clothing worn.  It then helps me to understand what I am looking at when examining an extant garment.  I can understand if it has been altered, and often when, and for what purpose.  I have also come to the understanding that a lot of the myths being spread about clothing in our grandparent’s time and before are truly that, myths.

But let me get back to Youtube, and technology…

The UK is big into Living History.  I capitalize it on purpose, to try and explain how big it is in the UK.  Their museum system is almost entirely federally funded.  And they are swimming in historic sites.  It is so important that the BBC has an entire channel devoted to historical stuff, and I’m not talking about Ice Road Truckers or ‘Alien’ anything here, actual HISTORY!  And so these shows are being produced, and people watch them, and they grow to like their own history.  Here in Canada, we get stuff from the US, which by and large is dramatically plotless, and uses far too much special effects and flashy filming techniques to make the viewer think they are getting something new and fabulous.

I have been home sick this week.  I have been watching (listening to, really) a lot of home improvement shows.  I am bored, but cannot stay awake long enough to continue with my readings.  It is really hard to concentrate on stuff you want to write about when you lose your place on the page twelve times before the end of it.  I can watch a home improvement show and it really doesn’t matter who the host is, I can see the problems coming a mile away with the shallow plot techniques and know how the show will end, in case of napping.  Sitting at my computer to watch Youtube is problematic when sick, it is cold outside of bed, and uncomfortable sitting in my desk chair all day.  And yes, in case you haven’t realized it yet, my bedroom TV is still a dumb TV, and Pierre detests it when you set a laptop on the bed…he is a techie.

I have brought you on this quick rant because by now, thirty years after the Brand book was written, I figured that I would just be able to watch anything I wanted to watch (produced anywhere in the world), when I wanted to watch it, on just about any surface in my home.  Or maybe not on a surface at all, that TV would be like Princess Leia’s hologram from Star Wars.  That I would be able to explore the space all around the ‘program’, looking to see what I wanted to see, from the comfort of my own home, from bed when I am sick.  Thirty years in though, I am still stuck watching a lot of bad TV from the United States, which now, Pierre tapes and we watch when I can handle the flashing for a period of time…which lately has been growing shorter and shorter, along with the list of programs I can handle both the flashy filming, and the seriously bad plotlines. 

Works Cited

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Chapters 1, 6, 9, 13.

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