The Earth is Flat

(Just testing this Performancing Bookmarklet Plugin Widget Thingamabob.)

Sunday Times review of Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, by Christine Garwood.

Recent flat-earthism was revived by an awkward Lancashireman (if that’s not a tautology), one Samuel Birley Rowbotham of Stockport, a radical socialist, quack doctor and all-round pain in the neck. With scant education concealed by tremendous energy and self-belief, Rowbotham started touring England in the late 1830s, arguing that the earth was a flat disc, the sun was 400 miles from London, and that we age only because we ingest too much “phosphate and sulphate of lime”. He comes across as a Victorian hybrid of David Icke and Dave Spart. Garwood vividly evokes this milieu of bolshy, furiously autodidactic working-class men in their splendid Mechanics’ Institutes and Owenite Halls of Science, determined to prove those toffee-nosed boffins down in London wrong. Even if they were spectacularly wrong themselves, there’s something appealing about their stubborn contrariness.


History and Appliances: The Case for Luddism

Tags: Why I hate our freedoms, built environmentalism, hail King Ludd.

So. What was the point of the dystopic little reverie in my last post? Do I hate the idea of history appliances? Do I hate technology? Am I a Luddite?

Answers: No. No. No. And/or yes. I certainly don’t hate technology, and I actually love the idea of history appliances: of smart objects that know their own history, of historians thinking beyond the production of texts and into the physical realm, of media devices that allow ordinary people access to the riches of the past, from the Bayeux Tapestry to “Cowboy George.”

The question of Luddism is a little more complicated. The “self-proclaimed Luddites” Bill describes annoy me too. It’s a self-deprecating label that really isn’t; it reminds me of people who are too pleased to tell you they don’t own a TV. But the original Luddites weren’t people who don’t like Blackberrys or only watch Nova at a friend’s house. They were artisans and laborers threatened with extinction by the automation of the British textile industry. In Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson shows how 19th-century Luddites smashed the knitting frames and steam-powered looms of factory owners and cloth merchants who were using automation to slash wages but spared those owners who observed more traditional customs and practices in setting rates. Real Luddism was never a fight against technology per se. It was a fight against the shift in power caused by a specific implementation of a specific technique. The Luddites’ targets were human choices, not machines.

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History and Appliances: I Love the Gilded Age

Tags: Turkelectronics, a worry-free histo-tainment experience, that episode of The A-Team where Boy George played himself.

If you’re reading my colleague Bill Turkel’s routinely brilliant Digital History Hacks, you’ve already seen his recent posts on Luddism and history appliances . (And if you aren’t, why aren’t you? He won an award, you know.) Bill’s “history appliances” series starts like this:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta’s Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray’s Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you’ll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris … even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity’s Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

Sounds pretty swell, doesn’t it? And he and I have had some fun conversations about history appliances we might actually get constructed. But allow me to offer an alternate scenario:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. Nothing happens.

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Academic Careers Wiki

Tags: The best disinfectant, Kremlinology, Sour Grapes 2.0, ignoring Ralph’s pleas.

Hello, world. I’m still in the thick of grading, and so I’ve been studiously ignoring Ralph’s pleas to post to a certain “group blog,” on which I am ostensibly a “contributor.” Even more studiously than usual, I mean.

But this just came across the transom, and it seems like the sort of thing that everybody is about to know about very soon (where “everybody” means “that weird and tiny subset of people who knows and cares about the academic job market”) . Or maybe those of you on the job market know about it already, but it was news to me: the Academic Careers Wiki. Who is interviewing, who is hiring, who has sent out rejection letters, who got rejected by their candidates, and who got the job you didn’t get. This is not H-Net. This is not where you go to find out what jobs you ought to apply for. It is where you go after you’ve applied, in order to vent, fret, dig up dirt, preen, spill beans, share gossip, and find out why oh why they didn’t choose you.

This strikes me as possibly frightening to some and addictive to others. You might have to dig around the wiki a bit to get a feel for why. Here’s the list of current U.S. History searches. Scroll down to the University of Chicago’s 19th Century search to see how much detail some of these entries go into. Here’s a page linking to all the current History searches. All in the fluid, caveat lector, “nobody’s in charge here” state that is essential to the Wiki format.

What happens when you harness the collective gossip power / angst / desperation of thousands of job-hungry PhDs? When you take the kind of post-rejection Kremlinology and sour grapes that we all engage(d) in during our job hunts and wiki-fy it? It is, potentially, a lot more powerful than wistful First Person columns in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. There’s room for all sorts of hurt feelings here, not to mention breaches of confidentiality and professional conduct. But there’s also potential to shine some badly-needed light on a process often conducted in conditions of extreme ignorance and fear. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said Louis Brandeis. Let the sun shine in.