“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
“Who watches the watchmen?”
Juvenal, Satire VI, lines 347–8
One of the really trendy topics in history these days is the meta concept of ‘The Archive’, which sounds like the ominous name of an extraterrestrial library or the kind of villain a post-modern superhero might fight, but it really just refers to the physical and theoretical recording of history: what gets put in, what gets left out, and what we can learn from those choices.
The fundamental premise of history for almost 150 years was that the archive was unassailable, and that the measure of a historian was his ability to accurately and intelligently explore, collate, and contribute to the data contained within. I probably don’t need to tell you that this was a flawed premise, and that the historical discipline was slow to admit that a collection of materials compiled by academics might not be the final word in facts about a particularly historical period. Thus the terrible Latin at the top: “Who archives the archivists?”
This is especially easy to see in the colonial world, where the curation and creation of an archive was in and of itself a tool of empire. The records that made it into the nebulous ‘Archive’ and the way the were categorized, stored, and made available had a profound effect on the development of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Subaltern School has explored this concept tremendously well and almost singlehandedly exposed the failure of the archive as an objective arbiter of history — not that this is a bad thing, since this proper understanding of the archive has opened up the field of history in a myriad of ways.
The purpose of this post is not to talk about the historical archive, however [he says 300 words later], but the future archive, which we are creating right now. Social media networks keep meticulous records, and unless you diligently curate your online presence, everything you publicly post, comment on, like, or share will lurk just out of sight, waiting for a bored or puckish friend/boss/colleague to uncover them — and they don’t need a visitor’s badge or even pants to find out more.
To make matters worse, most of us spend a great deal of time and effort carefully crafting the content on our social media profiles to present only the most interesting, attractive, and superior sides of ourselves. If historians are poor archivists, I can assure you that the average Facebook user is worse. An uncritical look at any Facebook page will suggest that most people’s lives are filled with sepia-toned dinners in nice restaurants, good hair days, and sunny vacations.
The truth is still there, though. With data storage being what it is, even the unflattering aspects of your life are bound to be recorded somewhere online, just waiting to be uncovered by future generations. What kind of world will it be when a person’s entire life will be accessible to the world at a keystroke? Will we be better off with that kind of transparency? Will historians even be needed, with the archive accessible to everyone with a computer and too much spare time?
The answer, of course, is a desperate and resounding yes. If the discipline can survive the aggressive budget cuts and downsizing happening at universities around the world, it may well find itself in vogue when the current generation of social media users grow up and want to reclaim their identities from the grasp of a poorly curated and potentially unflattering archive. I truly believe that future historians will be tasked with recovering the big picture, the longue durée of a persons life, from a person’s totally haphazard social media past.
At least, I hope that’s what will happen. I like Facebook as much as the next person and enjoy pretending that I’m funnier/cooler/smarter than I am, but I fervently hope that my inevitable biography does not use it as a source.