Finnegan's Take

The end of historians?

The dawn of the information age will make historians obsolete

I was chatting to a journalist from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) while attending the EU Health Prize for Journalists this week and learned of an ambitious plan to digitise original Finnish TV shows dating back as far as the 1950s.

Imagine the treasure trove of online material that will be available for anyone with an interest in 20th Century history if others follow the example set by the ever-innovative Finns.

A century from now, when everyone born in the 20th Century is dead, historians will still access have TV archives, websites, blogs, Facebook pages, home video, YouTube, Tweets….

Rather than seeking out sources, the skill of a historian will be extracting meaningful information from a mountain of noisy data. Social historians will need the skill of a media/communications researcher.

Projects like that embarked upon by the Finnish state broadcaster also open the way for ‘citizen historians’ to see what life (through the prism of TV) looked like in 1955. We could make our own mash-up compilations, consider how news values have developed, and study how political and commercial influences on media have evolved.

It’s also worth adding, in the context of current debate on public state broadcasting, that this is precisely the kid of social and cultural value that state-run media can add – and that commercial TV has little interest in.

In the meantime, academics in history departments should continue making friends with colleagues who have expertise in media studies: communications research will be the new history.

p.s. If you’re reading this in the year 3000, sorry about the climate fiasco…

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  1. I don’t agree. Historian will face different kinds of problems in the future, like the loss of digital data, the difficulty to find information that formerly would have been scribbled down on a sheet of paper and found in the inheritance of simple people and great figures with historic importance.

    Most of our present day communication is based on digital means, unobservable by third persons and thus difficult to account for by historians who in the future might neither have access to what was said in instant messaging nor will they have witnesses who can tell them that there had been communication between two other persons of interest for the historian.

    But it’s true: A lot of tough work will be in reducing noise, in evaluating the credibility of different sources saying different things about the same events and persons. But this just means that the qualification for historians will change – not that their profession will disappear.

  2. I think one of the biggest changes will be that history will become a broader field with much more scope for studying the lives of ordinary people.
    So much of history is obsessed with ‘important’ people that museums about the 18th Century only tell us about how wealthy people lived. 200 years from now, we’ll know what the inside of an ordinary person’s apartment looked like in 2009 because there will be television archives and user-generated video content on the web.

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