Thursday, August 07, 2008

Fascinating post: Gender and the Semantic Web. And my feelings on our new cultural record.

Marshall Kirkpatrick has written a lengthy and fascinating post entitled Will the Semantic Web Have a Gender? over at Read-Write Web.

Frankly I'm not qualified to discuss the point from a geek point of view, I have trouble grasping what the semantic web in action looks like.

But I do think it's relevant to discuss how history is written in this context, and I do think it's relevant to discuss what I think is one of the most astounding beauties of the blogosphere: We are creating a new kind of history...and a broader cultural record. If we assume that in some way the human race will find a way for the Internet to always be archived, even as technologies change, then imagine how much easier blogs and social media will make the lives of historians.

If we look back in time history has primarily been about three things: War, Government, Commerce. And until relatively recently these three activities were pretty heavily male-dominated. (At least so we've been led to believe, right?) Artists of various kinds also inform us about times past, but it was as historically difficult for minority or marginalized groups to find mainstream acceptance in the arts as it was in War, Government and Commerce.

The web, the blogosphere: They allow us to find those voices if we want to hear them. And once we find them, and find more and find more...suddenly we don't really need mainstream acceptance and validation. We are creating our own form of history, our own cultural record of these times.

For a moment think about WWII and the Holocaust. Can you think of, for example, a woman's perspective of those world events?

Probably Anne Frank, right? Who else?

Well, I can think of my grandmother's perspective. A bride who actually married somewhat late for the times, who lost her first baby to a miscarriage, whose husband saw the impending doom and convinced her and his mom to leave Czechoslovakia...but could not convince her parents to leave their home. A woman who at 28 (again late for the times) had her first child in Paris, a mere 4 months before the Nazis invaded. Who escaped via auto, with her infant, her husband and her mother-in-law, over the Pyrenees and into Portugal, eventually taking a boat to the US...where they stayed only briefly before they were booted to wait for Visas in South America. Yes, they had money which is the only way they could have done all of the above. And the parents she left behind, of course, perished.

And that single paragraph I just wrote is about all I know about her experience.

She did not discuss it.

Once, when she was just a year or two out from her death at 89, bedridden and fading, she told me she still dreamed of her parents just about every single week.

We always talked about taking her oral history and we never actually did.

What a loss for us.

On a somewhat lighter note, I think of my mom. Three kids by the time she was 27. And when we ask her now? Oh, we were great, easy, she doesn't remember it being hard. Sure, she tells the story of her first flight with my older brother as a he cried and cried, and she couldn't calm him or ignore the withering glances of the other passengers.

And that single story is about all I know about how my mom might have struggled as a young stay-at-home mom.

But there must have been more. After all, she is one of those who read Betty Friedan's "The Feminist Mystique" and thrust herself into the work force...eventually contributing to the end of her marriage...and leading to a working life that she refuses to leave although she is past traditional retirement age.

She was part of a movement...that second wave that women my age and younger were too young to really understand or experience.

And her daughters have no record of it. Our memories decades later can never match reality, can they?

So I wish my grandmother had blogged. I wish my mother had blogged. And I think the children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews (since I have no children, after all, and someone's gotta care about my cultural record, right?) of today's bloggers will cherish these records. Not just parenting bloggers, but anything that told the story of their life...their working life, their parenting life, their leisure life

And historians and anthropologists will have data from every corner of the globe, from every possible perspective to build a richer, more accurate portrait of what our world is like.

So I may not understand some of the academic or technical ramifications behind Marshall's post and researcher Corinna Bath's concerns, but I know the conversation matters.

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Elisa, I think this is another important perspective on the discussion we had over at RWW. Thanks for posting it.

For what it's worth, I'm not qualified to talk about much from a technical perspective myself (I don't program at all, for example) but I do try to translate the technical stuff into more accessible terms. Glad you're taking part in the conversation too. We're all just doing the best we can, bringing what we've got to the table. Best wishes, Marshall
Elisa, I thought this was a very interesting post. I wonder will our blogs survive in the future? If they are lost and then found again will historians be able to actually interpret them correctly? I am always amazed at how a group of people never seem to interpret a book, movie or conversation the same way.
Thanks Marshall, I appreciate your effort to be the bridge :)

Mary Frances, you are certainly right that in the end these blogs contain so much subjectivity, it won't be a walk in the park. But think about how historians try to rebuild cultural records using letters or other writings...and have to make do with so few. There are millions of blogs, and most of them contain a lot of identifying demographic characteristics. The problem will probably be tackling all of that material, not finding it :)
True that Anne Frank gets all the publicity, but there are other accounts, like Hannah Arendt's:

You might also find what you're looking for here:
Thank you michael, very interesting links. I wonder if my grandmother ever met Ms. Arendt in New York.
You're welcome. It seems kind of foolish for Yad Vashem to have buried their publication lists in PDFs, but quite a few look interesting.

I remembered another famous woman from the period (and a geek icon to boot): Hedy Lamarr.
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