Friday, January 15, 2010

A brief history of history

Express Staff Writer

Throughout history it has mattered little what more than precious few of us think.

"History is written by the victors," wrote Churchill. But the radical egalitarianism of the user-generated Wikipedia Web site has given rise to a new generation of inspired historians, who may or may not win, in the marketplace of ideas.

If Wikipedia survives the current crisis of faith among its users, it could ultimately shift the balance between academic authorities and amateur thinkers in the gathering and presentation of worldly knowledge for a long time to come.

The self-policing Internet encyclopedia is the fifth most visited site, appearing ubiquitously in search queries related to any of its 3 million articles. There are 100,000 articles alone in the Wolof language version in the country of Senegal, evidence of the site's growing power as a multicultural resource. So what happens when a resource like this grows exponentially without the oversight of academic authorities?

In Kanawake, a small Mohawk reservation on the outskirts of Montreal, I once heard an oral tradition that was left out of my degree studies in anthropology at the University of Colorado. The elders tell a tale of tribes migrating from the state-level mound civilizations of Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley centuries before Europeans came to North America.

The story, which as far as I can tell has not made it into Wikipedia yet, describes an exodus of slaves who fled the hierarchical society of Cahokia for the Northeast woodlands, where they would eventually form the Iroquois League around 1600.

Linguists and archeologists may continue to study and debate the development and migration of pre-Columbian cultures, but this story appealed to me strongly because it described my ancestors as willing refugees from a stratified society, rather than primitive precursors to it. But is the story true?

Many theories are thrown up and tested in each generation in all fields of study. Much of what I learned in college has been turned upside down by the discovery of ancient civilizations under the Amazon rain forest, for example.

Reliable theories need to run the gauntlet of peer review. What Wikipedia does is vastly expand the circle of peers. Recent attempts by the Wikipedia Foundation to enlist the help of noted academics to rank the quality of its articles have been met with resistance by Wikipedians intent on keeping a level playing field among scholars, specialists and, for instance, a tribal elder with an oral tradition to share.

They believe that many minds are better than a few and that the crazy experiment of Wikipedia could change the very nature of consensual reality in the long run, making history more accurate, albeit a bit more unwieldy, and less simplistic.

It is easier today to view cultural evolution as complex and often cyclical in nature, rather than linear and developmental (from tribe to metropolis), as was assumed only a generation ago.

Perhaps Wikipedia will keep some ideas from being dismissed out of hand from academic circles, if academics begin taking it seriously. And academic specialists could help keep it from devolving into a confusing hash of conflicting reports and slanted arguments.

Churchill also said, "There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true."

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