It has been a wonderful opportunity to be in Washington DC this week for many reasons. This is the fifth time I’ve had a chance to visit this area in my short lifetime, and I think I’m learning more than ever. As we age and gain more experiences, I think we obtain more background knowledge to which we can attach new ideas as well as old ones. It’s been a real joy to share this experience with my son.

We had an opportunity today to tour the U.S. Capitol, as well as some other locations. Multiple things came to mind throughout the day which I thought might be worth writing about later, but for tonight I’ll settle for just one.

Inside the rotunda of the Capitol, enormous paintings encircle the room. Most (if not all) of these were painted years after the actual events which are being portrayed, and the artists had no firsthand knowledge or experience about what actually took place. These paintings, while magnificent, truly ARE “artists conceptions.”

I find it interesting as well as thought provoking to see how we continue today, even in 2008, to use these paintings as lenses to understand and visually “see” history, even though in many cases the “visual history” which is presented bears only marginal resemblance to the ACTUAL history which transpired. An example is the following “classic” painting of General George Washington, resigning his commission to the Continental Congress following the end of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

Washington resigns his commission

The artist decided that although they were NOT present at this auspicious and historical event, he would paint in Washington’s wife along with his children in the painting.

Washington's family drawn into this scene, although not historically accurate

This historical inaccuracy IS noted on the sign below the painting, as well as by many of the Congressional staffers who lead visitors on tours of the rotunda. None-the-less, I was struck by the fact that this false image still continues to be a major symbol of historical events to which the artist was not an eye-witness. I am not proposing that this painting be taken down or replaced, but I think it is worth considering the implications and meaning of this situation a bit further.

For centuries of human history, governments and the leaders of governments have had vast powers to write the records of history. Indeed, one of the exits to the rotunda is surrounded by the “winning” leaders of the U.S. Civil War: President Abraham Lincoln and General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant. A statue of Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy) is included in the adjacent hall of statues representing famous individuals from different states, but he is certainly not featured prominently in the rotunda. This contrasts sharply with the statehouse of Texas in Austin, which features a portrait of Jefferson Davis prominently behind the chair of the speaker of the house.

The winners have always written the history books. Even when the “winners” were not witnesses, they have not passed up the opportunity to write and paint historical events in a manner which suited their interests and desires, at times ignoring or “taking artistic liberties” with the facts as they were reliably reported to have taken place.

This situation is radically different today in 2008. The cell phone which most visitors to the Capitol today had in their pocket or purse has the ability to document events in precise detail. While the resolution and quality of those images is likely limited, the ability to document with accuracy is present none-the-less. In addition to the power to document, each person when connected to the Internet has the potential ability to PUBLISH those images. Each one of us, armed with a cell phone and an Internet connection, has the capacity today to become a digital witness to events for a global audience. That is a stunning statement, and has the potential to turn centuries of controlled, “written by the winners” history on its head.

At the Library of Congress today, I saw an original copy of the Guttenberg Bible. It is believed only three copies of this Bible exist in the entire world. At the time, the ability to mechanically duplicate the Bible (in Latin, of course) was totally revolutionary. It allowed anyone who could read and afford the book an opportunity to personally own, control, and use the book. THE holy book. It gave direct access to content for the common person which had never before been available in the course of human history. This was a staggering achievement, yet one which we generally seem to take for granted in the 21st century.

Similarly, access to the Internet and digital tools of publication (as well as digital image and video editing) offer shockingly powerful options for individuals and groups to “write history” for themselves as well as posterity. That power can be abused or used constructively in amazing as well as disconcerting ways. I am convinced a free press (the fourth estate) is an essential component of our relatively free and open society in the United States. Citizen journalism has, I believe, a tremendously powerful, constructive potential to shape the politics, economics, and social lives of individuals around the globe. “Regular folks” like you and me simply could not dream, in previous decades, of having access to the “means of publication” which we can now opt to enjoy and utilize in our digital infoverse.

Karl Marx wrote about the importance of controlling the “means of production.” I am certainly not a Marxist, although I hope I am and continue to be an advocate for the disadvantaged and the oppressed. While Marx was focused in the early stages of the industrial revolution with the “means of production,” I continue to be amazed and even blown away by the potential power which access to the “means of publication” offers to any literate person with access to the connected, digital world.

We have barely scratched the surface of the potential changes which can be wrought (for good and for ill) with the access many of us now have to the digital means of publication. Will we spin history or strive to accurately report it? Will we turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression, or will we seek to faithfully record and share what we see as digital witnesses on the global stage of history and current events?

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2 Responses to Spinning history and the means of publication

  1. Gary Stager says:

    Dear Comrade Wes:

    No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

    Sure many more people can document “history” these days due to portable communications devices, but this makes the conclusions drawn from those artifacts no less suspect than in previous generations. Personal bias and point-of-view are always at work.

    For example, when someone misquotes or selectively quotes one of my presentations, that artifact has a bigger audience than my correct message enjoyed.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    I think this highlights our abiding need to be critical thinkers and media literate. People always have and share limited perspectives of “the truth,” it’s up to us as citizens and good thinkers to weigh sources and ideas as we seek answers. I agree that “personal bias and point-of-view are always at work,” I’m not asserting that broader access to the tools of publication has made people more objective. I’m pointing out that because more people have access to the means of publication, we have more potential voices and therefore perspectives, which I think on balance is a good thing. In this cacophony of voices (as it’s sure to become in the years ahead) those who can reliably and accurately synthesize and validate ideas amidst the flood will present great value in the marketplace. Of course we already have those who only amplify a narrow range of views which support their opinions– I’m thinking of several folks on the radio currently… If artifacts or quotes draw a bigger audience than the original presentation, I’d hope that in at least some cases the full presentation would be available for others to hear and decide for themselves what to believe or think. In the “attention economy” in which we live that won’t always happen, of course, but overall I think access to more voices and the transparency which this environment CAN afford (relatively more than we’ve had in previous eras, I think) is a good thing.

    I don’t think I like the title, “comrade,” however. I’d vote for “brother” or “citizen” instead, if one is needed. 🙂

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