Someone is wrong on the Internet

XKCD strip 386

XKCD strip 386

That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).

DIgital Archaeology my Archive

The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:

Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.

The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.

And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.

I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid

On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:

It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.

At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.

Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:

“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.

“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.

“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”

You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.

Private Eye cover 1074

And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now

That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.

1. Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how the public purse is funding the guy.


13 responses to “Someone is wrong on the Internet

  1. Erratum: The Education Secretary (Michael Gove) is not in charge of Higher Education, which comes under the dept of Business (Vince Cable).


  2. I feel your pain. My finger sometimes hovers over the Join Wikipedia button so I could go and correct the nonsense in some of the articles there. But the next idiot would just edit Teh Stupid back in and it would have been a waste of time. Or I could blog about Wiki Got it Wrong, but I admit I prefer to blog about stuff I – hopefully – got right, or at least reasonably well researched.

    Though I did write a letter to those idiots who had stirrups on Roman saddles in a TV documentary. Never heard back from them.

    • That is very familiar. I have fixed up one Wikipedia article only, and it remains more or less intact, but I drew the line there because it might never end and it’s easier for me to make stuff available that will allow others to correct the entries.

  3. Not dissimilar conclusions to my last can also be found at Norse and Viking Ramblings I don’t know whether to be glad it’s not just me this cynical.

  4. followed your link to Norse and Viking Ramblings and then to another link provided by that site. I am a retired US academic and so must admit to some confusion about what is happening – the second site claimed an 80% cut in teaching budgets – which suggest to me corresponding reductions of faculty (how can you possibly teach the same numbers of students with your faculty reduced by 80%?) But what seems most amazing to me is that there seems to be a willingness to allow the government to decide what is being taught in Universities.
    Why on earth would you all acquiesce to the government making such decisions? I appreciate we fund US higher ed in a very different way than you Brits do – and the presence of well endowed private Universities in the US has no equivalent in your system – but when we face cuts – decisions about what would be cut were made not by any government official but by the University – in some cases by faculty developing the plan or in other cases by the school’s adminstration. Yes – any cuts will have negative impacts – but if the cuts are made by people within the Univ it seems more likely to me that some sort of scholarly integrity can be maintained as opposed to the sorts of choices government types will make. There are clearly many issues involved in this matter (such as wheither or not draconian austeriy measures really are the way to deal with the economic situation) but it seems to me that at the very least academics within in the UK should vigorously work for a process wherein it is academics who make choices about reducing Univ costs

    • The short answer here is that yes, you have been slightly confused I think. The 80% cut is coming out of the public subsidy of university teaching, so there is little the universities can do to contest its withdrawal other than what we are doing, emphasising the awful likely consequences for both universities and the country that comes to rely on the new breed of graduates. Such private funding as we variously still have after the 2008 farrago remains, though. Basically, UK university teaching has for a very long time delivered its teaching at far far less than cost, by various means, and that is now coming to an end as the government ceases to invest in that outcome. How we substitute for that loss, of course, remains our own problem, though what options are given to students to find the extra money most or all of us will now have to demand is something where previous governments have felt a responsibility, so that we have a supposedly sympathetic non-profit loan broker called the Students Loans Company that has until recently funded students with loans that only have to be repaid beyond a certain income level. (This level, due to degree deflation, has often never been reached by the graduates and so the whole venture has had to be bailed out at least once.)

      I myself always find this a terrible position to have to argue. I think universities and university education are important and worth investing in, obviously. But if you say to me, “there is so much money: hospital or university?” I would morally have to choose ‘hospital’ almost every time, while wondering where the new doctors are coming from of course. The optimists’ answer is that there should never be only so much money, but at the moment, with a shaky coalition worrying about staying in power and the whole economy hurting, the ruling parties are not going to build a new Britain on the basis of openly raising taxes, so austerity is where we are and only despotism would, I think, choose otherwise. Catch-22.

      • And I would morally choose university and schools. Of course, in reality it is no choice at all because we need both. Without your university or some means of researching and teaching, hospitals would very quickly go backwards. Education also leads to health benefits.

        I have spent the last few weeks getting progressively more and more angry (I didn’t think this was actually possible) as utility rules and anything seen as promoting the public good, let alone, social equality as been axed.

        Happy new year.

        • System-wide, I agree, we need both, but we’re hardly ever fed the question at that scale: this is the worst we’ve been faced with for a while but prior to this Mandelson or his precursor per initiative was telling the world we could perfectly well have both universities and hospitals and everything else for ten per cent less if we’d just stop whining and suck it up. Now we are getting told that actually universities aren’t doing anything useful. I wasn’t really expecting social equality from this government but the public good, and ultimately the tax take, ought to have been higher on their radar than this.

          And, yes, happy new year. Wasn’t much of a Christmas post either but it wasn’t like the problem went away just because the western world took a few days off and in some cases said things about goodwill to men.

  5. Hi Jonathan, thanks for your interest in my Digital Archaeology event.

    The Wayback Machine is great but its’ strength is its’ breadth rather than its’ depth. More importantly, as it’s a web based archive, the websites are seen within today’s browsers, on today’s monitors, at today’s processing speeds and therefore are not a true reflection of the original sites. The Digital Archaeology event sought to bring together a collection of groundbreaking websites and showcase them on the technology they were designed on and for, which is why we called it an archaeological dig – what’s interesting is the context of the sites as much as the sites themselves.

    What I’m doing isn’t new but it is important. If anyone would like to submit a groundbreaking site for the next event in New York, please email


    Jim Boulton

    • Sorry that this comment didn’t get displayed sooner, it was filed as spam and got buried amid ninety-odd links from wedding dress and clothing outlets, for some reason. Where is the Viagra of yesteryear, where the Czech porn sites? Well, anyway: I do see the difference you mark there, and even getting those old machines and their browsers together is an act of considerable dedication I’d say. I should apologise, then, for my intemperate language; my ire would have been better aimed at Fox than at your work. Sorry about that also.

  6. Pingback: “Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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