Bound and Gagged: Thoughts on the History of the 21st Century
We live, we are constantly told, in an era of accelerated innovation and change. Those who make this argument usually underscore technological changes in communications, but many also point to social and political changes in America during recent years. The election of the nation’s first black president, the legalization of gay marriage, the new attention to transgender individuals and communities, and the gradual legalization of marijuana all seem to indicate an increase in the speed of social as well as scientific transformation. As historians, we often react by pointing to other eras that seemed to experience similarly rapid changes, therefore arguing that even in the present day there is very little new under the sun. In my first column for Perspectives I want to explore this idea of accelerated change and what it will mean for how historians of the future look back upon the 21st century. This century is still relatively new, of course, but one can already discern certain differences that distinguish it from previous historical eras. Most interesting, from my perspective, is the tremendous increase in the amount of historical data that future analysts will confront. The rise of online writing, cell phone photography, and other means of contemporary communication, more ubiquitous than past forms of data, will both benefit and challenge those who write the history of our current era.
The rise of social media and its increasing role in interpersonal interactions may enable historians to come closer than ever to seeing how masses of people think.
One small, and rather humorous, example comes from the US presidential campaign of 2012. In October, during the second presidential debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney asserted his belief in gender equality in a striking way: “We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Romney had barely finished speaking when a wave of satirical comments swept various social media sites, parodying his remarks.
The reaction went well beyond Facebook and Twitter. One of the more unusual venues was Amazon’s page selling Avery Durable 1 inch View Binders. For days, writers colonized the site to mock Romney’s comments. “Maia Appleby” wrote: “I’m proud to say that I’m in this binder. I’ve spent 20 years working my way up from Walmart mom to soccer mom, and finally, I’ve hit the glass ceiling. I’m a binder mom! I highly recommend this binder I’m in, but be aware that if you purchase it, you must be flexible and let me put a ham in the oven by 5. Otherwise, my kids might resort to gun violence.” Many echoed her sarcasm on the lives of women in binders. Writers used the site to parody a range of Republican comments during the campaign. For example, “Amazon Customer” wrote: “I was originally going to rate this only 1 star. You see, I’m a big girl and I can only squeeze about 53% of myself into this binder. But then I decided that I’m not going to worry about the other 47%.”
In one of the most popular comments, “Nicole” reminisced: “I thought I needed control of my reproductive choices. It turns out all I needed was this awesome binder! When it came time to give birth to my child conceived from ‘illegitimate’ rape (‘one method of contraception,’ you know), I had nowhere to go. With no health insurance, no hospital would take me in. This binder provided me with a safe place to give birth. It’s spacious, plastic, and comfortable. I like to think of it as my tiny manger, a haven for a homeless mother.”
These Amazon product “reviews” can inform our understanding of a range of contemporary and historical issues. They provide an excellent example of humor in election campaigns and politics more generally, with most people hyperbolically embracing the idea that one can put women in binders. The comments also illustrate a phenomenon I like to call insurgent consumerism: the use of consumer products to express political ideas. The binder comments show how political arguments can go far beyond debates and position papers, how they are integrated into the very fabric of daily life. Interestingly, far from suppressing this politicization of a consumer product, Amazon has not only left the comments intact but has even explained the political context to those just shopping for binders. There are many different kinds of product placement, and here advertising and politics go together.
What most strikes me about these comments, however, is their sheer scale, and both the opportunities and challenges they present to historians. There are nearly 2,000 comments in this vein on the Avery binder Amazon page, and many comments have replies: 20 people wrote in to praise “Nicole’s” comment, for example. This certainly constitutes only a small fraction of opinions voiced about this issue in social media and online in general. For the historian this constitutes a treasure trove of popular ideas about gender and politics in the early 21st-century United States. The rise of social media and its increasing role in interpersonal interactions may enable historians to come closer than ever to seeing how masses of people think.
At the same time, how can we possibly cope with and systematically analyze such a huge amount of not simply data, but qualitative data, observations written by thousands, maybe millions, of people? How would a historian of political satire in the early 21st-century United States, for example, cope with this level of information? At a time when one online newspaper article can easily attract thousands of comments, are we approaching overload? Moreover, how much is such data worth?
Interpreting online commentaries can be a very tricky business, since such texts are notoriously easy to manipulate and the nature of their authorship is often very obscure. Moreover, what does such data reveal about the lives of those who don’t engage in online debates or lack the resources to do so? Will the historians of the future confront their own version of the digital divide, and how will they deal with it?
Many of us, now and in the future, will probably look to digital approaches as a solution. More than the cliometrics of an earlier generation, the new digital history has created tools that enable us to process large masses of qualitative data. The technique of text mining, for example, has pioneered the meticulous analysis of terms and themes in large amounts of textual material. For the most part, however, digital history is more adept at analyzing quantitative data. It does not really substitute, at least not yet, for the meticulous analysis of texts that cultural historians in particular have learned from colleagues in literature and cultural studies. Yet without such quantitative approaches, it is hard to imagine how one can confront this massive and ever-growing repertoire of historical data.1
My hope and guess is that future historians of the 21st century will come up with innovative ways to combine quantitative and qualitative analysis, to explore the vast new sources of data, and to see them as a wonderful resource for understanding the history of the human condition. Just as we have studied how ages past have dealt with the acceleration of historical change, so will those who follow us learn how to recapture the history of our own day, in all its statistical contours, interpretive complexities, and humor.
Tyler Stovall is president of the AHA.
1. Gabe Ignatow and Rada F. Mihalcea, Text Mining: A Guidebook for the Social Sciences (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2016).
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