Telling stories with technology

When I was on holiday in South Australia I was much struck by the impact of the Corninsh community in South Australia, and how you could come across towns like Burra that look as if a bit of St Just had been mysteriously transported to the otherside of the planet.

My original idea was to develop and expand the idea that Australia is a patchwork of various migrant histories, not just the Irish and English shipped as convicts, or the Chinese who came in search of gold, but of small communities like to Cornish, who came to mine copper, and who came because of economic depression at home and how they had a valuable skill in hard rock mineral mining.

But that’s not the post I’m going to write. If you’re interested in the Cornish experience in South Australia you can find a remarkable amount of information on wikipedia.

I’m not going to write that post because the other thing that struck me about the marginal grasslands of South Australia was the number of abandoned narrow gauge rail lines. Now I admit to being a bit of a geek about old trains and have never quite got over my fascination with nineteenth century railways.

These railways are not just ‘there’. They were built for rational economic reasons to get wool, grain and minerals to the coast for export, in just the same way as there is a network of rail lines in WA running from various ports out into the desert to transport iron ore to be loaded onto ships for export.

However unlike today’s mineral lines in WA these railways also provided a passenger service, which meant that a copper miner in Burra could have bought a train ticket to the coast and found passage back to Cornwall, or vice versa.

And this is my point, these were modern societies. Travel was possible, even moderately comfortable. They could write letters to family still in Cornwall and have a reasonable expectation that the letters would get there.

They could order books from London, they could even subscribe to the London Times – there are stories of the migrant gentry getting their copy of the Times sent by sea and sitting down and reading them in strict order, one a day, albeit with an offset of three months (this story does not just apply to Australia, I’ve come across variants of the same story told about the white community in Malaya and Burma).

And of course, because they could do these things, they did and in the process documented their life and their society, and it is this documentation which makes it possible to tell their story.

There is of course a degree of handwringing going on at the moment about how future historians won’t be able to tell stories because of the death of letter writing. I also used to think that would be the case but, I am less convinced.

Yes, people no longer write letters, but they blog, post pictures on Flickr and the like. I am certain that Adam of Usk and both Francis Kilvert and WG BurnMurdoch would have blogged had they had the technology. And Isabella Bird would most certainly have done – her ‘Unbeaten tracks in Japan’ was written as a sequence of letters and reads like a blog, in much the same way as Beth Elliss rather breathless account of her journey to Burma at the end of the nineteenth century reads like an enthusiastic travel blog.

And not everything survived. The only letters we have are those that survived. Like J’s great^3 grandfather’s work book, he must have had more than one but only one has survived. The other probably lit fires or worse in the course of the intervening 150 years.

More importantly, some of that which survives is useless due to its lack of context – we may have the letters, we may roughly know when they were written, but to whom, or by whom can often be a complete mystery.

So, to draw this to some sort of a conclusion we could say that the material is still extant to tell stories, in the forms of flickr collections, facebook posts, emails and blogs, our real question is what happens to these after the owners of that material dies – is there enough with enough context to tell meaningful stories.

The other thing to say is that this is also a golden age to tell stories based on people’s correspondence, as both so much is available from the nineteenth century, and in digital format.

I’m currently about halfway through William Dalrymple’s Last Mughal. In the introduction he tells a little story of how he’d manage to gain access to the State Archives in Yangon and how amazingly they had all Zafar’s prison records scanned and indexed online and were able to burn him a cd of the documents.

Now we might not all aspire to write the story of the last pre-Empire ruler of India, but this little story is telling – information is increasingly easier to find and to search for because of the changes in technology make it so much simpler.

Strange to find that the technology of the second technological revolution is helping us document and record the first …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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