A Historian At Work: The Stuff of Which Inspiration Is Made

Coming out of the “I MUST finish this new book” cave for a moment to comment on a video I saw via Twitter. (The video clip came to me courtesy of Adam Penenberg.)

The video in question is an unintentionally hilarious clip from a 1994 edition of NBC’s “Today” show. 

My Twitter comment was “Howling”. But even as I zipped off that response, I knew it was glib and short-sighted. In fact, the clip is a historian’s dream. It’s a powerful primary source that would inspire historians interested in the social and cultural history of the internet and the worldwide web. 

Here’s the clip:

(At least I hope it’s still  there. Some versions of it have been removed from the web.)

[NOTE: the day after I posted this entry, L. A. Lorek posted a Twitter  link to a 1994 article she’d written about the internet. Great companion piece.]

Okay, so yes, it’s funny, right? Hilarious, in fact. “What is the internet anyway?” “Internet is, uh, that massive computer network that’s becoming really big now.”

But, oh boy! The possibilities for the historian! 

Think about it. The three anchors hosted what was then, and still is, one of the most “popular” news programs on television — “popular” meaning it commands a huge audience. Every morning, people turn in to get their news from the “Today” show. 

So you’d think these three well-known, well-paid journalists, would be, ya know, clued in on that thing called the internet, the thing that was about to change every. single. thing. about human existence.

And yet — none of then had the foggiest.

Which means that the creation of the two most powerful technological and social tools in modern history — the internet and the web — apparently unfolded completely unbeknownst to what we now call the “mainstream media” (aka MSM). 

(Light bulb! Is this one reason that internet- and web-saturated folks today are so dismissive of said “mainstream media.” Can this clip help historians make sense of the history of that stance?) 

From a historian’s point of view, the three anchors’ ignorance provides a ready-made starting point for a historical assessement of that moment. Certainly it inspires a host of questions a historian would want to answer:

Why were the people who created this profound moment in human history so far off the radar of mainstream journalism? And why was mainstream media so oblivious? (Those are two different questions.) 

How, if at all, did MSM’s ignorance of the “revolution shape the early history of the internet-and-web? Did MSM’s obliviousness enable those pioneers to capitalize, literally and figuratively, on internet/web potential free of the influence of mainstream corporate America? Did that obliviousness shape internet/web pioneers’ “information wants to be free” paradigm? 

When, how, and why did Gumbel, Couric, and other journalist powerhouses finally catch on? Who or what tipped them off? How did they, as journalists, then “shape” the story? How did their mainstream “story” differ from the narrative put forth by the internet/web pioneers?

I could rattle off questions indefinitely, but I’m not planning to research or write about any of this, so I’ll stop. 

But you see what I mean: This is how historians work. We look back at the past; find an interesting/worthwhile “question”; ask more questions; and then try to find the answers.

The result, eventually, is a historical narrative: a recounting of “what happened.”

And inspiration comes from odd places, even a seemingly trivial-bordering-on-silly YouTube video, which in this case serves as a truly powerful primary document. 

So. There you go.

And here I go, back to the cave, where I’m reading  up on agricultural policy during the Truman era and learning why many ag experts believed that producing more meat seemed the happy answer to the otherwise vexing “agricultural problem.” See ya!


3 thoughts on “A Historian At Work: The Stuff of Which Inspiration Is Made

  1. Good point about how historians work! You know, I was one of those people in 1994. All my friends were way into this newfangled internet thing and I didn’t see the possibilities. Which is weird, because I’ve got a pretty good imagination and at this point in my life I’m a total information junkie. But it’s entirely possible I had my ancient-history loving head up my butt at that point.

  2. I was still using DOS in 1994, but in 1995, my department got a computer (singular) for faculty to use and that one was connected to the ‘net and web. So I started using email and web then (Mosaic, anyone?). My first use was to read the Times online (I’d had a print sub for years) and then to buy something from Amazon. Which crashed on its first day in operation because so many people were trying to buy stuff. The rest, of course, is history……………..

  3. That video is hilarious! The historian part of me is with you on all the possibilities. I remember when www started appearing everywhere, most notably (to me) at the end of movie trailers. Every coming attraction or studio have a web address. “Whatever that is,” I thought. Great stuff.


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