From Paris to Perth
First Monday

From Paris to Perth: Adopting an Annales perspective on the social history of the Internet in Western Australia by Glenn Pass


Abstract
A new approach may be needed to interpret the history of a new technology, such as the Internet, within a local context. The Annales School, founded in France in 1929, brought a new approach to the study of history in the last century, introducing new methods and sources to the discipline. This paper will consider what this older, modernist perspective can contribute to a postmodern social history of the Internet in Western Australia. Despite apparent differences, it will be argued the integration of Annales style historiography, within a postmodern context, will provide a useful model to explore the history of a new technology, such as the Internet, within a local setting.

Contents

Introduction
Theoretical framework
The Annales approach
The Renaissance and the Internet
Interdisciplinary approach and total history
Geography and historical time
Local history
Oral history
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

"Technology, it seems, is always being reread and reinterpreted within the context of local cultures and local politics." [1]

Many histories have been written about the Internet and the people involved in its creation. Few of these, however, take a local perspective of this global phenomenon. Western Australia’s geographic location, in particular its isolation and vast distances, offers unique opportunities to investigate the concepts of place and space and the impact of global technology at the local level.

Western Australia is Australia’s largest state, occupying over 2.5 million square kilometres, approximately one–third of the country’s total land surface area, yet the State’s population of 1.9 million is less than 10 percent of the nation’s total. The sparsely populated nature of Western Australia is further emphasised when one considers three–quarters of the State’s population resides in Perth, the capital city. Perth is considered one of the world’s most isolated major urban centres and Western Australia one of the largest jurisdictions of any State government in the world. Western Australia’s size is reflected by the distance of its most remote communities from the capital city — stretching 2,500 km. to the north, 500 km. to the south and 1,000 km. to the east.

How did an information and communications technology with global reach and significance, such as the Internet, interact with a local, geographically bounded social and cultural environment such as Western Australia? In pursuing this question the issue of methodology is central, particularly when looking at the history of a new technology such as the Internet.

Many histories of computing and the Internet have attracted criticism for their focus on the achievements of the "great inventors" and developments in hardware and software to the neglect of more socially and culturally oriented narratives and conclusions (Abbate, 1999; Grier and Campbell, 2000). Interestingly, at the dawn of the last century, similar concerns were being expressed about the study of history in general.

Nowhere was this more evident than in France in 1903, when economist Francois Simiand published his famous article attacking historians’ slavish attention to "three idols." He highlighted historians’ obsession with political events (the political idol); the stories of great men (the individual idol); and studies of origins (the chronological idol) (Burke, 1990). Simiand’s criticisms strongly influenced the development of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, leading them to seek a new, more socially and culturally relevant approach to the study of history. This approach was formalised with the publication of their journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in 1929, and the subsequent development of an Annales School of historical thought.

This paper will consider what the Annales perspective might contribute to a postmodern social history of the Internet in Western Australia. I will argue an adoption of Annales style historiography within a postmodern context provides a useful model to explore the history of a new technology such as the Internet within a local setting.

 

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Theoretical framework

My approach begins from the perspective that an investigation of the relationship between cyberspace and society demands a marrying of social constructivism, political economy and postmodernism. According to Dodge and Kitchin (2001), the integration of social constructivism and political economy sees the development and use of the Internet as being socially and culturally constructed at the local level, yet linked with broader regional/global political and economic processes.

However, this combined approach does not go far enough in explaining the relationship between cyberspace and society, particularly as it attempts to explain this relationship through grand narratives or universal truths. Instead, an integration of these modernist perspectives within a postmodern framework is necessary. This recognises society is undergoing rapid change as "traditional modernist ideas of space, time, nature and so on, are undermined and reconfigured" [2], influenced in no small way by the transformative nature of information and communication technologies.

The importance of local context is beginning to emerge in Internet research ...

The advent of the Internet, in particular, symbolises the move from a modern to postmodern culture in the late twentieth century (Berthon, et al., 2000; Kitchin, 1998; Turkle, 1995). The postmodern approach, according to Dodge and Kitchin, offers a greater understanding of the relationship between technology and society as it acknowledges differences between people and places. To the postmodernist, place is not independent of the social processes that are enacted, rather these processes are influenced by the place in which they occur. In this way events must be explained in terms of their context, rather than through overarching universal laws, or a single theory, that will hold true in all situations (Walmsley, 2000).

The importance of local context is beginning to emerge in Internet research, for example Goggin (2003) and Miller and Slater (2000). The approach adopted here continues this trend by investigating how local social and cultural processes, within broader regional and global political and economic processes, shaped the establishment and development of the Internet in Western Australia. Further, I argue the relationship between the Internet and Western Australian society can best be explained through an understanding of the context or place in which these changes take place. This integration of social, cultural, political and economic processes within a geographic environment is also a definitive feature of the Annales approach to history.

 

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The Annales approach

In the following sections I will highlight parallels between the Annales approach and Internet research, in particular, what Annales can offer a postmodern history of the Internet in Western Australia. To do this, it is necessary to trace the development of both the approach, and the journal, through three generations: that is, the leadership periods of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. An examination of the main ideas and criticisms of the Annales over this time is also important, particularly as the movement now has a somewhat ambiguous place in mainstream historiography.

Firstly, it must be noted the Annales, as an approach, cannot be separated from the journal around which it is based. Bloch and Febvre founded Annales d’histoire économique et sociale as a vehicle for their new approach to history. Under their leadership the journal became established, if not totally accepted, within pre–war French academe. In the post–war period the Annales: Economies, Sociétiés, Civilisations (as it was renamed) became well known throughout Europe due to the efforts of Febvre and his heir apparent, Fernand Braudel. However, it was not until the 1960s that the journal, and the approach, gained worldwide recognition. The Annales continued to prosper in the 1970s following the appointment of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie as Braudel’s successor. Such was its success, by the end of the next decade the Annales was considered the most influential historical journal in the world (Himmelfarb, 1987; Hunt, 1986), and many still consider the approach to be a major influence on western historiography (Black and MacRaild, 2000; Hughes–Warrington, 2000; Huppert, 1997).

Ironically, just as the Annales began to gain international acceptance, the movement began to attract criticism from within. There was a feeling the Annales, which had been built on a rejection of traditional history’s methods and practitioners, had itself become part of the academic establishment. Shortly before his death in 1985, Braudel expressed disappointment that the journal had lost its raison d’être, claiming it was no longer a leader in historical studies but a follower of fashion.

This criticism from Braudel and others concerned a return to political histories, a greater focus on events, and an increasing concentration on method, in particular, the dominance of quantitative research (Huppert, 1997). While acknowledging Annales has produced some of the most important historical writing of the twentieth century, Burke (1990) claims the movement is now over. Others do not go this far, but acknowledge the approach has faltered or is in decline (Himmelfarb, 1987; Hunt, 1986; Huppert, 1997).

 

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The Renaissance and the Internet

A common criticism of the Annales has been its narrow focus on social and economic histories of France over three centuries from 1500–1800 (Burke, 1990). However, Hunt (1986) and Huppert (1997) discount this view by referring to a wide range of cultures and time periods that have been subject to Annales style research. Nevertheless, many of the great Annales works, particularly those of Febvre, concern Renaissance France. Perhaps surprisingly, this time period provides a strong link between the Annales and the Internet.

There is a common view the invention of the printing press led to the Renaissance of the sixteenth century (Febvre, 1977). The advent of the Internet has been compared with the rise of printing in fifteenth century Europe (Berninger, 2002; Berthon, et al., 2000; Bostock, n.d.) and some of the more enthusiastic supporters of the Internet suggest this technology may be heralding a new Renaissance in the twenty–first century.

The growth of capitalism and the rise of a new middle class provide another fascinating parallel from the Renaissance period. Febvre (1977) provides evidence it was possible in this time for men to start out with nothing yet attain great wealth and influence. The key to their success was access to learning and knowledge, as well as the beginnings of a bureaucracy, all of which were made possible by the bourgeoning printing industry.

In a similar way, it can be argued the Internet has opened up opportunities for knowledge previously denied to many people and has contributed to a new class of nouveau riche technocrats. Febvre claims "[r]ecent wealth is the daily bread of the historian, the spice of social history" [3]. There is sufficient evidence of recent wealth attributable to the Internet to flavour a social history of this technology within the Western Australian context.

 

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Interdisciplinarity and total history

Bloch and Febvre sought to bring new methods and sources to the study of history. They advocated an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on principles from the social sciences, especially economics, sociology, social psychology and geography, to gain a better understanding of history (Black and MacRaild, 2000; Skeates, 1990; Tosh, 2000). The integration of many disciplines brought new techniques to the study of history, and the Annales were characterised by their use of many different sources, unwritten as well as written (Rothstein in Febvre, 1977). Bloch stressed the importance of using a wide range of documentary sources, not just those from ‘official’ institutions such as government, church and business. He also highlighted the need to be critical of documents, to ask "why they exist ... who wrote them, and with what agenda" [4], questions also posed by more recent postmodernists.

In much the same way as the early Annalistes challenged traditional history with their use of new and wide–ranging sources, the Internet has also provided new sources, and challenges, for the study of history in a postmodern context. The Internet has opened up new forms of communication, including e–mail, discussion lists, bulletin boards, Weblogs and Web sites. The origins of Internet communication, the identity of participants, and the ephemeral nature of much of the content, suggest Bloch’s questions regarding authorship and purpose remain critical in this new context.

According to Febvre (1977), it was not sufficient to study history from one aspect in isolation. He believed there was no economic history, political history or geographic history on its own, only history, an all–encompassing or "total" history, as Fernand Braudel would later call it (Burke in Bloch, 1992). This approach sought to study the history of an area in its totality, that is, the consideration of geographic, social, political and economic aspects. I believe this total history perspective can be applied to the study of the Internet in Western Australia, as a combination of approaches is necessary to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between technology and society within a local setting.

A note of caution is required, however, as the attempt at all embracing total histories, particularly the work of Braudel in the post–war era, has attracted some of the fiercest criticisms of the Annales movement. Braudel’s most influential book, La Méditerranée et la monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II [5] is a classic example of the Annales attempt to capture the histories of entire civilisations and ages, focusing on long–term historical structures (Black and MacRaild, 2000). Critics claim Braudel diminishes the importance of the individual in history, accusing him of environmental determinism, that is, a view that the world was shaped by geographic and environmental factors external to mankind (Tosh, 2000).

 

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Geography and historical time

Despite these criticisms, I argue the history of the Internet in Western Australia has much to gain from Braudel’s notions of geography and historical time. Burke believes "Braudel has done more to change our notions of both space and time than any other historian [of the twentieth] century" [6]. This statement has obvious resonances with Internet research, as the transformation of the space–time relationship, through the agency of the Internet, is a defining feature of the postmodern world (Berthon, et al., 2000; Kitchin, 1998).

Braudel conceives history as operating on three levels of time. His book, La Méditerranée [7], was divided into three parts to reflect these dimensions — the geographical, the social and the individual (Braudel, 1993). Boyd–Rayward (1996) drew on Braudel’s notions of duration (durée) to suggest a new perspective on the history of information science, of which the Internet is an important aspect. Boyd–Rayward’s approach, and Braudel’s impressive work on the Mediterranean, provides useful parallels for a study of the Internet in Western Australia.

Individual time

At the first level is the narrative of events covering a period of months, years, or a decade, what is referred to as the short term or courte durée. Time in this period is measured on a personal or individual scale. This history of the event (histoire événementielle) is the fare of traditional history so strongly rejected by the Annales movement. While not denying the importance of events and individuals, Annalistes believe this is only a small part of the story, "crests of foam on the tides" according to Braudel [8]. To gain a greater understanding of history and society it is necessary to consider longer term trends and structures.

A history of the Internet that focuses on events and individuals, following the example of Hafner and Lyon (1996) or Gillies and Cailliau (2000), certainly has value. Adopting this approach, the history of the Internet in Western Australia would be traced through a series of events and the individuals involved. This could, for example, include descriptions of the first Internet connections via university networks, the launch of private e–mail systems and Internet service providers. The story could then continue with examples of government involvement in regulation and service provision, and move on to explore the rise and fall of the dotcoms. This narrative would provide an interesting and enlightening "history"; however, to more fully understand how the Internet was adopted and interpreted within Western Australia it would be necessary to dig a little deeper.

Social and economic time

Braudel’s second level of historical time is measured over periods of ten, twenty or fifty years; involving phases and trends (Braudel, 1972; 1993). Burke (1990) believes this period, the medium term or moyenne durée, can be extended to take in generations or even centuries. It is characterised by trends or cycles, the "rhythms and forces in economic systems, scientific and technological developments" [9].

Western Australia’s distance from the rest of Australia and the world, along with the isolation of many of its communities, are important geographical factors affecting the adoption and interpretation of the Internet within this local setting.

In this context, the Internet in Western Australia needs to be considered in terms of longer term technical developments, for example, the rise of the computer age, advances in telecommunications, and the advent of the Internet in a global sense. A study of Western Australia’s economic system, for example, the cyclical nature of rural and mining industries, would be necessary to provide insights into the role of the Internet in overcoming problems of distance and isolation.

Geographic time

Braudel believed events and trends could only be understood through a consideration of phenomena measured over centuries. To Braudel these phenomena were mostly geographic features spanning the very long term, or la longue durée, as it is famously known. This historical geography, or geo–history, as Braudel preferred, emphasised the relationship of people to their physical environment. This included factors such as land, water and climate, that is, the mountains and plains; the seas and rivers; and the temperature, rainfall and seasons (Burke, 1990; Hughes–Warrington, 2000; Hunt, 1986).

Taking Braudel’s approach, it can be seen the Internet in Western Australia has been influenced by the geography of the State. Western Australia’s distance from the rest of Australia and the world, along with the isolation of many of its communities, are important geographical factors affecting the adoption and interpretation of the Internet within this local setting. The sparseness of the population, which has been both a spur and a barrier to Internet developments, can be traced to the lack of suitable land for agriculture and human settlement across vast tracts of the State. Braudel would claim Western Australia’s land use and population density are the result of long term, immutable environmental factors such as soil type and climate.

I argue these geographic factors, over la longue durée, have created a physical environment that has influenced the Internet in Western Australia in unique ways. The potential of the Internet to overcome barriers of distance has been well documented (Applebee, et al., 1998; Bruce, 1996; Cairncross, 1997; Walmsley, 2000) and highlights the importance of the Internet for a State as large and as isolated as Western Australia. However, the lack of population, and hence economies of scale, as well as the vast distances over which telecommunications infrastructure needs to be rolled out and maintained, have severely limited the provision of Internet Services across much of the State.

The Annales fascination with geography also strikes a chord with studies of cyberspace. The link between geographic space and cyberspace was largely ignored until the late 1990s, however, there is an increasing importance of social geography within Internet research (Adams and Warf, 1997; Dodge and Kitchin, 2001; Walmsley, 2000). Hughes–Warrington’s [10] description of Braudel’s work as "spatial mapping" resonates with the recent work on cybergeography, led by Dodge (2001).

 

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Local history

In my view, the Annales approach to all–encompassing, or total histories, will generate a greater understanding of the Internet in Western Australia. This approach involves investigating the influence of long–term structural factors such as geography and climate. A deterministic approach, such as Braudel’s, needs to be avoided. Instead, the views of other Annalistes, such as Febvre and Le Roy Ladurie, will be adopted, that is, the effect of geography and environment is mediated through social and economic processes, and through the actions of individuals.

Le Roy Ladurie, and the third generation Annalistes, recognised total history could not be achieved on a grand scale, and attempts to describe the totality of social and economic processes could only be accomplished at a local level. For them, total history came to mean local history. Mainstream academic historians had traditionally dismissed local history as the province of village amateurs. Annales historians were among the first to embrace this new kind of local history, leading to its widespread use and acceptance within the discipline of history over the past forty years (Black and MacRaild, 2000; Tosh, 2000). As Punch (1998) notes, postmodernism also focuses on localness rather than universality, again reinforcing the importance of the theoretical framework adopted from Dodge and Kitchin’s (2001) model.

 

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Oral history

The Annales approach is generally not associated with oral history. However, oral history is strongly identified with local history and more broadly, social history (Stanford, 1994; Tosh, 2000), both of which are strongly identified with the Annales. Oral history is also closely linked with postmodernism, sharing a focus on issues of "identity, memory, language and narrative" [11]. Oral history, therefore, is important for a social history of the Internet that seeks to integrate Annales historiography within a postmodern context.

Many historians, however, have treated oral history with scepticism, and the issue of its use and value has created some debate within the discipline. The main criticism of oral history concerns the "fallibility of the human memory" [12], that is, the extent to which our memory provides an accurate reflection of the past. Another criticism of oral history concerns the intrusive role of the historian in the evidence gathering process. Critics argue that rather than being objective, oral historians bring their biases to the interaction and influence or contaminate the evidence obtained (Stanford, 1994; Tosh, 2000; Tuchman, 1998). The postmodernist approach rejects the notion that history is objective and recognises the historian’s role in interpreting and reading the evidence rather than merely describing events and facts. Postmodernism also eschews the notion of a single universal truth; rather truth is a socio–cultural construction that is interpreted differently by different people.

Given concerns regarding the accuracy of oral history, and recognising "truth" is open to interpretation, Marwick (2001), Tosh (2000) and Tuchman (1998) suggest oral history should be part of an integrated approach, used in combination with other sources and mainstream social history methods. Oral history should be treated the same as all primary sources, requiring validation from a variety of sources and recognition that all evidence is open to biases and distortions.

Oral history is also seen as important in opening up new sources of evidence, particularly when access to information is not available in any other way (Marwick, 2001; Stanford, 1994). Tosh (2000) supports the use of oral history where conventional written evidence is limited. He notes in modern times less evidence has been recorded due to the greater use of technology, such as the telephone. The advent of the Internet may have magnified this effect in recent years. Grier and Campbell (2000), for example, stress the importance of recording social histories of the Internet as the stories of early Internet users are largely untold. They attribute this to the "ephemeral nature of network correspondence" [13] in that, by its very nature, much of the communication was in electronic format and much of this would not have survived. What was saved and stored in electronic archives may be rapidly decaying or unable to be easily retrieved due to the obsolescence of technology. It is important, therefore, to record the social history of the Internet in Western Australia through the stories of its users and the evidence left behind in both electronic and print–based archives.

 

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Conclusion

The Annales set out to construct a new kind of history, one that gave greater consideration to the social, economic and cultural contexts in which events occur, rather than a focus on the events themselves and the individuals involved. Many histories of the Internet to date have bowed before the very same idols Simiand identified one hundred years ago, that is, a preoccupation with stories of the great "inventors," narratives of specific events, and discussions about "how it all began." Internet histories have only recently begun to adopt a more socially and culturally relevant approach, particularly within local contexts. Bloch and Febvre’s belief in a new, interdisciplinary approach to history, lessons from Braudel’s fascination with geography over la longue durée, and, Le Roy Ladurie’s more recent emphasis on local or micro–histories, provide an exciting model for studying the history of the Internet within a local setting. The Annales has produced "[a] remarkable amount of the most innovative, the most memorable and the most significant historical writing of the twentieth century" [14]. What stronger endorsement is there for bringing the Annales approach from Paris to Perth? End of article

 

About the author

Glenn Pass is Associate Lecturer and a Ph.D. candidate in Internet Studies in the Department of Media and Information at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia.
E–mail: g.pass@exchange.curtin.edu.au

 

Notes

1. Kitchin, 1998, p. 58.

2. Dodge and Kitchin, 2001, p. 28.

3. Febvre, 1977, p. 28.

4. Black and MacRaild, 2000, p. 68.

5. Published in Paris by A. Colin in 1949, with a second edition appearing in 1966. Based on the second edition, the English translation, by Sián Reynolds, was published in London by Collins in two volumes between 1972 and 1973, entitled The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. This translation also appeared at the same time in the United States under the imprint of Harper & Row. It has re–appeared most recently in 1995 in a two–volume set from the University of California Press.

6. Burke, 1990, p. 41.

7. F. Braudel. La Méditerranée: les hommes et l’héritage. Paris: Arts et métiers graphiques, 1978; and, F. Braudel. La Méditerranée: l’espace et l’histoire. Paris: Arts et métiers graphiques, 1977.

8. As cited in Hughes–Warrington, 2000, p. 20.

9. Ibid.

10. Hughes–Warrington, 2000, p. 20.

11. Bentley, 1999, p. 157.

12. Marwick, 2001, p. 135.

13. Grier and Campbell, 2000, p. 32.

14. Burke, 1990, p. 1.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 11 June 2004; accepted 8 September 2004.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Glenn Pass

From Paris to Perth: Adopting an Annales perspective on the social history of the Internet in Western Australia by Glenn Pass
First Monday, volume 9, number 10 (October 2004),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_10/pass/index.html





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