project idea: Wandering the Wastes: Fallout and Imagery of Nuclear War

Video games, like movies serve as cultural measuring sticks.  Because they are primarily visual media they tend to be packed with culturally significant imagery.  During the past two decades, historians have begun unpacking and examining the images within film as a way of understanding the collective societal fears, pressures, and desires they draw upon.  Very little work, however, has been done on video games as a medium capable of transmitting the same ideas.  This is due largely to two reasons.  First, it is only in the very recent past that video games became sophisticated enough that such ideas could be transmitted.  Second, video games are not considered a mature enough medium.  Many mainstream voices consider them to be along the same lines as an electronic toy, rather than a place for artistic expression.

Recent games are both visually striking and artistically relevant.  The Fallout series, including its latest iteration Fallout 3 serves as a cultural measuring stick in much the same way as cinema of the past half century.  Because Fallout deals with nuclear war, and seeks to portray a post-nuclear landscape in which the player must survive, it is possible to unpack the imagery of Fallout and learn how Americans, especially American children learn about and experience the possibility of nuclear war.

Among the important ideas in Falllout’s portrayal of nuclear war is the wasteland concept.  A landscape of death in which green flora is almost non-existent and fauna is gigantic and hostile to humanity.  The idea of a death landscape is a relatively new concept in the history of nuclear war culture.  Prior iterations of a post-nuclear world such as On the Beach, Alas Babylon, and Canticle for Lebowitz written in the 1950s and 60s do not feature a dead landscape.  Rather, they feature a living world in which humanity is either entirely removed or greatly reduced in technology and numbers.  The  landscape of death, however, has become one of the most dominant tropes of nuclear war culture in the last twenty years, with more modern movies such as Terminator, The Book of Eli, and The Road relying heavily on this concept.  This is an idea that I would like to explore in more detail.

Giant creatures has been, conversely, a popular and longstanding idea within nuclear war imagery.  The idea that radiation creates monsters was the topic of a number of films from the 1950s and even late 1940s.  Films like Them!, The Beginning or the End, and The Amazing Colossal Man each personified the threat of radiation to humanity.  In Fallout, this tradition is preserved in its Radroaches, Radscorpions and Super mutants.

Another important facet of Fallout is the persistence of Civil Defense culture in the idea of nuclear war.  This takes two forms within the game, first in the dark irony of educational filmstrips such as “Bert the Turtle” and second in the Shelter Culture of the mid to late 1950s.  One of the key elements of the Fallout universe is the Vault, a government sponsored corporate enterprise to build gigantic self-sustaining fallout shelters in case of nuclear war.  These Vaults, and their sinister true purpose plays heavily in the game.  Yet while shelter culture was present in the 1950s, Fallout’s portrayal of it is far from its original form.  Shelter culture portrayed in Fallout and in fact the entirety of 50s culture in the game is not an accurate reflection of the time, but rather a 21st Century American interpretation of it.  Thus Fallout can be used as a measure of nostalgia, the attempt to recreate an idealized version of a past event.

In writing this paper I would draw on recent studies of science fiction cinema, as well as the historiography of Cold War culture.  The tools of cinema can be applied to video games with some modification.  Games are player driven experiences, which leaves the creators less control over the experience.  Thus Fallout 3 is a game peppered with references that not every player will experience equally.  Yet the overall appearance of Fallout’s wasteland, the creatures within it, and the dark humor that pervades the game have been universally commented on in reviews.  Understanding the cultural significance of Fallout is a way of measuring how the shadow of nuclear war continues to intrude on our culture a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

No Class Tonight

Everyone should have gotten emails from the university. Class is canceled for the evening.

We will keep to the schedule. So everyone should read next weeks readings and blog if you are signed up to blog. We will just condense the two weeks discussions together.

[Insert Clever Flickr Title Here]

An interactive tool for the amateur photographer, Flikcr creates a whole new playground for both beginners and experts on digital photo storage.

Flickr, created by Yahoo presents a home for photographers of all skill levels to post their photos in a community forum. Flickr is based off of the idea of sharing, and allowing others to access photos. While privacy settings allow some posters to restrict access to their photos, Flick “recommends” allowing anyone to access your photos.

The photo site runs off of a series of “tags,” which run on the same concept of “tagging” for any other site and allow users to quickly sift through several thousands of photos in a matter of seconds. By searching for tags on the site, only relevant or “tagged” photos show up on your searches, including people and places.

A global map allows users to put tags on places within feet of their photos, allowing users to search photos by city and region as well. For archiving purposes, this allows a unique way of storing and filing photos, separating them into various sorts of categories. Sure, it’s convenient for some users, but it also raises the question: what if things are tagged wrong? It might not be a national crisis, but still, users make mistakes, right?

Besides the basic download and search functions, Flickr has extended the option of editing photos in Picnik, a free alternative to Adobe’s Photoshop and also allows users to “group” the profiles that they view the most often. In this way, users can easily keep track of friends or other photographers who may have similar styles. With this comes the option of having a contact list, allowing the users to direct message each other about their photos or related things and could be used to contact

I spent some quality time on Flickr over the course of the week, and explored all of its different functions. While setting up an account is a little confusing, the general idea of the site is genius. True, I would like a little more space for my photos (you’re restricted to just 200 MB on your individual photos), but creating multiple accounts can circumvent that. Although previously restricting Flickr access to solely Yahoo users, Google and Facebook users have now been invited access to Flickr, competing with Google’s Picasa.
After playing around with the site, I’ve really got to compliment Flickr for making the site as easy to use as possible. As a newspaper photographer, I have an opportunity to label my photos with titles, add captions, and tag them as many times as I want. Using photos from my archives, I grabbed a bunch of photos from my old high school’s sports and plotted the events at the different locations as well. Now, when users are exploring Manchester, my photos will be included.

This presents interesting opportunities for historians and digital archivists. Because the photos are on a free platform with the ability to be tagged several times, historians have the ability to load photos to the site of important historical happenings—its an easy way to keep track of as many important free-domain photos as possible and a site I would definitely recommend going to check out, whether you’re an amateur or expert photographer.

Wikipedia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As Bonnie’s post below adroitly demonstrates, Wikipedia is a site with a deeply-ingrained ethos and traditions that might not be familiar to the casual user, a tribal society that debates the content of pages hidden behind talk pages that regular users rarely see, and end up producing articles that are more dependent on consensus than on expertise.  Sometimes, the pages that result are admirable, written in clear English and with a large number of citations at the end for further scholarly pursuit.  Often, these are prominent subjects with quality articles in many of Wikipedia’s innumerable language versions (including the admirable but somewhat bizarre “Simple English” Wikipedia, which tries to present topics like quantum mechanics at a sixth grade reading level).  Since this practicum called on me to analyze three pages on Wikipedia, I decided to present them in a classic format: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I found one article on Wikipedia I found especially praiseworthy, one that was stunningly poor, and a talk page that was, to put it mildly, ugly.  Without further hesitation or preamble, let us examine Wikipedia.

How can you tell what the best articles on Wikipedia are?  Wikipedia itself has a handy answer: they have a “Featured Articles” category that lists what the site considers the best articles on the site.  There are currently over 3,100 featured articles, and they add roughly one a day.  These articles are Wikipedia’s self-proclaimed cream of the cream, the roughly .1% of its over three and a half million articles that it’s willing to say it stands by.  Indeed, the Featured Article I have chosen is an admirable encyclopedia article.  Slavery in Ancient Greece has sections analyzing every aspect of slavery, from a detailed examination of the various terms the Greeks used for slavery and their different connotations to an examination at the origins of Greek slavery from the Mycenaean age through the Homeric period, tracing references of slaves in pre-Classical Greece all the way down through Draco and Solon.  The article struggles to quantify the number of slaves in Classical Greece, arguing that though the wide-scale slavery of the Romans in terms of number of slaves per master was unknown, there was a widespread usage of slaves in most classes, and a rich man could have up to fifty slaves.  It argues that intentional slave breeding was a rare, if not unknown, phenomenon, and that the “slave/citizen” line was far blurrier than the strict separation of the antebellum American South.  It goes on to detail classical views of slavery and then, amazingly, gives a short modern historiography of the subject and even poses discussion questions.  This admirable article is followed by a lengthy list of twenty-nine sources, 170 endnotes, and fifteen books for further reading.  This article’s ending list of sources would be ideal for an undergraduate writing a paper on Ancient Greek slavery and needing academic sources: an amazing amount of historiography is present in the works listed (though, admittedly, 1/3rd of the books mentioned are in French).  All in all, this article is a great example of what a Wikipedia page can offer scholars.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find Wikipedia’s article on the 19th century Taiping general Loyal Prince Lee, or, as he’s known on Wikipedia, Li Xiucheng. I will admit that this is the third occasion on which I have cited this page as an example of Wikipedia’s defects, and it has changed every time, except no matter how much it changes, it remains unacceptable, year after year.  Wikipedia put up a disclaimer, almost apologetically, saying that “This article is a rough translation from Chinese. It may have been generated by a computer or by a translator without dual proficiency. Please help to enhance the translation.”   Now, read that quote back over.  The translation was generated by a computer or a translator without dual proficiency.  It’s no wonder the article is a shambles, an incomprehensible mishmash.   The level of incomprehensibility is best demonstrated by the section labeled “Write:” “In Zhong Prince Li Xiucheng Describes Himself (《忠王李秀成自述》), the autobiographical account of a prince of the Heavenly Kingdom written shortly before his execution(Pseudohistory saying Li was suicide admitted by Zeng Guofan gave Li a sword because Zeng respected Li, even Li Hongzhang had been read this describes and praised Li Xiucheng was a hero on a letter to Zeng).”  Is this at all comprehensible to anyone?  The faults are further demonstrated in the final section which gives the name of a professor at the University of London as “柯文南.”  One must be skeptical that that is, in fact, how he prefers his name to be rendered in English.  In a final confusing move, under children it lists a son, “Li Ronfar Battle of Shanghai (1861).”  Did he die in the Battle of Shanghai?  Was he born in the battle of Shanghai?  What does this mean?  The Loyal Prince Lee article demonstrates a major shortcoming of Wikipedia: articles featuring figures that are mainly of interest to speakers of non-English tongues can be extraordinarily poor, even if their article on the Wikipedia of the native language is fine or even exceptional.

Most of Wikipedia’s deliberations happen behind the scenes, on its talk pages.  Talk pages are attached to every article, yet are rarely seen by most casual users (many do not even notice them), leading to talk page conversations usually dominated by hard-core Wikipedians or cranks (and the two categories often overlap).   Many articles are subject to perennial flame wars: whether Wikipedia’s trickster sister Encyclopedia Dramatica deserves an article (warning: the author of this post strongly encourages you not to visit Encyclopedia Dramatica), whether a formerly-German, now-Polish city on the Baltic should have its name rendered “Danzig” or “Gdansk” and whether its most famous inhabitant, Nicolaus Copernicus, should be a “Pole” or a “German” (a distinction Copernicus would not have understood).  Yet many of the most contentious flame wars are on subjects that one would not expect: race in antiquity.  See the talk page of the Ancient Egyptian Race Controversy page.  For over a century, there has been vigorous academic debate on the subject, and the popular debate on Wikipedia makes that academic debate look positively civilized by comparison.  The page comes with an astounding twenty-three archives of discussion and warnings telling you that the Arbitration Committee has placed the article under probation, that the subject is controversial and in dispute, that the article had been Wikipedia peer reviewed (such a thing does, in fact, exist), that the page survived a vote on deletion, and, amusingly enough, a little dove image telling the user to remember etiquette.  The article’s first archive alone is enough to give one a major headache, and the implication that there are twenty-two more spanning half a decade of running argument boggles the mind.  That this much discussion hides in the shadow of a relatively modest article shows both how much work goes into Wikipedia and how much controversy the past can create even after a gap of two and a half millennia.

Wikipedia shows that history is alive and well on the Internet, still arousing passions and still leading to ferocious debates.  It does, however, demonstrate that not all articles are created equally, and that one should not presume that your average Wikipedia article is of equal caliber to the ones with that tell-tale star, and that maybe, just maybe, one should look at the talk page before accepting the article’s contents as truth.

History…The Wikipedia Way???

Is Wikipedia a good reliable source of historical scholarship?

The answer to this question depends upon several factors including, but not limited to our own relationship to historical scholarship.  According to Roy Rosenzweig, “History is a deeply individualistic craft” and its scholarship is characterized by the possessive individualism of historians.  As historians we are taught to cite our sources, giving credit to other historians for the use of their ideas and words to avoid charges of plagiarism.  In contrast, Wikipedia encourages the creation of entries in cooperation with multiple authors, who may be anonymous.  Wikipedia allows users to freely copy and use the entries found on their site in a variety of ways.  Teachers can make copies to use in their classes, students can copy and use the articles in their papers, authors can use the information in books, and anyone with a website can copy information found on Wikipedia to their website.  The only restriction imposed by Wikipedia regarding the use of these entries is…”you may not impose any more restrictions on subsequent readers and users than have been imposed on you”.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, open, collaborative source which first appeared on the World Wide Web in January 2001.  The idea behind Wikipedia was originally developed in 1999 by Richard Stallman who proposed a website called GNUpedia.   The following year Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales and Larry Sanger, the driving forces behind Wikipedia, developed and launched Wikipedia’s predecessor – Nupedia in March 2000.  This was followed quickly by Wikipedia in January 2001.   The WikiWikiWeb software which enabled the creation of Wikipedia was developed in the mid 1990’s by Ward Cunningham.  Since its premier Wikipedia has become the largest, most widely read and most important free historical source.  Wikipedia has its own set of rules which are intended to regulate participation, however the co-creator and the site’s editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger resigned in 2003 in response to the projects “tolerance of problem participants and its hostility toward experts”.

The Wikipedia Way…

Wikipedia has its own set of policies and guidelines, which are “policed” by both volunteers as well as The Wikipedia Foundation.  The  Wikipedia Foundation consists of five members including Wales, two of his business partners and two elected members who retain the power to “ban users” from the website.

There are four “key” policies which should be adhered to in using Wikipedia.  They include:

1.      Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, propaganda, advocacy and original research are excluded.  Basically, Wikipedia wants the accepted history summarized on the site and discourages anyone, especially historians from breaking new ground with original research.

2.      Avoid bias – All entries must be void of any bias effectively remaining neutral on all subjects – especially volatile ones.  Rosenzweig compares Wikipedia’s “founding myth” of neutrality with Peter Novak’s “founding myth” of the historical profession, “objectivity”.

3.      “don’t infringe copyrights”

4.      Respect other contributors

History…Wikipedia Style!

Is Wikipedia a good, reliable resource for historical scholarship?  This question keeps resurfacing and for good reason.  Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia and therefore is not a good, reliable resource for any student beyond middle school.  Like other encyclopedias the information contained within the entries is limited with a neutral point of view and therefore void of opinion.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a white board site which enables readers to edit the information contained within any entry.  The collaborative writing style encouraged by Wikipedia increases the possibility that Wikipedia entries could be altered at any given time, a characteristic which prevents its use as a reliable source of historical scholarship.

Why should historians and educators care about Wikipedia? The answer to this question is simple…because our students do!  Personally, when I returned to school in 2002 I had not heard about Wikipedia, but I learned quickly.  During my undergraduate and master’s programs my history professors warned us against using Wikipedia for several reasons…

1.      It was new technology and they did not trust the information.

2.      The constantly changing information within the entries

3.      It is an encyclopedia and college students should never use an encyclopedia as a source

I have been teaching history at a community college since last spring and in my syllabus under instructions for research papers I tell my students, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for your paper.  My primary reasons for this are that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the collaborative nature of the site which potentially results in changing and/or inaccurate information.

Roy Rosenzweig leaves us with an idea, a challenge in regard to Wikipedia’s popular history.  It is his tentative belief that “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible”.  He challenges historians to devote one day to review and improve those entries which cover their area of expertise.  Participating in this project would enhance the quality of Wikipedia.