Neither Mad Nor Blind: Blogging in the History of Oceanography

Below is a 1959 memo fresh out of the archive of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Subject Files. It reads, “Our Verifax is broken – If this Thermofax copy is going to drive you mad or blind, I’ll make a Verifax as soon as the machine is fixed.”

SIO UCSD LibraryPhotographer: Denzil Ford. Permission to post granted from Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives, UC San Diego Library.

When I read this, I was in search of telegrams 20th century oceanographers used to communicate with one another across the Pacific Ocean. But I kind of had to stop when I found this memo because, I have to admit, I don’t really know what a Verifax is nor the difference between that and a Thermofax capable of driving one insane and visually impaired.

A brief Google search told me that they are both versions of photocopying technology that emerged after WWII. Even in the 1950s they were deemed poor quality. Today, the US National Archives considers documents that were made with this technology “unstable paper records material.”

Point is, finding this memo urged me to think about the many textual forms oceanographers have used to document their practices. But it also coincided with my own blossoming introduction into blogging and thinking about building communities. For much of the history of oceanography, these mediums do not overlap. My mind and thus this blog post are astir with the ways in which people use language and their own written words to form communities across time. Can we use blogging as a tool to create a community of scholars around the history of oceanography that is neither mad nor blind?

Images: Left – 1950 Thermofax original of Gravimeter Network (SIO UCSD Library), Right – Recent Internet Network Diagram (public domain online image)

Rather than offering a moment deep in the trenches of the history of oceanography, this blog post meanders through ideas about how blogging can be used as part of our discipline. What could such an electronic forum be for us historians of oceanography? Why might it be useful? Like the Thermofax, is blogging an unstable potentially disabling electronic material? And for those of us excited about this ICHO blog, what are some concrete reasons our Internet-selves will spend time here?

Vision. In May of 2013, Jake Hamblin launched this site describing the blog as “an important step in forging ahead with a truly global, and connected, scholarly community.” Also see Hamblin’s author invitation post. Yet, even the briefest search through online blog directories reveals that creating a website and calling it “blog” is a beginning. We need active participants if we are going to build a community. Blogs do a lot of different kinds of work, one of the most difficult is building strong and lasting online forum. So the question remains: How exactly are we going to create this community? One piece of advice I read over and over again from established bloggers is to create great content with a clear purpose.

Purpose. ICHO blog liaison Tony Adler and I briefly discussed what the purpose of a blog might be. He agrees that productive blogging requires taking note of inspiring ideas, taking the risk of posting them in a blog format (essentially putting it out there in the world), and then participating in our community as a writer and commenter. I think what we hope is that the blogging format becomes a place where we can refresh our thinking about the history of oceanography and perhaps try out ideas with one another. On one hand it is instant and informal. Other the other, we could create a community forum of open intellectual sharing and friendship.

Problems. There are concerns we may want to discuss. Here I only mention four, but please feel free to open more for discussion in the comments below.

  • Blogging in general has a history of creating animosity. Sharing feedback is instant and may seem far removed. Most of the serious blogs I currently read contain at least some of this in the comment feed when readers disagree about something or when someone hits their “enter” button without taking the time to reflect on how their comment will be received.
  • Blogging is not peer-reviewed. So what does that make it? How is it helpful if we are just pumping out quick notes, comments, and analyses?
  • It is easy to sit back and read without offering comments.
  • Other arms of humanist scholarship have begun discussing the appropriateness of the Internet as a medium for serious intellectual debates. Some feel that blogs open budding scholars, especially graduate students, to misguided understandings of the field (See Adam Kotsko piece here). While others write that e-based platforms create and disseminate some of the most useful and exciting current work in the humanities. (See this blog post by Eileen Joy). (The links I provide here send you to scholarship that stands far outside of most of the history of oceanography, but I share them here as an example of scholars actively debating the role of blogging on their discipline.)

Possibility. In our exchange about this ICHO blog, Tony mentioned Eric Mills’ editorial, “What is history of oceanography?” in which Mills answers: “History of oceanography is what historians of oceanography write about.” He goes on to say that such an answer requires that we find a “common cause” when doing our work that examines the ideas and practices of the myriad scientists interested in how the ocean functions.

It seems to me that the founders of this blog are after just that: a common cause. And they hope we can all actively begin to search for and redefine what that cause will be in part through this blog and the community which forms around it.

Let the blogging begin! (Let the comments begin [below]!)

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