Public Thinker: Jill Lepore on the Challenge of Explaining Things

Scholars who want to write beyond the academy often ask, where are the ...
Jill Lepore explains 2

Scholars who want to write beyond the academy often ask, where are the models for such a thing? Jill Lepore is often the answer. She is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker, an accomplished essayist, and a public voice for producing historical work that engages with audiences well beyond the classroom. Her publications have attended to technologies of evidence and writing, to the craft of historical writing itself, and to subjects as wide-ranging as Wonder Woman and board games. One recurring theme is the relationship between technology and progress. Benjamin Cohen, whose work addresses the intertwined histories of science, technology, and the environment, spoke with Lepore for Public Books about that theme and, more broadly, the challenges and meanings of writing for a broad public audience.

B. R. Cohen (BRC): You address a remarkable range of historical subjects in your work. Among those, a theme in some of your New Yorker essays is the historical relationship between technology and progress. Industrial efficiency, scientific management, the “disruption” mantra of business-speak, the ways we archive and understand the preservation of the internet (of information), to name a few. Have you intentionally sought to engage with this theme? Or does it just happen to come up often?


Jill Lepore (JL): I suppose, yes, that I have intentionally sought to engage with that theme, although it also occurs to me that each of the essays that you mention was an assignment I was given, with the exception of the last. (“The Cobweb,” a piece about the Internet Archive, is a story I pitched.) But I’ve always been interested in the history of technology and arguments about progress. Much of my scholarship lies at the intersection of political history and the field known as the history of the book, a field whose very subjects—which include literacy and the printing press—are technologies. I have always been especially interested in technologies of evidence, communication, and surveillance, which would encompass everything from writing systems to lie detectors. I might add to your list essays on the histories of newspapers and magazines; we don’t tend to think of those as “technologies” anymore, but of course they were and are.


BRC: As an essayist, do you hope to write more about newspapers and magazines as communication technologies? Or do you think your background at the intersection of political history and the history of the book is one you’re moving past?


JL: Hmm. I don’t have a plan like that. I wish I had a plan. Any plan. At the moment, I am trying to write a history of the United States from 1492 to the present, starting at the beginning and moving chronologically, so, honestly, all I can think about right now is what year I’m in, and what I need to read to get to the year after that. I’ve been trying to weave a history of technology into an account of the origins of American political ideas and institutions, which is A) not easy, and B) alarming. But, yes, I do think about things like the Constitution as having a vital relationship with the technologies of writing and printing.

To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.

BRC: You’re right, too, and I didn’t mean to skip past it, but popular discussions do treat the broader historical category of technology in an ever-narrowing sense. If we listen to students, it’s often just computers or cell phones today. Admittedly, I asked about the more basic issue of technology and progress for a selfish reason—it’s a theme of interest in my own work. But I also ask because putting the relationship into historical context makes it far more difficult to equate the two so simplistically. In other words, this is a topic especially ripe for better historical understanding. Does that seem fair or am I making too big a deal of it?


JL: Oh, no, you’re not making too big a deal of it, though I think quite excellent scholarship on this subject already exists, even if it may not have reached the audience it deserves. Historically, of course, there are lots of critiques of the equation of technological change with moral and political progress: most of those critiques come from populists. What could be more important?


BRC: Well, and it’s not just technology and progress, but the more cumbersome technological determinism. I thought your essay “Our Own Devices” offered a nice summary of that problem. How do you see the concept of technological determinism at play today?


JL: To be fair, it’s difficult not to be susceptible to technological determinism. We measure the very moments of our lives by computer-driven clocks and calendars that we keep in our pockets. I get why people think this way. Still, it’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.


BRC: Plus, that invisibility of power in visions of techno-progress keeps us from talking about how technological change requires us to understand, oh, something like gender relations or socioeconomic conditions and the like. You’ve made that point in work that speaks to the oft-invisible labor of women in schemes for labor-saving or increased efficiency, like in the Progressive Era. It reminds me, I heard a phrase recently, “mom tech”; someone used it to describe Silicon Valley “disruptors” fashioning their ideas of a better future based on apps and on-demand digital services. The 20-something, largely male coders are bent on inventing things to do what their moms used to do—wash their clothes, drive to the store, clean their dishes, buy their food. They invent apps to do it for them and then call it progress. This is weird, right?


JL: Good grief. “Mom tech”? Seriously? Siri, please send those boys copies of Ruth Cowan’s brilliant book More Work for Mother, on how technological progress has made more work for women raising children, not less. (It will arrive by drone.) There’s a freaky little passage in a book by Christopher Lasch called The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, in which he quotes the English historian A. P. Taylor’s quip that when academics start talking about decline, instead of progress, that means “only that university professors used to have domestic servants and now do their own washing-up.” Leap ahead in time and over to California and … you get this nonsense. I realize I’m not taking your question seriously. It’s just very hard to take app-madness seriously. The heedlessness …


On Accelerationism

By Fred Turner

BRC: This seems like a good basis for an argument to understand historical context more fully. I’ve used your analysis of that much-discussed “disruption” mantra in class to show why the claims of Silicon Valley disruption only hold water if you don’t actually check them against the evidence. But so many people do take them seriously, they do get wide-eyed at mom-tech innovations, and they don’t think, “Oh, this is the current version of a common modern historical process—claiming to make life easier, when it shifts work to others rather than reducing it. And at less pay!”


JL: I once wrote a piece about the history of the breast pump. I was using a breast pump at the time and every time I hooked myself up to that monstrosity I felt like I was in a Mary Shelley story and I wondered, “For God’s sake, how on earth did it come to this?” So I looked into it. And do you know why we have breast pumps in the United States? Because we don’t have maternity leave. Pumps are a very cheap and crappy substitute. Freeze your eggs, freeze your milk, work like a man. Phooey.


BRC: Part of that understanding is that there is political content inside the breast pump, as part of it, not just as a consequence of it. That’s a hard thing to hold together in general conversation—the device and the politics—let alone for a broader audience. There’s a good deal of literary skill in showing that. Do you intentionally seek to explain the political life of specific topics in your work—breast pumps, Wayback Machines, newspapers, nuclear bombs—or is it just how you think, sort of naturally? I’m trying so hard not to ask, “But how do you do it, bringing out the bigger political-historical issues in your writing without feeling like it’s a staid lecture?”


JL: I had written three books before I started writing essays in any regular way, except for the many things I wrote, day after day, and shoved into a desk drawer, unread. Books are a separate case. But essays, it has taken me a long time and years of advice from my editor to learn how to put together an essay that does what I want it to do and that says what I mean. I have always been curious about the origins of things: how did this come to be? But how to deliver an answer to that question in an essay that a magazine reader would want to read, that I learned from my editor. I had a bat. I could swing it. I have a pretty good eye. Everything else—where to stand in the box, when to shift my weight to my front foot, whether to roll my wrists, which pitches to swing at, how to place the ball, when to bunt—good lord, I’m still trying to learn those things from him.


BRC: I think for many academics who want to write beyond the academy, the role of the editor, even that fact of editorial advising, is blurry. I’m curious, too, and this is a plain question, but how many drafts and revisions go into a typical published essay with the involvement of that editorial hand?


JL: Wouldn’t it be interesting to write the history of the editor, as a figure not in the history of literature but in the history of knowledge? One of the really staggering things to me about the great “newspaper death watch” of 2009 was the jeering jubilance of disruptors, their astounding confidence in the genius and efficiency of a new system of communication that, at the end of the day, did one thing above all: it killed the editor. Here’s a way to think about that: what percentage of everything “published” in, say, 1952—that is, every radio and television broadcast, every magazine, newspaper, newsletter, book—was edited, in the sense that it passed through the hands of at least one person whose entire job was to consider the judiciousness and reasonableness of the argument and the quality of the evidence? Let’s say—wild guess—more than 98 percent. And how much of everything “published” in 2017—every post, comment, clip—is edited? Who knows, but let’s say, less than 2 percent. Doesn’t that explain a lot about the pickle we’re in? Anyway, to answer your question, when I set out to work on a topic, I read and read and take a gazillion notes and then I think for a while, and then I write, headlong. Then I get notes. I could revise forever, except that I get restless to turn to something different, which is among the many reasons that I love a deadline. Then, if and only if I’m lucky enough to have something else to write, the whole thing starts all over again.

The question of the hour is whether the forms of communication that exist today make our frame of government unworkable.

BRC: I’ll go back to communications in general for a moment. Here we are, in 2017, and the constellation of social media technology and politics is inescapable. Inescapable at the macro level, of course—voter alignments with news feeds, online community formation, the algorithms that help shape them. But inescapable at the micro-political level too, where people base the decisions they make in their communities on the ways they learn about the issues, on who they talk to, on who they believe and trust. This isn’t a new thing, to be sure. But how do you think the new speeds and echo volumes of social media are different than (or similar to) prior historical eras, whether of newspapers, pamphlets, telephones, television?


JL: It’s not new, in the sense that, as I once argued, realignments of the American party system tend to be made possible by revolutions in communications technologies. The question of the hour is whether the forms of communication that exist today make our frame of government unworkable, having thrown the system of checks and balances so far out of whack that it can’t be hammered back into working order.


BRC: Do you worry that they have? Made our system of government unworkable? If only the tendency was for people—engineers, writers, publishers—to develop communications technologies that foster engagement and deliberation rather than, as you once wrote about Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, “entertainment, more frequent.”


JL: Aren’t a lot of people worried about that? That genuine political conversation is like a vinyl record, a retro collectible? Isn’t there, out there, a whole Black Mirror theory of democracy? So, yes, I’m worried. The idea of representation is, in my view, what’s really in crisis, as a matter of politics (everything in the culture swims against it, in favor of self-expression). Still, I do think there are lots of ways to adapt and, unlike in 2009, during the gleeful newspaper death watch, people who are engaged in developing new tools of communication are lately quite sober about the unintended economic, social, and political consequences of their work. Underneath the freak-out, something calming could be coming. It won’t be an app. And I fear it will have the quality of a revival. But something …


BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?


JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.


What’s in a Face?

By Sharrona Pearl

BRC: I’ve got to ask about the kind of boilerplate historian’s op-ed (I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, so I’m not criticizing others), one that goes like this: “Look, here is a thing that journalists are reporting as new and shocking/surprising/stunning. Guess what, it isn’t new. Let me show how it played out in [insert year here].” I’m not sure why it bothers me, maybe it’s the ubiquity of it, I don’t know.


JL: It’s not going away, the false analogy. It’s a journalistic move that journalists really like, and they think readers really like it, too. Historians can’t stand it, and it generally makes no sense to us. But you can see why it’s all over the place. I used to find it more maddening than I do now. These are hard times, impossible times. People who are trying to contribute a sense of the past to this present are doing very hard work; God bless them, every one.


BRC: That’s helpful, a kind of optimistic realism. It’s got me considering metaphors and a sort of rolodex of pithy quotes about historical awareness. We’ve got Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”; then there’s the old standby Santayana, the condemned-to-repeat-it line; or we’ve got parallels, people love to write of historical “parallels”; and then one of the more elegant-sounding ones, that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes (isn’t it usually attributed, without citation, to Twain?). I don’t necessarily have a critique of those, but do you prefer one over the other, or do you have a critique of their use in historical writing?


JL: I go to James Baldwin, in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew: “I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his.” That’s how I think of the past, face after face after face after face. icon

Featured image: Jill Lepore speaks on the Secret History of Wonder Woman, February 24, 2016. Photograph by VCU Libraries / Flickr