The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tesla, Edison, and Narrative Formation

So, a cartoon on the oatmeal regarding Nikola Tesla inspired a response from a columnist at Forbes, which in turn prompted a response from the cartoonist at the Oatmeal.  What is interesting about this particular case is that both authors are (correctly) pointing out that the other is engaged in cherry-picking, exaggeration, and occasional "creative interpretation" of the facts. 

Contrary to the Oatmeal author's assertions to the contrary, Tesla is increasingly not only not ignored, but there is something of a "cult of Tesla" amongst a large number of people ranging from out-there conspiracy theorists who see an over-simplified version of the Tesla-vs.Edison story as a microcosm of the "us vs. the powerful conspiracy vs. the sheeple" narrative that they have, to tech gurus who see Tesla as a genius misunderstood, rather like the prefer to think of themselves (and for many of these people, the claim that Tesla is completely ignored by everyone but them is part of how they identify with the story).  In defense of the Oatmeal*, the cult of Tesla is a relatively recent development, and exists largely as a pop culture phenomenon rather than a fixture of the educational system, like the cult of Edison.

Until fairly recently, Tesla has, of course, largely been ignored by most of the public.  While everyone knows of Thomas Edison, it is only in the last decade or so that Nikola Tesla has gained any sort of wide recognition from the public.  Tesla's genius did make him, in many ways, ahead of his time, while his deteriorating mental health made him increasingly an outsider prone to making wild claims**.  Edison, meanwhile, was probably not the kindest or most generous of men, but he did play a significant role in the development of the modern world, whether or not his own grandstanding and marketing was geared towards making his role seem even larger.

What both narrative have in common is that they seek to create a hero.  Either Edison was a flawed, but ultimately strong and significant, man who created the modern world, or Tesla was a lone genius capable of great things, done in by the evil dictator of engineering, Thomas Edison.  While the authors of both narratives make concessions to the presence of other narratives (such as occasionally admitting when Edison did something shitty, or when Tesla was talking out of his ass), they nonetheless tend to commit to their heroic narrative to the degree that they will ignore confounding information.  For example, the author of the Oatmeal notes that one of Edison's assistants died due to Edison's experimentation with X-Rays and notes that Edison jumped to human experimentation without working first with animals, but fails to note that this was not uncommon at the time (in other words, there was a cultural precedent) and that Edison experimented on himself as well as his assistant, that the assistant volunteered and was enthusiastic, and  that Edison was apparently haunted by the death of the man (not the trait of an evil mad scientist or soulless industrialist). 

By contrast, the author of the Forbes piece downplays Tesla's importance by pointing out that Tesla's work was often just one component of larger attempts to tackle engineering problems, while advocating in favor of Edison's genius while pointing out that, well, Edison's work was often just one component of larger attempts to tackle engineering problems.  The Forbes article comes of as, frankly, a bit more honest, while it should bee noted that the Oatmeal never claims to be either thorough or factually correct. 

Okay, Armstrong, so why the hell are you going on about this?

Simple, while neither the Oatmeal nor Forbes are history publications (the Oatmeal is humor, Forbes is about business), both nonetheless wade into the waters of historic narrative, and both engage in the sort of myth-making that is common when the lay public, and many professional historians, engage in this. It's worth noting this both because of it's  interesting in its own right, but also because similar processes are used to sway us when someone is constructing a politically, religiously, or socially motivated historic narrative, and looking at it happen can help to sort it out.

Look at the Oatmeal comic and the Forbes article side-by-side, and reflect that both are as accurate with their facts as the other (and neither is playing particularly fast-and-loose), and yet both reach very different conclusions about the virtues of Tesla and Edison respectively.  Consider that the exact same process is at work whenever you see an evaluation of a historic event or person (even recent history, say the first part of the Obama Administration or the entirety of the Bush Jr. administration) and reflect that by simply downplaying some facts, or paying greater attention to others, even someone who is not trying to deceive can reach a conclusion that is far more personal opinion than defensible conclusion. 

Now consider that most people outside of academic history and Journalism (and even a minority of people within those fields) will provide historical narratives only because they want to use it to push an agenda, and as such they are often more tied to the agenda than to the facts.  If you can be pushed to reach such different conclusions using legitimate information, consider just how far astray you may be led by someone who wants you to believe a falsehood.

*There's a phrase I never thought that I would write.

**Some of the more "out there" members of the cult of Tesla seem to either reject that Tesla's mental health was in poor shape, or simply ignore it, and take many of his more dubious claims about what he had figured out (such as wirelessly transmitting electricity) at face value.

1 comment:

Allison said...

This was a really cool comparison to read! When I took the history writing course, one of the points stressed was to pick out personal bias. Your own and other historians'. Sometimes, you can get so close to the subject your studying, that you tend to aggrandize it. The Thomas Jefferson Hour is a good example. Its a great NPR broadcast. Clay Jenkinson tends to hero-worship Jefferson a bit, though he will talk about his flaws sometimes. I love studying Ancient Rome and sometimes I give it more importance and influence than is called for. It is important to catch myself doing this. Especially if I'm going to write about Republican Rome's influence on the formation of our government. It may not even be the main influence. As a historian, I need to do my research and trying to make my interpretations as objective as possible.