The innocent energy and eager optimism of the default WordPress “first post” title is irresistible. It is also firmly rooted in computer and programming history, which makes it seem quite appropriate for the introduction of a blog where certain aspects of digital technology will be one of the main themes. Add the fact that I will likely have trouble enough coming up with a good title for the next post, and I will not even try to improve on this one.
I am a reader (associate professor) of history at the University of Gothenburg in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden. This blog is intended to serve as an outlet for writing about a variety of topics that interest me, but with a clear focus on two main areas. The first is my own field of research, which can roughly be described as 18th century Linnaean travel in a global history of science context. The second is the hard-to-define but fascinating set of questions, opportunities and challenges that arise out of the encounter between humanities scholarship (including teaching), digital technology and social media.
My attempts to grasp and learn about the issues related to the emerging Digital Humanities, especially Digital History, gave the impetus for launching the blog and will be echoed in many of the posts here. Another, more practical reason for trying my hand at blogging in English is that it helps me improve my writing skills in a language that is not my first. In my current research project I expect to write a number of articles and book chapters in English, and regular posting here seems like a good way of practising. In other words, any feedback on the spelling, grammar and idiomatic usage of British English is very welcome!
And what about “useful curiosities, past and present”? Well, to me it sums up fairly well some of the questions and the categories I often work with and think about. I will have to elaborate in later posts, but “utility” and “curiosity” is often seen as polar opposites, not least in contemporary discussions about how to prioritize research funding, while in reality the relationship between them is much more complicated. For one thing, what is merely curious today may turn out to be very useful tomorrow – and how do we even start to define what “useful” actually means?
Many of the early modern naturalists I have written about wrestled with similar distinctions and their consequenses, which is one reason I find these travelers so interesting. For all the risks of applying simple labels I think “useful curiosities” captures much of what the whole Linnaean endeavour was about, including its inherent contradictions and ambivalences. By studying their struggles we understand our own better, which is yet another reminder that history itself is not only curious but can be very useful indeed.
(Edit 3 Oct. 2013: This was the inaugural post for my English-language blog at the address https://kennethnyberg.org, which has since been merged with a Swedish blog of mine.)