A couple of concerns

After reading excerpts from Dan Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, I find myself somewhat at odds with their introductory notations and with the limits that have been set on the benefits and pitfalls of the digital media experience in relation to knowledge. In particular I have concerns regarding certain logical fallacies underlying two of their benefits: capacity and accessibility, and one of their hazards: quality.

Capacity: Here Cohen and Rosenzweig have made the assertion that it is conceivable that we might be able to store an unlimited amount of data. They say, “[h]ow might our history writing be different if all historical evidence were available,” which seems to be predicated upon the fundamentally flawed belief that history (writing/scholarship) is composed of simple facts that are recorded and proffered to the reader. I think that at its base, history writing is still an endeavor of self-expression, and while it may be possible to enrich a narrative via complexity, it becomes problematic when we begin to assume that there will be point in time when all of the facts of a situation could ever be known and expounded devoid of bias. In this regard, we can have the capacity to store an unlimited amount of data, but if we cannot fill that void with meaningful information then the excess is of no use to us. Furthermore, if we cannot divorce the interpretative process that is scholarship and writing, then I’m not certain history writing would look any different (people will still pick and choose what they like and what supports their claims, they will just have a greater variety of selections at their disposal).

Accessibility: I think that overall this assertion by the authors is well stated and seems to be fairly accurate. That said, I think that there is a problem that they have either willfully ignored or did not consider and that is the problem of progress and pacing in the technological world. I was sitting in an Art Gallery as a part of my Graduate Assistantship at my previous college and as I was clearing up the workspace I happened upon a VHS tape titled: Don’t be Afraid of the Internet: Steps to Make the Web Work for You, or something to that effect. It’s an interesting notion though considered in context; at the time of the tape’s creation, it was the common technology and the Internet was the new thing that people didn’t understand. Now, perhaps 15 years later, some people don’t even know what a VHS tape looks like, or a cassette, or an 8 track, etc. In regards to accessibility, we have to recognize that the progress and pacing of the advances in technology are making many of the storage devices that information is on obsolete and our ability to access information on those formats is actually restricted, rather than enhanced.

Quality: The quote, “will the History Channel replace History Cooperative?” seems to miss the difference between academia and non-academia. I don’t know that I think that History Cooperative was ever of any relevance in the social consciousness of the average person much like I don’t think that the History Channel has much relevance in the social consciousness of the average academic. I think this ties into accessibility in a unique way; something with a lower barrier to entry will matriculate to the majority much more swiftly than something that is barred to them. It seems to me that if, as academics, we want to educate and inform the public sphere, then we need to actually engage the public sphere on their terms (much like the History Channel), rather than primarily engaging each other.



September 9, 2013 · 5:07 PM

5 responses to “A couple of concerns

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  2. I think you’re absolutely right that the idea of total historical information is a pipe dream. Historian’s are still left with what people choose to record, and as anyone subjected to Twitter or Instagram can tell, people are selective about how they present themselves. Your also clearly correct in suggesting that we, as historians, are still going to cull that information to suit our purposes, with all the perils that entails. I do think that capacity offers some interesting possibilities however. Without constraints on storage space and with digital distribution, what, in previous eras would have been people’s personal diaries or correspondence is now often available publicly, and in far greater quantities than previously. I also think that video sites like Youtube offer some really interesting possibilities, particularly for military historians. The idea that, say, individual combatants can record and publish their part in something like the battle for Fallujah will give historians one or two hundred years hence a much better idea of how that battle was fought than our understanding of Gettysburg. Not that many people would want to watch footage of Gettysburg, of course. TL:DR, massive data storage offers some interesting possibilities for studying the attitudes and experiences of “ordinary” people.

  3. I like your explanation of how “history writing is still an endeavor of self-expression” and how digital history may enrich a narrative through complexity, but doesn’t change the problem of bias. Having so much data available might be more problematic. With more “data” to pick and choose from, flawed or bias arguments could seem to be well supported. The one improvement could be the ability to determine trends through technology that could analyze the massive amount of data talked about. But, this does not change the need for a historian to properly analyze the data.

  4. I most certainly agree with the assertion that massive data storage offers great potential insofar as aiding in the construction of an historical narrative is concerned. I do think that we have to be wary of hidden biases though. There have been many instances of people in the past not recognizing that the lens through which they view the world acts as a filter through which perceived correctness if formulated. So, the soldier who records their deeds in battle does so with a particular perspective in mind. This can be a double edged sword – while it’s wonderful for nuance when considering the mindset and actions of particular soldiers in specific conflicts, it still remains but a drop in the ocean of events that transpire and a biased drop at that. That said, I would of course much prefer to have the record than to not have the record, but I feel like with the addition of records such as these and in the quantity that we are potentially speaking of here, we have to assure that we are even more stalwart in our recognition that the sources are participants in events, lives, and ideologies, and are therefore presenting a singular viewpoint (in the exact same way that contemporary historians recognize that histories of antiquity or the medieval period were constructed by people with biases of their own). Of course, this is nothing new for the avid history scholar in anything but scope.

  5. Pingback: Don’t Fear the Web | The Antagonist

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