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.