The digital age provides historians, and academics alike, with the arguably the most opportunistic and simultaneously most damaging of forums for knowledge. The more blogs, digital journals etc. permeated across the web, the more academic discussions and discoveries are revealed to a once closed off public. Similarly, that same internet forum provides a wary center of knowledge where reliance on “just the facts” mentality, seen through online encyclopedias, or an excess of dubious sources can just as much abstruse and discourage analysis and questioning of reliability.
This week’s set of readings penetrated the internet’s dichotomous relationship with scholars by exploring how we obtain knowledge and how that knowledge is altered, for better or worse, when dispersed digitally. Particularly, David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know accounted how knowledge itself changes in the age of the Internet. Covering a history of knowledge into a discussion of the challenges of “expertise” and the merits/ demerits of a diverse body of disagreeing experts. Yet, to me the last chapter presented Weinberger’s most significant insight in his final assessment of the net.
Overall, Weinberger is ambivalent on his optimism of the net. Yet, he significantly treats the net as a fact rather than the conventional observation as a problem. Indeed, as I write this historical blog post, I am, according to Weinberger, remaking the knowledge process. This point holds a tremendous amount of validity when considering how the net has bound together communication, information and sociability.Today, you can’t learn things without communicating, and so every communication brings the chance of a human encounter, thus, a further advancement of knowledge dispersal.
I suppose, then, my only concern is for the future of net knowledge is the diminished role analytical history holds in this energized, diverse body of information. As John Tosh points out, analytical history serves to “elucidate the connectedness of events and processes.” Inexorbaly, process-focused analysis is diminished in an internet context as the vast body of critics typically resort to more fluid and creative prose to attack rather deconstruct and point out the fallacies of arguments. Similarly,Knowledge dispersed online is not critiqued before posted, nor do any well-established academics have a chance to provide insight to an author before posting any online drafts. One could imagine the embarrassment felt by those who have sent a poorly edited email out to a colleague or supervisor. If such a mistake occurred via a popular academic blog, the intellectual blowback would understandably be disastrous.
In hindsight however, these concerns ironically illustrate the beauty and significance of digitally transmitted sources of knowledge. Their is a reason why the students gather over 90% of their research from internet-based sources. If historians believe that accessibility is the most important reason behind this phenomenon, however, they will continue to be irrelevant in the eyes of their pupils. As iterated by William Cronon, the biggest problem facing historians in this digital world is how and where narratives are read by students of the past. Overwhelmingly, historical narratives no longer are telling stories, but rather objectively staingy within the facts first prose like that of social scientists. Emulating Cronon’s suggestions, if we could at least recognize the trade-offs from fiction and historical truth, historians will be able to provide more enriched narratives.
In conclusion, the living history, popularly recognized in most public history museums, is a relevant, outreaching and entertaining construct of history. If historians could at least use the internet to their own advantage, rather criticizing its supposed amateur and poorly edited sources, they will make more in roads with their students and the public alike. The best contemporary example is undoubtedly the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University that not only teaches the past, actively engages and supplies primary and secondary sources to their readers to facilitate a public conversation. Such an example is but one of many different ways traditional institutionalized history can break into this body of knowledge.