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Digital History, Meet Living History (FINAL)

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.

Connectivity in a Digital Era and 1 Expert > Internet Rabble

I really enjoyed how all the readings this week all had to do with connectivity, and I think a broad theme for these readings, especially Tosh and Cronon, has to do with the need for historians to recognize and adapt to the availability and incredible abundace of information. For me personally, I found that these readings made me uncomfortable. Although I may have grown up with a computer in my house since I was 5, I sometimes do not see the value in digital historical scholarship. I use the internet to check football scores, get on facebook, and read emails, but that is about it. When I really need to do some research, I prefer to work within the library stacks, handling actual print books and journal articles. As a graduate student, I have already done significant research for faculty solely through online databases, and I must admit that it is much more efficient and successful. To amass the information I have uncovered in the past week would probably have taken the average researcher an entire month or more!

Doing these readings, I was particulary struck by the similarities between Weinberger and Cronon. Although only Cronon is an historian (see Tom’s blog for more info abou Weinberger), both authors speak to this idea that the availability of information is fundamentally altering academia and “transforming literally everything about the way historians work” (Cronon 3). Cronon’s main point in his speech is that historians are still and will always be relevant as storytellers because “the human need for storytelling is not likely to ever go away” (5), but I think he makes some wonderful points that relate to the abundance of information that is key for Weinberger. More and more people refuse to read works of academia because they have grown accustomed to instantly accessing information through the internet. Thus, historians must find a way to “tell our story” in such a way that is better and possibly more entertaining than which is available on the internet.

While reading Weinberger, I grew frustrated with some of his points. I plan to discuss this in class because, as I said, I am predisposed to distrust any newfangled ways of doing things.  For one, I realy disagreed with the idea that the internet is beneficial because of what he calls “crowdsourced expertise” (52). He goes on to explain how when presented by particular problems, crowds are able to solve these problems much better and faster than any individual. In comparing crowd knowledge to professionals, Weinberger prefers crowd, saying “the crowd does a good enough job, at a fraction of the cost” (53). I find this abhorrent. I would much prefer one expert in a particular field over the knowledge of the rabble that post all over the internet. Yes, a crowd might be better able to provide me with recipes for lasagna, but I would never trust such a method for important matters. Weinberger tries to support his point by providing examples of crowd-solved problems and instances where non-experts invent novel ideas, but I think as a whole a learned individual trumps a crowd. Am I missing something here? Thoughts? In class I hope to really dissect Weinberger because I do think he challenges all of us to approach scholarship differently, so make sure you are ready!

Please check back here Moday night for discussion information.  This way I hope everyone will have his or her thoughts together before class.

Welcome to the Main Course Blog for History 5104, Fall 2013

History springs from the human fascination with self-discovery, from the persistent concern about the nature of existence and people’s engagement with it. Men and women have learned to externalize this curiosity—even to distance themselves from its impertinent subjectivity—by directing their questions to concepts and abstractions like the growth of democracy or the ascendancy of modernity, but the renewable source of energy behind these inquiries comes from an intense craving for information about what it is to be human.