Networked Knowledge – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I found this week’s set of readings thought-provoking and at times, a bit dismaying. While I had heard about the “dangers” of living in the Internet age, I had little knowledge of the extent of the impact the Internet is having on us as living, breathing, thinking, human beings. That is, as David Weinberger expertly acknowledges in Too Big to Know, we now live in a world where the Internet dominates and where traditional ideas about knowledge and the scope of information available appear antiquarian, at best. Indeed, Weinberger argues that “It’s the connecting of knowledge–the networking–that is changing our oldest, most basic strategy of knowing. Rather than knowing-by-reducing to what fits in a library or a scientific journal, we are now knowing-by-including every draft of every idea in vast, loosely connected webs” (5). And this is precisely what is in some ways, “scary” about the Internet: it has the potential to hold more than we can ever know or even want to know. Furthermore, while the Internet certainly has its advantages (i.e. connecting people around the world, allowing for instant access to a variety of sources and materials, etc.), it also has its disadvantages as well. As Weinberger mentions, there are contradictions everywhere on the Internet and anyone can claim to be an expert on any topic. There is also a great deal of misinformation alongside fact-based, solid information and it is this messy web that must be traversed and rifled through by scholars, students and run-of-the-mill, everyday individuals. This is no easy task for anyone to undertake.

William Cronon also explores the dangers of the digital age in his American Historical Association Presidential Address entitled, Storytelling. More specifically, Cronon addresses the issue of today’s youth not reading for pleasure and being wholly overwhelmed by a book of any considerable length. He argues, “In a manically multitasking world where even e-mail takes too long to read, where texts and tweets and Facebook postings have become dominant forms of communication, reading itself is more at risk than many of us realize” (4). In an age when (as mentioned above), any and all information is at our fingertips, why would anyone venture into a library or pick up a book to read? This is the frightening reality of the world we now live in. Will there come a time when we no longer need libraries or archives? When reading is a thing of the remote past? As someone who enjoys reading for pleasure and also enjoys the feel (and smell) of an old library and a good book between my hands, this is a disheartening realization. We can only hope that the limits of the Internet will one day be met and that the world of books and book-based learning will not be lost to the ages.

What, then, are the implications for the subject of history? William Cronon argues that history must be reverted back to its narrative, storytelling roots. He writes, “we need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us” (5).  And yet, is that enough to combat the changes the Internet will bring (and has in fact already brought about) to the subject? Can history truly return to its storytelling roots? Or is the subject forced to transform and change with the changing, modern, technological times?