The Future of History: Only the Good

This week’s readings again focused on the digital age and the impact the Internet is having on the subject of history, albeit in an overall more positive manner. More specifically, they attempted to answer the following questions found in the introduction of Writing History in the Digital Age: “Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past? Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars and the way in which we think, teach, author, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes or for the historical profession at large?” The scholars here overwhelmingly agree that the Internet is good for the subject of history and that it will only be beneficial to us (whether historians or not) in the future. This was surprising to me, to say the least. I expected there to be some argument over the merits of the Internet but alas, it seems the overall outlook concerning the Internet is optimistic. And in my opinion, this is promising for historians and academics in general.

A few of this week’s readings stood out to me. One was part of the aforementioned Writing History in the Digital Age and it is entitled,  “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?” In it, Sherman Dorn argues, “Long before, scholars have seen declining state support for public universities, vocational rhetoric surrounding the politics of higher education, the growing use of contingent academic labor, and increased pressures for scholarship at institutions that had focused on teaching only a few short years before. Yet despite these ominous signs, the growth of digital scholarship provides an opportunity to understand our field in a richer way, and this understanding can serve both pragmatic and philosophical needs.” Thus, Dorn (as the other scholars part of Writing History in the Digital Age) sees the Internet as that which will only enhance the field of history and the work of historians. Furthermore, Dorn also sees the Internet as a means by which historians can escape from the antiquated way of viewing history: through facts alone. He writes, “Once freed from the limitations of absolute, linear time, we are able to use the past much more differentially; we can think of different ways to structure more expansive and heterogeneous pasts that operate in the multiple temporalities of life. Data can record happenings, not just facts.” He also argues, “We too often insist on a single, correct understanding of an event or of the past. A richer history would include a heterogeneity of interpretations, the diversity of practices, the contestations, and the processes and negotiations by which people have dealt with such differences—turbulence.” While I am still wary about the Internet overall (probably due to my inability to become truly tech-savvy), after reading a good number of opinions on its benefits, I am beginning to feel much more confident in what the Internet can do for historians and I am thrilled that the future is looking much brighter than bleak.

I also surprisingly enjoyed David Weinberger’s book, Too Big to Know this week. After I had a less than favorable experience with it last week (it just didn’t seem to be my cup of tea), I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the book again and actually enjoyed it. Indeed, I feel Weinberger makes some interesting and valid points in his book as he also supports the Internet and believes that it can do only good for academics and even non-academics alike. One of Weinberger’s discussions that stuck out to me was his discussion concerning the oft-repeated idea that the Internet is making us “stoopider” and not smarter. Weinberger (and myself, now) whole-heartedly disagrees. He argues, “But the network also offers the possibility of connecting across boundaries, forming expert networks that are smarter than their smartest participants. The network can make us smarter if we want to be smarter (91). Thus, Weinberger sees the Internet as a useful tool if it is used properly and smartly. Certainly, there will continue to be incorrect information out there and there will continue to be unhelpful sites, opinions, and ideas. And yet, isn’t that what the world is about anyway? Internet or not? We have to be smart in that we have to sift through all the information and knowledge out there, be it in books or on the web. It is our job as human beings to use the Internet to our advantage, in order to make it truly beneficial to us.

To conclude and sum up, I would have to say that this week left me with fewer questions than I began with, particularly concerning the merits of the Internet. In fact, I am now excited more than anything to see what the web will be able to do for history and historians in the very near future.