Online Musings of a Public Historian

When it comes to navigating my way through the digital world, I tend to fall squarely in the “technologically challenged” category.  Sure, I have a basic understanding of search engines, research databases, and some social media platforms (although I’m still struggling to learn the ropes with this whole Twitter thing). Give me anything more complex than a Facebook page or JSTOR search, however, and I am utterly lost.  As such, I’m hoping my experience in the History and New Media class will help to combat this ineptitude, in addition to broadening my understanding of digital history as a practice.

To do this, however, we’re going to have start with the basics:

What, exactly, IS “Digital History?”

In The Journal of American History’s “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” William G. Thomas defines digital history as “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems.”  He goes on to describe digital history as serving two functions, one as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication,” and the other as “a methodological approach…to create a framework…through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow.”

This emphasis on the interactive value of digital history is reinforced in Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s online handbook, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. In their introduction, “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” Cohen and Rosenzweig highlight interactivity as one of digital history’s “additive advantages,” enabling multiple forms of historical dialogue to occur all at once.

Such a high level of interactivity, while undoubtedly useful in the collaboration on and production of scholarly material on the web, does not come without its pitfalls.  In their discussion of the “perils” associated with digital history, Cohen and Rosenzweig warn that what may be originally intended as a two-way medium through which users can connect with the experiences of others runs the risk of becoming a one-way channel. In so doing, a feature initially meant to be interactive can instead devolve into a passive state, “only permit[ting] us to experience more of ourselves.”

With this in mind, what can we as historians do to combat this risk of passivity? Is it inevitable? How can we enrich the interactive experiences of ourselves and others?

Certainly, interactivity is not the only key feature of digital history.  There are several other defining characteristics to be aware of, such as the capacity, accessibility, and diversity of available tools and technologies.  Similarly, there also exist a number of disadvantages associated with the practice in addition to that of passivity.  These include issues of quality/authenticity, readability, and inaccessibility.

Does the good of digital history outweigh the bad? (I like to think so!) Do you think, like some of the authors in the JAH discussion mention, that some of these disadvantages may eventually disappear with the advent of new technologies?

Comments on: "Defining Digital History & Some Thoughts on Interactivity" (1)

  1. Alex,

    I hear you on working your way through more advanced technology. I’m definitely in the same boat. 🙂

    Regarding the Cohen and Rosenzweig point on the threat of digital media becoming a passive “one-way channel,” I think it’s maybe a dated fear. Digital media is such now that it’s either socially networked or approaching irrelevance. So, a historian can post up an idea, resource, or open a discussion group, but if she can’t get any visitors it’s rather useless (it’s like a public access channel no one watches, not a good use of resources) . So in that way, I think historians are being prevented from using digital media in a passive way. And I think that’s a good thing. Using digital media in a way that resembles a professor standing in a hall and lecturing is booooooring, lol. For me it’s always the exchange of information that makes it most interesting and engaging. So, I say yay to the advances of “Web 2.0” as Cathy Davidson put it in “Humanities 2.0: Promises. Perils. Predictions.” We’re moving in the right direction so long as corporate interests don’t take over–but that’s another story. 🙂

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