Problems

In their 2005 work, Digital History, A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig outlined the perils of utilizing technology in the humanities.  According to the authors, while many believe that it is easy to recover old websites and documents, few are actually recovered and available as resources for humanities scholars.[1]   Later, in his article, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” Rosenzweig argued that the problem was no longer scarcity of material but instead, an abundance of information, which made analyzing it difficult and time-consuming.  He implored historians to think “simultaneously about how to research, write, and teach in a world of unheard of historical abundance and how to avoid a future of record scarcity.”[2]  This is important because it shows the way that technological innovation presents a paradox.  On one hand, it makes it easier for researchers and scholars to gather information and disseminate their own scholarship. On the other hand, the abundance of information makes it difficult for researchers to gain relevant and reliable sources. Therefore, the emergence of digital humanities presents numerous new questions for future scholars. What role does narrative play in a world where interactivity has made traditional ways of disseminating information outdated?  How does one relate to a new generation that does not believe in the importance of the past and is increasingly future oriented?  How best can we gather and navigate through the abundance of information that is now available to us?

In Content of the Form, Hayden White demonstrates that there are numerous problems with the traditional narrative.  According to White, “narrative, far from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents, real or imaginary as the case may be, already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing.”[3]  His work demonstrates that historians do not have to rely solely on narrative for scholarship. With the advent of new media, there are numerous new methods of presenting information.  For example, historians can now spread scholarship through social networks, videos, and virtual reality.  Additionally, there is a need to increase the interactivity between the author and the reader.  In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that most scholarship and literature in general, relies on the writer to construct an interpretation of the events.[4]  With new media, however, those who create scholarship do not necessarily passively provide information to their audience.  Instead, the audience helps in actively constructing a unique interpretation, and new media can help in expediting the formulation of such scholarship.

Students no longer depend on the library to conduct research as they did in the past.  Microfilm and microfiche seem dated in a world of instant information.  Similarly, the technological generation sees archival research as tedious and slow.  Students seem to be losing the ability to understand the importance of the past.  In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, claims that “what happened long ago and far away doesn’t impress [students].”[5]  Furthermore, in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr argues that people no longer read works from front to back.  Instead, they rely on skimming techniques and hope to access relevant information as quickly as possible.[6]  The need to read smaller amounts of information is also evidenced in social networking sites such as Twitter, which provide a limit on how many characters an individual can use.

Yet, the changing role of student behavior is not always negative.  While students have minimized their use of some skills, they maximize their utility of others.  For example, while a student may not be able to work a microfiche machine, he or she is likely more capable at manipulating computer databases in order to gain useful information.  Companies, such as Google, rely on these individuals to organize the data that will be most relative to researchers through crowdsourcing.  While some may argue that it makes obscure information harder to gain, it also provides a faster route to gaining the works that are often most influential and relevant to researchers.  Students are also more likely to collaborate on work online than traditional scholars in the humanities who often work alone.  Many students not only know how to but expect to interact through blogs, message boards, and chat rooms to assist in their learning.  To these students, passive mediums seem dated, and in turn, unworthy of serious consideration.  While many scholars have complained about the way that students now learn and argue for a reactionary movement, they fail to realize the importance of adapting to a new educational paradigm that adapts to how students now learn rather than the more naive plan of retraining students to an educational system that is completely separate from the way they interact with society.

The greatest dilemma, however, facing students is not resistance from an older generation but the problems underlying technology itself.  Many people have talked about the recent trend of information overload.  Recent best sellers, such as Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, have become popular by showing that the phenomenon is not new.[7]  Information overload has been a problem that has manifested itself at various stages of human civilization: the onset of writing, the emergence of the printing press, and most recently, the rise of the Internet.  Overabundance also causes issues of authority.  With the ease of placing information in the Internet, it is often difficult to determine from where material originates.  Many bloggers, for example, do not choose to objectively portray their subject matter and are clouded by various political and ideological beliefs.  In addition to these problems, even if a student is able to gather relevant information, the method in which it is presented may not be conducive to the type of research he or she is conducting.  Instead, it is important for students to gather this information in a way that can later be manipulated.


[1] Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History : A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 1-17.

[2] Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 2003), http://www.historycooperative.org.mutex.gmu.edu/journals/ahr/108.3/rosenzweig.html.

[3] Hayden White, The Content of the Form : Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), xi.

[4] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” n.d., http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes.

[5] Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation : How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30) (New York  NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009), ix.

[6] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” The Atlantic Magazine, n.d., http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/.

[7] William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry : A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: Harper, 2010), 1-82.

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Published on June 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm  Comments Off on Problems  
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