Cyber-Enthusiasts vs. Techno-Skeptics: Two Historians’ Assessment of the Digital Revolution

For those of us who have lived most of our lives in the Digital Age, it may be easier to see the benefits to historical practice that stem from computers, global computer networks, new digital media, and other advances in technology. However, for those who were introduced to these technologies during their advent in the early 1990s it may not be so easy to jump on the “plugged-in” bandwagon.

For nearly fifteen years, historians debated the advantages and disadvantages that the Digital Age contributes to modern historical learning and scholarship.  As in any good debate, historians Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web  explain that there were two major stakeholders in the conversations on how useful the Digital Age was and continues to be to the age-old discipline of history — the cyber enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics.  As many of you probably deduced from these cleverly crafted titles, the cyber-enthusiasts supported the use of modern technology to bring historical learning and scholarship out of the stale classroom and the techno-skeptics who believed that “new media… pose[s] a threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth” —the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture (Cohen and Rosenzweig, Introduction).” Now, exceeding ten years since the invention of the World Wide Web, this debate has largely disappeared, but the changes that occurred in historical practice are undeniable.

Rather than falling on one side or the other, Cohen and Rosenzweig used their book to briefly explore the debate surrounding the use of technology in historical practice then responded to the changes that occurred as a result of the Digital Revolution. A position that they refer to as “techno-realism.” Ultimately, the authors argue that historians mostly benefit from using modern technology while simultaneously acknowledging that there are some areas within the discipline where these technologies may not be as advantageous.

In their assessment of where computers, networks, and digital media are and are not useful to historical practice, learning, and scholarship, Cohen and Rosenzweig determined seven pros and sevens cons of the new media in history. For those of us who were born into a digital world, the pros may seem obvious. They include storage capacity, accessibility (an important concern particularly to public historians),flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity (another important concern for public historians), and hypertextuality. To the authors, these pros given historians freedom to accomplish more, store more of their scholarship, reach a broader audiences, use varied sources, expand access to historical documents and materials, and include more voices and perspectives in history.

On the other hand, those who were not born into the digital world and were instead pressured to acclimate themselves to the new technologies may be more inclined to agree with the authors’ discussion of cons of new media in history. The cons of new media on history include quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. Cohen and Rosenzweig argue that they present dangers to historical accuracy and authenticity, the durability of historical records, author’s intent, passive activity (the antitheses of interactivity), and inaccessibility. Despite these cons, the authors genuinely believe that the benefits outweigh the costs with regards to the new media influence on historical scholarship.

Cohen and Rosenzweig do an excellent job exploring the new media and history debate. They gave a brief overview of the history of the Digital Revolution, explained the different views of each stakeholder involved in the debate, and followed with a discussion of how historians can use new media successfully. The take away from this reading is that the authors offered a compromise to the debate between the cyber-enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics and gave prescriptions on how to use new media in ways that aid historical learning and scholarship.

This last point regarding tactics to use when applying new media to history goes hand-in-hand with a blog post that our class also read this week — Lisa Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities.”

With this being said, the authors completely neglected to discuss how the Digital Revolution affects historical authority. Luckily for my classmates and myself, this reading was supplemented by Rebecca Onion’s blog post discussing historical authority and the Digital Revolution with regards to the @HistoryInPics Twitter account. This post provided an intriguing discussion on who has historical authority on the internet, how that authority should be used, and if traditional practices and values within the field apply to history on the internet.

In the end, Cohen and Rosenzweig offered a wonderful introduction to and historical context for the beginnings of history and new media.

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