The Advantages of Digital History

Does the increasing use of new media technology really threaten our ability to think in a linear fashion?  Or  does this technology broaden our ability to think in a non-linear fashion, thus expanding our knowledge and comprehension abilities?  These seem to be the dominant issues raised when it comes to examining the effects of technology on the human brain.  After reading the article “What is Spatial History?” by Richard White (http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29) and an article by Alan Liu titled “When Was Linearity?: The Meaning of Graphics in the Digital Age,” (http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/liuessay.php) I think I have a better understanding of the benefits of new media technology in the study of history.

Although these focus on different topics, they are both under the umbrella theme of how digital history, and the tools that accompany it, can be used to benefit how one thinks about history.  White’s essay about spatial history raises an excellent point that really hits home with me, that being that spatial research in history is not an attempt to communicate an understanding that has already been discovered by other research; rather spatial history is a “means of doing research.”  It generates questions and relations that may not have been asked or examined yet.  I really like this idea.  While I still don’t have a strong grasp on specifically how to use graphs, maps, and other spatial tools, I’d certainly like to learn with my goal being to look at history in an innovative way.  History has become so overwhelmed by scholars that sometimes I worry there won’t be any questions left for me to ask, but then I read about spatial history and it opens the door to a whole new perspective on history.

Spatial history doesn’t need to challenge traditional historical practices, but it can be an excellent complementary asset.  The more reading I do for this class, Clio Wired, the more obvious it becomes that many people fear that things like spatial history and the use of the internet, are a direct threat to traditional modes of learning.  I don’t see it that way at all.  I see digital history and all that it entails as an excellent addition to the professional field.  One should not have to pick a side of either being traditional or innovative; instead these two can easily go hand in hand (I can’t help but think of GMU’s credo “Where innovation is tradition,” which makes me feel good about my decision to study here).  The whole reason I’m taking a class based on the theory of digital and new media history is based on my belief that technological advances can enhance the traditional study of history, which is something I want to be aware of as I begin searching for a career.

Furthering on this idea, I will bring in Alan Liu’s examination of linear versus non-linear thought patterns.  Again there is a divide where it seems one must pick a side.  And again I find myself somewhere in the middle not willing to go whole-heartedly in one direction.  Non-linear thought appeals to me based on the understanding that it relies heavily on collaboration.  Liu raised the issue that in the digital age, the importance of authorship is being diminished by the increasing role of collaboration in projects.  I don’t see a problem with that at all.  I may be blissfully unaware, but it seems to me that there are still plenty of books being published that one author can claim ownership of a new perspective.

On the other hand, there are many more projects being created collaboratively.  Given that we have the tools and technology to bring in different people with varying perspectives and skills there is no reason not to use them.  Just like spatial history, this collaboration opens the doors to new lines of thought and study that could not have been contemplated before simply because people could not collaborate as easily as they can now.  This is just another way to broaden the study of history, and the way I see it that can only help the profession.

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One response to “The Advantages of Digital History

  1. both of them together highlight just how exceptional the era of the printed word” was. The jargon term for this is “logocentric,” forms of knowledge that privilege words on a page as the best and most effective conduit to knowledge. And along with words on a page comes their author, and his claim to “authority,” and also the expectation of linearity in reading. Lot’s of times this is called “phallogocentric”

    Liu is surely right that there were many forms of non linear reading and linearity shouldn’t be seen as the norm, then or now. And Though Im not especially good with maps, I’m sympathetic to the desire to escape the “tyranny of text.” A lot of the recent history of the sense, focusing on what the 19th century sounded or smelled like, stems from the same impulse

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