Sep. 11, 2006

The Big Picture

After working through the first set of readings for my Digital History course and wondering how I'm going to keep them all straight in my head for class tomorrow, I thought it might be useful to write down a few observations... and since this blog is for commenting on my learning experience, I might as well post my thoughts!

The big themes in the readings this week seem to be as follows...
... there is a heck of a lot of digital information out there and it is only going to get bigger in the coming years
... all this information could be of potential use to historians since we could have, for the first time, a complete historical record of human activity; additionally, digitized information means that anybody with a computer and Internet access could tap into humankind's collective knowledge (which would be good)
.... information in a digital format also allows both scholars and amateurs to cross examine information in new and dynamic ways
... unfortunetly, digital information is also incredibly fragile and we're not doing a very good job of making sure it is all preserved; nor are we doing a good job of making sure copyright laws allow for an optimal exchange of scholarly ideas; nor have we figured out a way to rapidly digitize all of the information that is on paper/film/etc. and keep it in a format that people will be able to use in 50 or even 20 years (all of which are problems)

I was definitely caught up in the articles as I read them. It was a powerful thought to learn that Google was not only a powerful search tool for historical research, but was itself a piece of historical evidence. The idea that all of humankind's collective knowledge could potentially be available to anybody is also pretty exciting: it is the ultimate practical example of two heads being better than one! I was likewise frustrated that copyright laws and business interests seem to be detracting from the goal of digitizing the whole of human knowledge. I felt inspired to do my bit to ensure that I and future generations of historians might be able to effectively look at an authentic, significant, and whole historical record.

When considering these issues and readings afterwards though, a number of questions popped up. Who in the foreseeable future would benefit the most from "the greatest archive since the Library of Alexandria"? How much money is going towards preserving digital information and could that money be better spent on people who are in need? How much energy is used to create digital archives? Hopefully at some point we will be saving trees by digitizing information and using electric forms, but are we saving the planet as we make these archives?? A part of me screamed, "In the big picture, this is just a small detail!!"

After thinking and re-writing though, the big picture that I see is this: the fact is that we use computers for communicating, researching, and presenting. Computers, whether we love'em or hate'em, have become an integral part of how we help others, come up for cures, and even include people. The information and the process of developing those ideas need to be kept in order for us to correct mistakes and do better the next time. Furthermore, one of the functions of history is to learn from mistakes and to repeat and commemorate successes.

It doesn't seem like archivists, historians, businesses, or governments are going to be able to secure a complete digital record of human activity anytime soon, but I would have to agree that it is important for historians and for humans to preserve as much knowledge as possible in whatever format we're creating it in in the moment (for now, digital). It's a pretty awesome opportunity to give so much knowledge to whoever is interested in learning more, so if we can all work towards that in our own way (and I think that it is going to be universities and private interests that lead the way), then it is a solid cause to hang a hat on.