Digital History De-Mystified: Comments on Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “Promises and Perils of Digital History”

When I initially signed up for History 390: The Digital Past, I thought of the course as a way to escape the necessary evil of George Mason’s IT requirement. As a technologically-challenged humanities major, I had heard the horror stories of IT 103 and decided to do my best to steer clear of the traditional class, and what better way to do that than to take a history course! However, my hopes of avoiding the digital jargon of my tech-savvy friends were squashed on the very first day. As a member of the target audience for the “[insert complicated topic here] for Dummies” series, I felt lost among the constant inundation of anagrams and talk of ‘magical electrons’ and radio waves. I was positive that the readings would just as confusing, leaving more technical questions than answers. Having that in mind, I couldn’t have been more relieved to start my reading of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “Digital History”. Not only was the writing style accessible and entertaining, but the content was delivered in a way that brought clarity to much of my confusion.

One of the points that I found most interesting was the discussion of the various advantages of storing history as a form of digital media. In the case of the first advantage, capacity, I was floored by the amount of data that can be stored efficiently and effectively on any given hard drive.

A 120-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $95 and weighs about a pound can hold a 120,000-volume library.

As an average student (possibly less than average in the field of IT), placing that specific size of storage into something tangible was hugely beneficial. While I may not be able to picture the capability of gigabytes and other units of data storage, a 120,000-volume library is definitely something I can picture for myself.  Even going farther in making the leap to why this would be so critical for historians was an aspect of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s writing that added to my overall understanding. As a Global Affairs major, the history of conflicts and various events in the past are of great importance, and often the more information, both textual and visual, that is available the better the potential research will be. The idea of historians in the future being able to retain all data and documents on hard drives to be preserved for years to come is a wonderful thought in the academic world. The remaining advantages of digital history (which can be viewed here) followed a similar pattern of clarity and significance.

Another section of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s explanation of digital history that I found interesting was the potential problems created by storing historical data online. Not only did I not expect to find these items listed (its not every day you see authors delving between the lines of their arguments and analyzing both sides of the table), their explanation as well was clear and mentally compelling. To take an example that mirrors the danger posed by capacity (discussed above), the authors discuss the problem of quality and authenticity. As explained by Cohen and Rosenzweig, this can be boiled down to the common phrase “its mostly junk” (well…common cyber-skeptics that is). And to be sure, we can find plenty of inaccurate history on the web. Take a look at the web pages of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and read a letter allegedly from Martin Van Buren to Andrew Jackson calling for government intervention to stop the threat to the railroads posed by the Erie Canal. A careful assessment of internal evidence (an important historical skill in all ages) readily betrays the twentieth-century origins of this “nineteenth-century” letter.

When you move your history online, you are entering a less structured and controlled environment than the history monograph, the scholarly journal, the history museum, or the history classroom. That can have both positive and unsettling implications.

Again, as a humanities major I am no stranger to the pitfalls of web-based research. Often, sites, like Wikipedia, offer information that is questionable at best, and flat out wrong at worst. However, prior to reading this section I had never made the connection of deception on the web to the vast amount of information contained on individual topics. It was an interesting point raised by the authors and entirely plausible in my mind.

Overall, I walked away from this reading with a much better grasp of the advantages and disadvantages of digital history, even gaining some ability to make sense of the digital jargon and knowledge that had so carefully eluded me until now. So while I’d still need to phone a friend on any IT questions in life, I feel better prepared to embark on this journey of blogging and understanding the digital past, and look forward to leaving my own piece of digital history on the web through this course.