History and the Digital Revolution: A Reflection on the New Collectiveness of Historical Knowledge

The effect of the digital revolution on the study of history. A cutting edge device in a Renaissance style painting of Clio, the muse of history; new technology with old ways of thinking. From https://earlyamericanists.com/2017/01/26/reflecting-on-digital-history/

Hello, everyone. My name is Christopher Mundis and I am a sophomore history major at Messiah College, with concentrations in Administrative Studies and Classical and Medieval Europe, taking Dr. Pettigrew‘s Digital History course this spring. As such, I will be posting to the Digital Harrisburg Project website regularly for the next few months.

The digital age has provided the tools with which to revolutionize the field of history, but unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to realize the extent of this. We still think of historical research as taking place in archives or libraries filled with crumbling old books. Knowledge gained from these sources somehow seems more real to us than knowledge gained online. Perhaps this is because of the ease of which the internet allows users to create false information, most notoriously on Wikipedia. As digital historians, such as Roy Rozenzweig, have pointed out, however, despite the existence of some misleading or false information on the web, the internet as a whole is reasonably accurate. Most pages provide accurate information on their topics, allowing for broad consensus which can overrule fringe mistakes. (Clio Wired, 30-31) This only becomes a problem when with common myths, like the alleged alien landing in Roswell, Arizona. The internet is essentially collective knowledge, almost like hive mind. This makes it a more reliable indicator of what most people believe rather than what is reality. (Clio Wired; 37, 48) This does not mean it is useless as a source of information, but rather that historians must be willing to engage with it in order to keep the public informed.

It seems as though one of the biggest ways the digital age can change the practice of history is by enabling greater collaboration amongst groups of historians in their work. History is a notoriously individualist field of study, and perhaps the same could be said for the rest of the humanities as well. Each historian does his or her own research and publishes it to be scrutinized, challenged, and debated by others in the field. (Clio Wired, 51) The internet, however, has opened up whole new ways of working with others, familiar colleagues and complete strangers alike. Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of this, allowing thousands of unpaid volunteers to self-organize and produce one of the most widely used sources of information online today, all while keeping it reasonably accurate and objective, despite being widely despised as a source of information among professionals. And these were mostly amateurs, very few among them being experts in their fields. (Clio Wired, 53-55) Admittedly, Wikipedia is not perfect. It suffers from sometimes choppy or bland writing style and is tied to the interests of its editors, leaving large portions of historical knowledge out of its record. This problem is likely to correct itself with time as more people of more diverse backgrounds join Wikipedia’s “society.” As it stands, it is able to hold its own against the professional history encyclopedias. (Clio Wired, 59-64) If professional historians continue to ignore popular projects like this, they could easily loose touch with the public they are trying to serve.

Participating in the Digital Harrisburg project will be an interesting experience for me. My interests usually lie on the other side of the Atlantic, in ancient and medieval Europe and the Middle East. However, I am sure that Harrisburg, like most places, has a rich and fascinating history to draw upon for my research. Maybe a study of political machines in Harrisburg? That would be intriguing. You should be hearing from me in a few weeks.

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