It’s Not Bad, It’s Different

I am one of the many that believes that the migration towards over-dependence on computers is terrible for society.  I further believe that the idea that humans are uploading their brains to the internet so that we are not burdened with unnecessary trivial knowledge is absurd.  However so much I believe that living a wholly digital existence is unpalatable for me, there are many advantages to the evolving digital scholarship.

In her blog post “Doing Digital Scholarship” Lisa Spiro examines several questions discussing digital scholarship.  A few of these questions look into what digital scholarship is, what it takes to produce digital scholarship, and the types of resources and tools included.  This article also discusses the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS)  Commission on Cyberinfrastructure’s report discussing five manifestations of digital scholarship including collection building, the tools necessary to collect analyze and produce intellectual products, as well as authoring tools.

As more and more digital resources become available, the necessity for a sound, encompassing, and open Cyberinfrastructure is increasingly necessary.   Many historians may scoff at this idea, but the truth is that most sources in the US today are “born digital.”  Although historians may have to utilize many different types of resources when constructing a display (digital or otherwise) or writing, we must realize that digital scholarship is not bad, it’s different.

Of course, with the new many new types of materials available (e.g. videos, websites, and emails), there is also a need for collecting and organizing this new data at an ever-increasing rate. Dan Cohen’s piece From Babel to Knowledge describes this necessity, laying out initial lessons in the realm of digital collections.  Basically Cohen is advocating for creating means of digital collection, relying on keeping many of these collections free and open, as well as collecting as much as possible, focusing on quantity over quality.

Of all the readings from this week, Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, was the most interesting.  This was probably due to the fact that this author had a much different approach to discussing digital media.  It was interesting to read about the freedom that the internet provides for finding a niche market.  Although the article discussed mostly entertainment media, the principles are obviously applicable to digital scholarship.

Anderson remarkably points out that aside from freedom of space restrictions overhead is greatly reduced.  So we can take scholarship that we are already doing in public history, make it more dynamic with integration of different and exciting types of data, occupy space for a fraction of the cost, tailor our product to a niche market, and reach more people.  Digital scholarship is not bad; it is just different from what people are used to. Just because historians engage in digital scholarship, does that mean that the essential core of history is changed?  I believe not.

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5 comments so far

  1. Michael Marcus on

    Tony, if computer resources had been available from, say, the mid 1970s through the very early 1980’s to me, such as we have now, and accounting for procrastination and brain freezes, I think that at least one year of research and footwork time could have deducted from the time it took to complete my degree. I use JSTOR and Project Muse, Google Book and Google Scholar all the time to discover or learn things that simply would have taken ever so much more time in the past. Not to mention the possibilty of contacting scholars interested in the same subject and participating in those “Lists” or whatever they are called. I get a bunch of digests that I read fairly regularly, much not necessarily useful but you never know where you will find gold! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and possibly sharing ideas. Michael (oh, I may ask just a few more questions about your experience in BHS with kids and the book and the curriculum as currently set up; won’t require extensive answers, I promise! With new leadership coming, I will do what I can to help in the coming several years, not withdraw. That wouldn’t be me anyway. Best wishes, Michael

    • tonyroy on

      I definitely agree with you that the internet has made research much more efficient. One of the only issues that I see with the cyberinfrastructure is the way that much of the information is locked up where people cannot get to it. Say you are a person that is researching a book, organizing an exhibit, or researching for personal fulfillment. There is no way for most people to access JStor, Ebsco Host, or many of the major providors of resources on the internet. You either have to be a student, work at a university, or have a reletive that is allowed access. If knowledge is power, then the people are in bondage.

      Of course, who is going to put time in to collect, digitize, and provide digital archives on a free basis? Think about all the time, effort and money that goes into these large scale operations. Google books, however, is great because you can access many works previously unavailable for free. Unfortunately, most of the books are outside of copyright dates meaning they are not the most current information. Although, these books are great for gaining a sense of historiography.

      I guess what it boils down to is that althought the internet is everywhere and people are utilizing this tool more and more frequently, the full potential of computers and the internet as a tool for scolarly research is still in its infancy. If historians are able to lay a solid foundation, the possibilities are endless. Are historians willing to realize what’s in it for them?

  2. Emily Gifford on

    You wrote: “I further believe that the idea that humans are uploading their brains to the internet so that we are not burdened with unnecessary trivial knowledge is absurd.”

    Since I’m very preoccupied right now with this notion of outsourcing factual memory vs. “burdening [our brains] with unnecessary trivial knowledge,” I’m curious about your views on the subject since you say the idea is “absurd.” Do you find it absurd because you think that the skill of fact retention is not dependent on the ‘net? Let me try to explain what I’m asking by (imperfect!) analogy. When I was a kid, my dad told me that when personal cars became normative for American transportation, “some people” were worried that American humans would, biologically and permanently, end up with atrophied muscles from not walking anymore. I’m not sure where he heard that, or if he was just making it up to mess with my head (he was playful like that). And in a sense, it could be true: Americans are at a record for physical inactivity, and that has very unpleasant longterm health implications. But we haven’t lost the ability to walk, it’s just that we don’t bother anymore. Is that what you were writing about, or did you mean something else?

    Anyway, I’ve been kind of thinking a lot about factual memory lately, so I am curious to find out more about your views on this.

    • MrRoyAnJ on

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful question.
      Your Question: “Do you find it absurd because you think that the skill of fact retention is not dependent on the ‘net?”
      My comments regarding the absurdity of uploading our brains to the ‘net was in response to a presenter from Digital History class. The guest speaker stated that he believed that people were uploading their brains to the ‘net so that we are not burdened with unnecessary trivial knowledge. At first, I thought this was a novel idea, but with further analysis, I have concluded that it is absurd.

      Initially, I agreed that factual memory could be “uploaded” onto the ‘net leaving more “space” for higher level processes such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. With the growth of the internet, it could seem that humans are utilizing the vast amounts of memory available to free up time and space in their noggins.

      I stray from the above opinion in two respects. First, the brains capacity for information, although not infinite, is astounding. As far as I can tell from the limited about of searches I have done on the topic, the brain has a much bigger capacity for info than most people will ever be able to take in.

      Second, as Janet Murray discusses in her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, information has not changed in recent decades. What has changed, however, is the medium for attaining knowledge and the availability of reference materials online. With this increased availability of reference materials, the everyday internet user is not necessarily uploading their knowledge to the net, but easily accessing, reading, absorbing, and ultimately utilizing information. In this regard, you could liken the brain to a sponge; taking in large amounts of information, classifying, compressing, and storing it for later use. Of course, if your brain is like mine, you may need to take in certain information time and again before it “sticks.”

      One last note, it is less important where information comes from (i.e. memory or reputable reference source) than what people do with the information. According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, (see also here and here)factual information, or knowledge, is the lowest level of critical thinking. At this level, people “exhibit memory of previously-learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and answers.” Once knowledge is attained, then we can progress through the increasingly sophisticated steps of Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. Developing stronger and more in-depth critical thinking skills in all areas of learning requires us to take something that we have prior knowledge and build connections to the material.

      Emily, I hope this answers your question. I guess, overall, that I believe that the internet will not atrophy our brains because people are not “uploading” to the ‘net, they are accessing and utilizing information. The availability of materials on the internet allows for greater accumulation of knowledge and adds to the enrichment of understanding.

      • Emily Gifford on

        What a great, detailed answer, and with links yet! Thanks.

        My own uninformed feeling is that while some people do have a talent for fact retention, and perhaps those neural pathways are formed or reinforced in our developmental years rather than being genetically encoded from birth, people who can’t, don’t, or won’t memorize “trivia” (a subjective word at best, it’s true, but I think you know what I eamn) aren’t any less intelligent than people who have a talent for gathering and retaining facts. The ‘net, it seems to me, just makes finding things easier and faster when that kind of information is needed.

        Provided, of course, that the source is reliable!


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