Friday, October 9, 2009

Scarcity and Abundance in the Growing Digital World

With the current trend towards the digitization of primary and secondary sources, historians and laypeople alike are left wondering how this will change their lives. For the historian, this changes everything. It’s something I hadn’t given much thought to up until now, but now that I consider the effects of the movement towards digitization, I’ve realized that there are many consequences to this growing trend.

Roy Rosenweig argued that historians are shifting from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance. I agree with this statement, but I do see this as being a problem in a couple of ways. It is because of the internet that we have so many more resources than ever before, and now we can preserve whatever we like. In the past decade there has been a shift in our daily lives to creating a more digital world. To illustrate this point, I would argue that almost every student at UWO owns a computer of some sort, whether it be a laptop or desktop. And for those who do not have their own computer, the school puts a large emphasis on having multiple computer labs for students to access at any time of the day. Furthermore, adolescents who go to university are given email addresses from their schools so that teachers and administrators are able to contact them quickly. All of this indicates how much we have grown to depend on our computers in our everyday lives. With such widespread access to computers, it is easy to rely so heavily on the internet. All of this leads to a build up of information on computers and on the internet, but now there are no hard copies of this correspondence. And here is where the problem lies.

Gone are the days when we would write letters to each other and send them in the mail. We even call it “snail mail”, indicating how slow and inconveniencing our generation thinks it is to send a written letter, especially compared to how fast we can send an email version of the same thing. When historians look to the past to learn about its inhabitants, one thing they do is read people’s daily letters to discover valuable information. With the growing dependency on email, historians won’t be able to read people’s correspondence with each other. This will be because of privacy laws, and the nasty habit that people have of deleting their old emails.

I think that this will become an increasingly bigger problem as the years pass. In the past, people would be mailed newsletters that someone would inevitably keep and pass down through the generations, and historians would analyze it years later to learn about the past. Today, people are emailed newsletters. No one keeps them. They are deleted right away or sent to the junk box so no one has to be bothered by them. As historians, this will create a gap in our knowledge about certain groups, or people, who have sent out an email, unless someone decides to print it out and save it.

It’s the same thing with pictures and home videos. I remember the days when I worried about running out of film, or having to take the film to a store to be developed. Now it’s me standing at a kiosk and editing the pictures I want to print. It used to be that I’d have to wait for days before I could get my pictures, and now it only takes an hour, or even seconds if I’m willing to pay a little extra. This is the world today. I think that in the future even the kiosk will become obsolete. It will be up to people to print their own pictures by using special photo printers in their homes. This is a great idea, but how many people upload the pictures to their computers and quickly forget about them? Instead of printing off pictures to show our friends and family, we will make photo compilation discs that we pop into DVD players and watch on a TV. As historians, we will have fewer family photo albums to examine, and thus fewer hard copies of pictures, which will be problematic when people get rid of their computers without thinking to extract the pictures that may be on them.

These are some dangerous consequences that could arise from the increase in digitalization. While some things may become scarcer than ever before, there will be an amazing abundance in other areas. The best example of this is seen with newspapers. Newspapers today archive all of their articles, which makes them easy to find years later when we want to dive into the past. Thanks to the digitization of old newspapers we are able to go online and search a term and see what comes up, instead of having to spend hours hunting through microfilm with sore eyes to find a news story from decades past. This will definitely help historians and make their jobs a lot easier. If everyone on the internet archived websites, newspapers, and even scholarly journals, they could be easily accessed in years to come.

This is a positive thing, but because it means that resources will be widely available to every person who owns a computer, and historians won’t have a monopoly on the interpretation of information. While this is great for amateur historians, this makes the jobs of professionally educated historians a little harder to do. If everybody is able to access everything without the help of professionals, what will be the role of the historian? Could we become obsolete?

As hard as it will be for historians to share the growing pool of information with regular people, I think that the role of a historian will ultimately always be valued. Historians will still continue to publish in reputable academic journals; something that would be hard for non-historians to do. Historians will also possess the academic training that amateurs lack, and most importantly, let’s not forget about all the things civilization has amassed over the centuries. We still need people to take care of old artifacts, and interpret old documents and letters. Museums certainly can’t run themselves; institutes like these will be here for years to come, and working in a place like this isn’t something that anyone off the street can do. It’s the same for archives; there will always be the need for professionally trained people to safeguard the past. It seems like museums, archives, and other means of preserving the past will be around for many years to come, and for most historians, public or otherwise, this is very good news. We as historians will not become obsolete, our roles will just continue to change and evolve, much like history itself continues to do.

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