Friday, December 11, 2009

I now know how the Internet works! Some reflections on digital history...

I’ll be honest. When I began the digital history course, I was a little intimidated. Here I was, reading about things I’d never even heard of in my life, learning how to write html, and starting to write a blog. As someone who is a little wary of technology, this course has opened my mind to so many things I didn’t even know existed. It has raised questions that I couldn’t have dreamed of asking, and has really given me a new outlook on the role of technology in society.

Perhaps the part of this course that has been most significant to me is the changing role of the internet and the implications it will have in the field of history. With the internet becoming increasingly available to people all over the world, access to online books, newspapers, and journal articles is almost limitless. It makes me wonder what the role of the historian will be in the future. Especially with websites like Wikipedia, where everyone can collectively edit articles, making them fairly accurate, it’s hard to imagine what bigger innovations could arise in the future. With all of this information available online that could formerly only be found in university libraries and offices of academics, people now have a chance to learn history on their own, without the help of a university or professor. This makes me wonder what the role of the historian will be in fifteen years. Will we be relevant? Will we even be needed anymore? These questions make anyone pursuing an education in history nervous; are we doing all this work for nothing? Will people need us to interpret the sources anymore, or are we just wasting our time?

And though my immediate response was yes, we should restrict public access, it’s now obvious to me that all the historical sources, data, periodicals, etc. should be openly available to the public. For someone who cannot afford to get an education, of course they should be able to educate themselves using online sources, whether they be for history or computer science. Why should those of us lucky enough to be at universities have the monopoly on information distribution? People in North America are free to go to libraries to educate themselves (and we all know how old some of those books are), so why shouldn’t they be provided with the most up-to-date publications via the internet? I think that this is an issue that historians will continue to struggle with. Especially for older generations who aren’t used to using computers or the internet, it’s hard for them to see the importance of it to younger generations. It’s easy for me to champion the cause of open-source and availability for all because of the generation I grew up in. Computers are a part of my everyday life, which is something that can’t be said for many people older than I am.

That said, I was reluctant to start a blog and create a Twitter account. I used to role my eyes when I heard people talk about Twitter and “tweeting,” and a few of my friends even gave me a hard time about having my own Twitter account. I was nervous that I would become one of those people who couldn’t tear themselves away from their social networking sites. We all know these people; they’re the ones whose online lives greatly overshadow their actual lives, and what fun is it to live only online? This didn’t happen. Once I started to use Twitter, I saw how useful it can be. It doesn’t just have to be a place where you tell the world what you ate for breakfast, it can be used to post news articles, job offers, and send out a query and wait for responses. I think of how many times my classmates and I used Twitter to coordinate rides, meeting times, and ask/answer general questions about assignments that definitely saved us the time we would have lost if we all had to call one another on the phone.

Another surprisingly useful thing that I learned in this course was html. At first glance it looked to me like gibberish and ugly text written in Notepad, but then I learned that the gibberish actually meant something, and that you could use this gibberish to make really cool-looking webpages. As frustrating as it was in the beginning, being able to see the end result of a webpage that looks the way you imagined it in your mind is completely satisfying. It even became, dare I say it, fun to play around with, seeing which tags could be changed to make certain effects on the page. Although it became easier to do, I started to wonder when, exactly, I would ever use it in real life. I assumed I wouldn’t ever actually use it, that is, until I made a Google website. There was something I wanted to change, but just couldn’t figure it out using the options given, so I ended up going into the html and changing it on my own. I was so excited that I could actually fix minor problems that arose, and especially because if I’d never learned html, I would never even have dreamed of being able to fix it on my own.

Concluding thoughts about digital history: I ended up liking it a lot and learning tons of things that were mind-boggling but gave me many new perspectives. I really didn’t consider the implications that the internet would have on history until now. And as soon as I started this course, it seemed like so many things relating to digital history just starting popping up all over the place. I’m hearing tons about digitization and open-source, two things I previously knew very little about, and that I now have opinions on. I learned that I can read books online if I want to (though I’m still not there yet), and that hackers often aren’t the stereotypical bad people we’ve come to think of them as. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the opportunities the internet has afforded us are limitless and that we have the potential to do so much more with it, should we choose to.

So finally, I’d like to say thank you to Bill Turkel for providing me with a very positive experience in learning about digital history. Your patience for what were probably very silly questions is greatly appreciated.

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