The Past and Future of the Digital Web

I want to start this post with a nod to Van­nevar Bush.  It’s astound­ing to see how pre­scient he was on the com­ing tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion.  His appre­ci­a­tion for how data stor­age, pho­tog­ra­phy, and com­put­ers would grow geo­met­ri­cally in sophis­ti­ca­tion is amaz­ing.  It is notable as well to point out that his mus­ings on the impact of tech­nol­ogy were writ­ten a month before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped.  One won­ders how this knowl­edge would have changed the obvi­ous awe with which he pon­dered this rev­o­lu­tion in technology.

The Cohen, Hockey, and Rosen­zweig arti­cles all deal with the var­i­ous aspects of the his­tory and future of the dig­i­tal world.  It is telling that Cohen, for instance, points out that the early his­tory web­sites were ini­ti­ated by ama­teur his­to­ri­ans, not pro­fes­sion­als.  Thus, from the begin­ning, the debate in the his­tor­i­cal field has swirled around “cre­den­tials” and who is or isn’t a “legit­i­mate” source of infor­ma­tion or com­men­tary.  Many of us have read Wikipedia entries, for instance, that are frus­trat­ing because they are either fac­tu­ally incor­rect or the­mat­i­cally bland to avoid con­tro­versy.  Regard­ing Cohen’s dis­cus­sion of dig­i­tiz­ing his­tor­i­cal resources, how­ever, I have to admit I could not have as quickly com­pleted a master’s the­sis based partly on the Offi­cial Records of the Civil War with­out the Mak­ing of Amer­ica site dig­i­tiz­ing and index­ing this huge work.  Susan Hockey also dis­cusses this democ­ra­tiz­ing of his­tor­i­cal resources.  I agree with her that the wider dis­sem­i­na­tion of this vast cul­tural her­itage will have far-reaching consequences.

Finally, the Rosen­zweig arti­cle must be trou­bling for any­one inter­ested in the topic of pre­serv­ing the dig­i­tal record for future gen­er­a­tions.  I really had not fully con­sid­ered the import of not just chang­ing forms of media (mag­netic tape, cd’s), but also the loss of machines capa­ble of read­ing them.  I’ve been doing this long enough that essays I wrote on my Mac vin­tage late 1990s are now inac­ces­si­ble to me.  Granted, most of what I wrote was garbage, but you get the point.  Advances in com­puter tech­nolo­gies give us a false sense of con­fi­dence that every­thing is being pre­served, when, as Rosen­zweig points out, much of this stored data has a shelf life of not much more than a few years.  A sense of almost panic imbues Rosenzweig’s essay and rightly so.  The irony that a paper copy of a doc­u­ment might sur­vive cen­turies in a base­ment some­where, whereas my Word doc­u­ment from a few years ago is inac­ces­si­ble to me should not be lost on the his­tor­i­cal community.

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2 Responses to The Past and Future of the Digital Web

  1. Susan says:

    Susan Hockey also dis­cusses this democ­ra­tiz­ing of his­tor­i­cal resources. I agree with her that the wider dis­sem­i­na­tion of this vast cul­tural her­itage will have far-reaching con­se­quences.“
    You make a good point here. And I do wish there was a mech­a­nism for get­ting to the “qual­ity” sites/information with­out sift­ing through so much chaff so that stu­dents would be com­pelled by learn­ing inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion rather than celebrity gossip.

  2. Stephen Reed says:

    I agree– I found Bush’s crys­tal ball abil­i­ties amaz­ing. Before the Rosen­zweig arti­cle I hadn’t thought about the impact of chang­ing tech­nolo­gies on exist­ing dig­i­tal doc­u­ments.
    In 1975 I actu­ally took a course at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame, “The Com­puter as a His­tor­i­cal Tool” where we had to write pro­grams in For­tran and Cobol. Wow– was that a
    mil­lion years ago!

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