Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Technology Hurting or Helping History's Future?

Is technology hurting or helping history's future? This is a question that presents itself in my mind from time to time, and I thought maybe jotting down some of my ideas will help me sort out this question.

There is little doubt that in many ways technology has helped further both historical scholarship and public access to it. A good example is museum exhibits. Through technology, museums now have previously unprecedented forums in which to engage their visitors and impact learning. Believe me, exhibit technology is not limited to video displays or computer interactive presentations these days.

Another major technological advance has been the personal computer and the Internet. In the not so distant past if someone wanted access to information they had to get into their car and drive to their nearest library. Now much of that information is available through the world wide web and accessible from home or work. For historians, in many cases, this has made their life easier. Journal articles can be received online. Inter-library loan requests can be made online if not received online. And in some cases, primary source documents scanned and uploaded by archival outlets can be quickly accessed without paying travel expenses and wasting valuable time. Research that previously required a strong writing hand and a surplus of good #2 pencils now can be completed with the help of laptop computers; thus making research physically easier and faster.

But, to me, one fly in the ointment is the incredible amount of information that we are losing because of email and text messaging via cell phones. Almost any researcher will tell you that a large part of their joy comes from learning the details of past lives from reading the personal correspondence left by the personalities of history. Today, letter writing as a form of communication to be preserved is quickly fleeting. It is so much easier and less expensive to send an email or instant message than to take the time and effort to write a letter by hand, find an envelope, address it, stamp it, and deposit it in the mail. The unfortunate part is that most of the interpersonal communication that is conducted via email or text messaging today will not be available to future historians to examine and interpret. That to me in some small way is sad.

Today's communication in many ways is meant to be temporary and is written as such. But, when one hand writes a letter or card much more thought of composition and concern for clarity of communication goes into the effort. We are losing that in our hi-tech world. I don't think email will lose its popularity or demand anytime soon. In fact, I think technology will develop ever newer forms of email type communication, such as the not-so-long-ago development of text messaging.

So...it looks like my answer is both yes and no. Today technology helps people research, write, present, exhibit, preserve, protect, and learn about our history better than ever, but at the same time, due to technological advances, we are losing pieces of information that future historians will need to tell our story more accurately.

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