In 1981, a news report made the shocking prediction that in the future most people would read their daily newspaper online from their own home computer. For better or for worse, the world we live in parallels the world described in the decades-old new report more closely than the people in 1981 probably ever imagined. Technology has changed every aspect of our world, and the study and presentation of history is no exception. How has technology shaped history and what has its impact been? All in all, the blending of history and technology has had a very positive impact on the field of history.
One of the most important ways that technology has shaped modern history is by the mass digitalization of archives and books. This trend towards digitalization has dramatically increased the accessibility of information to the public. In this day and age, it is possible to research almost any topic if you know the right place to look. Things as obscure as the New York City Fire Department Incident Action Plans following 9/11, or the journal entries of citizen from Virginia in the 1860’s, are available for anyone who wants them. Mass digitalization has also had the positive effect of demanding better scholarship from historians. With a simple search on Google Books, it is now possible to find hundreds of books on nearly any topic in seconds. A blog post by Dan Cohen, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, points out that the reality of instant fact-checking and follow-up is something that “should push us to improve historical research.” It is much harder (or at least we hope it is much harder) for distorted facts to be passed off as accurate when nearly everyone has the ability to double-check them.
Technology and public history are in many ways a match made in heaven. The internet is the perfect venue to present interactive information to a broad range of people around the world. For example, a Stanford student created an interactive map that tracked the growth and demise of post offices in the early American West. Without modern technology, this student would have been stuck with a few different stationary maps to represent the change. Another example of modern technology being used to increase the interaction between the public and history is Cleveland Historical. This website uses an interactive map to document historic locations around the city. For example, one of the stories documents the Ralph J. Perk and the birth of the RTA transit system, and links it to a specific location in Cleveland. Initiating this interaction with the public is one of the main goals of public historians, however technology has allowed some public interaction to go too far without proper supervision.
In an article on the “Northwest History Blog,” Dr. Cebula makes the argument that the public doesn’t always take projects as seriously as professionals do, and often their contributions are unhelpful. In another blog post, Dr. Cebula points out that technology has allowed inaccurate, but well intentioned amateurs to author blogposts, podcasts, Youtube videos and more on history. These incorrect historical accounts are often viewed with authority by members of the public. Dr. Cebula accurately claims that the problem isn’t necessarily the technology. Rather “the real culprit,” of these offences is “the historical profession, which has been slow to adopt new technologies.” In Public History A Textbook of Practice, Cauvin agrees that “historians are often absent from one of the most influential and popular sources of historical knowledge.” (163)
Technology has already proven to be a useful tool in improving the accessibility of historical documents, and it has the potential to become a powerful conduit for the presentation of history to the public. Public historians should act now, and partner with professionals with other skill-sets to fully utilize technology for the promotion of history. As Cauvin points out, one great way to foster this interdisciplinary interaction is to host a “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” aka THATCamp. (175) THATCamps are informal “unconferences,” that rely on collaboration and conversations between students, faculty, professionals, and anyone who has an interest in the intersection between the humanities and technology. Perhaps a way for EWU Public History students to do their part in encouraging the cross-over of technology and history would be to organize a THATCamp in the Spokane area.