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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Digital Historiography: Part 1

Throughout humanity our species has adapted to its environment and attempted to better our interactions with it. We increase productivity, decrease labor requirements, and capitalize on the efficiencies of consumption. The yin and yang of our modern existence is held in balance by our self-reflection and philosophical dogmas regarding our role in the universe. The collective of humanity will grow and change, that is certain, but are we bound as individuals to follow? I say no. No, I do not want to depend on the internet. I refuse to teach my children to use calculators instead of mathematics. My computer will always be a place for storage and meant to increase my productivity, not a place to live vicariously in a virtual world devoid of morality functioning on alternate social rules and lacking humanity. 

Digitizing Our Collective Histories

It's not just the virtual existence that I fear, but it's effects on the real world as well. My memory is terrible. I try to train my mind as I train my body: rigorous exercise and avoidance of lethargy. Instead of mindless television I read, and when I want to game, I often play Lumosity or Nat Geo games. My forgetfulness is not unique, though. I see it in my generation and I see it in children. We cannot remember phone numbers (I have certainly shed a tear or two over a lost phone's contacts), keep up with schedule without numerous reminder apps and calendars, or birthdays without Facebook... Your memory isn't on trial here, though. After all with free online storage, cloud contacts, web calendaring, and thousands of other web-based utilities you don't need to... right? The information out there is out there permanently, though, and potentially shared with any/everyone. You can never get it back. As I tell students, never share anything you wouldn't want your mother to see (good Lord, would that shut down Snapchat in a heartbeat). I know calendar events aren't so important, but emails certainly are. I read every email 2-3 times and often have a colleague read the important ones prior to hitting send. I double check every Facebook photo's permissions after posting and carefully manage visibility and groups, but does this really matter? I think not. Think about the security breaches we hear about far too often on the nightly news. We put our faith in the IT good guys and pray they know more than the bad guys and that they will protect our social security numbers at risk on dozens of databases worldwide. I am not afraid though, it is the price we pay for being a part of it all; a part of the collective. There are benefits to the model after all. For example: I don't often delete email. This gives me the ability to search my sent and received folders in gmail for names, numbers, important messages, etc. Why not turn your inbox into a repository of searchable fields; Google does it. Google actually encourages it! If you don't believe me just take a peek at the banner adds on your inbox. Where else would they get that suggestion for a hotel in Cozumel... certainly not from reading your email to a friend about considering a trip to Mexico this spring... Don't sweat it, there's nothing you can do to stop it. Instead, shift your mindset to focus on the positives that come with the system.

More than databases and email, we insist on overloading every microchip in every device and perpetuating the backups of every minutia of detail for fear of... of... what? Think of the device you are reading this on right now. What is the oldest file you have? I have all of my assignments from undergrad classes back to 2001! "Why," my wife always asks, "would you ever want all that junk?" Believe it or not, I enjoy reading writing samples from my 2001 self. I see nuances of change in writing style and political opinions. I have come a long way and seen much more of the world I could ever have imagined in that small Louisiana town before 9/11, before Alaska, before life... The key is how I use the information. I reteach myself things I forgot about education, history, and sociology from those old essays. I refine my ethics and values through reflection on changes I make, updating them over the years. Every computer I have ever owned for work and pleasure is living on the solid state drive above which my fingers tap. This is an interesting observation and one the ancients would have considered Earth-shattering. I can cross-reference, search, and aggregate my entire adult life with a few simple clicks! This power is at my fingertips every second of the day... and it pails in comparison to the information on the internet. I feel smarter already.

historiography |hiˌstôrēˈägrəfē, -ˌstär-|
the study of historical writing.
• the writing of history.

So what we write, then, becomes part of our collective history. The process of filling up our Dropboxes, Drives, email inboxes, and iClouds is our input to the collective library of human ingenuity. Assuming someone could filter out all the garbage, we'd have a pretty interesting database to sift through. Some express a danger in the amount of information essentially making the use of the internet impossible. I don't buy it. I see a challenge while Google sees a profit. Governments see data and hackers drool at the possibilities (I think I'm more afraid of the former). What do you see?