Group “W” Bench
I really want to meet Errol Morris. Anyone that will go to those links to definitively un-definitively determine the order of a couple of 159 year old photographs with such humor and undaunted enthusiasm is someone I want to know.
Much like the heroes in Alice’s Restaurant digital historians are sidelined by various misdemeanors and conventions. Instead of a thrilling debate about garbage or cannon balls, I think the issues of veracity are core to what historians have always faced. Any primary source could be a ruse. A witness is guaranteed to miss something, and diaries, while usually interesting reading, have to be very gingerly weighed. So, do the challenges of the digital domain really make that much of a difference?
In matters of scale, probably; there is simply more digital data to consider. In matters of integrity, probably not; historians have to weigh each piece of evidence carefully and independently. So the key lesson here is not to blindly trust the picture, the email, the recording, or any element of data; but to carefully correlate it with items that can be verified or at least corroborated.
Valid, correlated, corroborated data is one aspect of a larger problem that Cohen and Rosenzweig bring up in their descriptions of the seven qualities of “digital media and networks that potentially allow us to do things better (p 3, Digital History).” In discussing capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality (as well as their corollaries: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility) they bring up the larger topic of Knowledge Management.
Industry, government, and the military like the idea of knowledge management (KM) and have widely varying definitions and implications for KM. In theory, data management manages data at the molecular level. Information management manages access and transport of groups of data allowing for the development and dissemination of information built on the data. KM is IM with some nebulous measurement of artificial intelligence (AI), experience, analysis, wisdom and timing. In other words, (at least in the military’s attempted implementation) KM is the right data at the right place to the right person at the right time to make the right decision.
While not peeling back the cover of that black box of hocus pocus, I think that digital historians face a similar task.
Digital history is the art of acquiring, assessing, making available, analyzing, and effectively using digital means for better historical analysis, writing, conclusions, etc. In other words, digital history enables the right evidence available to the right researcher and the right time to inform the best conclusion.
In all of that hocus pocus, veracity of data, availability, readability, durability, and passivity are all concerns to the digital historian. Nevertheless, while utopia is not around the corner, major advances in the tools and methods are impacting research. My own research into the Cuban missile crisis (www.october1962.com) was largely a digital affair from start to finish. If you examine my bibliography, you will see the National Security Archives at George Washington University were critical to my research. While working from a computer, I accumulated hundreds of memos, messages, transcripts, orders, etc. that I could never have obtained in person. Once written in a traditional format, I was able to transform the data into a web-site and make some of my primary sources available for download.
All in all, I tend to side with Michael Frisch’s “tools-based” view of digital history. It is not quite a new field, but a new and decidedly powerful suite of tools emerging to historians.
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