Digital Legacies: History

Julius Wiedemann contemplates the evolution of historical archiving and research in the digital age, and how this data could pave a path to a better future.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Mar 31, 2022

I used to say that in the digital era, we do not need to discuss facts anymore. If you are talking to your friends and discussing the score of a match in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, you are wasting your time. Old facts and data are not only online, these could be accessed on any mobile phone within seconds. You don’t even need to type it. You can just use voice recognition to ignite a search for what you need. That’s how lame it is. There are currently about 3000 people employed as historians in the United States. The Royal Historical Society in the UK currently employs around 4500 members. With the advancement of technologies to record and register historical events, professionals in the field can discuss a lot of point of views, but they have in their hands a wealth of material that didn’t exist before the 19th century. For a long time, recent documents were the only ones and were bound for interpretation. They contributed a lot but they registered a lot of opinions too, and not only facts. Sometimes, academics will look at an ancient document to investigate one letter, to see if that would change the meaning of an entire sentence, and therefore historical interpretations.

Currently, there are 3000 people employed as historians in the US and 4500 members in the Royal Historical Society in the UK | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Currently, there are 3000 people employed as historians in the US and 4500 members in the Royal Historical Society in the UK Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Yuval Noah Harari said something quite eye-opening. His view of history is that it’s not just about the past but it’s about knowing the past to understand the future. History in his field is the field to study what comes next. History is about the future for one reason, because it is about the history of change. My claim is that we evolve in three different ways. Genetically, socially, and technologically. Needless to say, technology is what changes the fastest. In the history of change, technology has always created leaps of development, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad, or so to say, for the better and for the worse. But in general I think it is fair to say that technology is not only a force for good, it is absolutely natural. We thrive on our difficulties, and we imagine new worlds which need other means. And with that comes new technologies.

In Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s view, history is not just a tool to learn about the past, but also a means to comprehend what may follow in the future | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
In Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s view, history is not just a tool to learn about the past, but also a means to comprehend what may follow in the future Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The archives that we have access to are unprecedented. The public library in New York is a good example of an institution that has made available millions of documents so that people could have access to information. But much more than that, what these clusters of documents create is the collective effort that we search, can be done through crowdsourcing. By allowing millions of people to have access to documents and to analyse them will create the possibility of having insights both from individuals and from groups of people that might change our vision about the past, and in doing so, power new generations to change the future. It sounds like just a marketing speech, some sort of cliché, but it’s not. It really changes the dynamic of how research is done and how we understand the future from the point of view of people that have lived and have had the interest to look into it without any sort of academic or corporate compromise.

There is a massive difference between researching events from decades ago, and making future predictions about the environment with recent data collection | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
There is a massive difference between researching events from decades ago, and making future predictions about the environment with recent data collection Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Research is the basis for scientific development. But science has also changed its frameworks. As much as we can research about the past now, we can also use real data, which allows us to look into the present and try to project a future that is much closer. There is a difference between researching something from 10, 20, 200 years ago, and using the data that was collected yesterday to project something for next week. We are always trying to avoid unpredictability, for the simple fact that we can deal with a situation that is supposed to be known, much better than the ones that are completely unknown. Our brain needs that safe space, otherwise we go crazy. The subjects we debate today, from identity politics to racism, from the environment to polarisation, all have a historical background. Our wisdom resides in trying to put things in context and look ahead and imagine how we can live better together.

 Subjects such as racism and identity politics have historical backgrounds which are often brought into consideration in debates | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Subjects such as racism and identity politics have historical backgrounds which are often brought into consideration in debates Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Technology might help us not to rely exclusively on our impulses. Sudden reactions can misguide us. When we use good communication tools, and have instant access to facts through databases that are reliable, we are able to generate a more productive conversation, and a debate about what really matters. If say we start by trying not to repeat the past, the world wars and other mass suffering initiatives, we are off to a good start. And there are plenty of lessons to be learned on your fingertips, to say, on your mobile phone.

Attempting to avoid tragedies from the past such as the Second World War is a good start in applying the lessons conferred by historical research | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Attempting to avoid tragedies from the past such as the Second World War is a good start in applying the lessons conferred by historical research Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of the digital life.

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