In reading the article “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History “, Dr. Kirsten Sword mentioned avoiding another “digital divide” in a discussion about the use of advanced technology for public history when focused on specialized practitioners rather than generalists throughout the field. As someone trained in Sociology as well, this made my ears perk up like a fennec fox.
One reason history found itself in a paradigm shift in the mid 20th century was because there was a perception, not unfounded, that history was suited for an academic or intellectual, social elite. It was in museums and books away from accessible common spaces, save libraries. So the aim was to release history into a wider, farther reaching audience with more of a democratic sensibility. But yet I wonder if we now contend with the digital divide?
The Pew Research Center follows the use and dissemination of technology, breaking it into demographic ranges. Lee Rainie from the center presented on the current snapshot of the digital divide as it relates to age, income, and race in 2016 and there has been a great improvement in household access to the internet since the seeming “stone age” of 1999 and even 2010. Yet, some groups still have greater access than others. I think about the aim of public history to reach and engage, and I wonder about the dismally funded school systems who, without the deliberate consideration of their plight, could not provide educational tools to expose and educate children. The positive side of the report is that the 18 and younger crowd is the most “connected”. But, what they focus their eyeballs on is another issue altogether.
I firmly agree that all historians should now acquaint themselves, if not master, current and emerging technologies in order to study and interpret data while sharing and presenting research in farther reaching, more meaningful ways than the more elitist past. However, we really need to consider the most common or typical level of technical useage rather that can translate or be manipulated for more sophisticated innovation when it then becomes most accessible. Public spaces such as a well funded museum might be able to host a virtual-reality history exhibit, but that experience fulfills the goals of a humanist project by also providing a comparable experience in common technologies such as an app or 360-degree photography on a website.
I am relieved that the digital divide is closing, but we still have the hurdle of how sophisticated the experience can be, and how fruitful, once we’re on the highway.