History in a Digital Age: Passivity

For our first blog post stemming from your “History in a Digital Age” responses, Lauren and Andrew reflect on the problem of passivity. Did you encounter this in your own exploration of the Bethel Digital Library or other digital projects? How significant is this problem?

On the homepage of The Lost Museum website, I was immediately greeted with a video introducing me to Barnum’s American Museum and immersing me into its mid-19th century world. All I did was click on a link and history fell into my lap. This simple action demonstrated what Cohen and Rosenzweig called passivity, and it is a unique attribute of digital history. Cohen and Rosenzweig present this attribute as a problem, which I agree with, but I also would assert that the passive nature by which information can be presented on the internet can also have positive implications. Since the internet has become popular and accessible, I feel like the mistrust and distrust of its contents has as well. Cohen and Rosenzweig mention that because of the wide accessibility of the internet and the ease of producing content on the internet, there is much more potential for inaccurate history to be received as truth. However, I would argue that most contemporary web surfers are more skeptical because of this, therefore passivity has become less of a problem of misinformation, but rather an incredible method of inciting interest.

– Lauren Gannon


Cohen and Rosenzweig’s idea of passivity is also apparent through both the [Bethel Digital Library historical] photograph and [Bethel at] war collections. While it is great to have easy access to such materials, as a viewer, there is an increased risk of passivity and not taking the time to evaluate the work with independent thought. This is particularly evident in the photographs collection. It is far too easy to passively click through each photograph and read the short blurb about it without giving the piece an original thought. Viewing a photograph in person, requires the viewer to think and interact with the piece, instead of clicking to the next one without thought. With the Bethel at War collection, the risk of making simple conclusions is tempting. A discussion on the morality of war has a complicated answer that is not easily summed up in a yes or no. A digital history project, if viewed passively, can convince a reader that there is a black and white answer if the information shared is too one-sided or opinionated.

– Andrew Zwart

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10 thoughts on “History in a Digital Age: Passivity

  1. I agree with Andrew’s comment on how easy it is to passively view something online without evaluating the work. I think this is why more people in digital media are starting to look into 3D scanning and printing items/artifacts, so that the viewer has a larger opportunity to engage with the items more online instead of just viewing a photographed piece.

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    • Haley, I appreciate your insight on #D scanning and printing items/artifacts in historical/archival studies. I wonder though, if the 3D digitized piece of the past would invoke the same awe as the actual object itself? While I agree with you that advancements in technology lead to a great awareness and passion for the study of history, I am worried that historical art, such as archeology, is being lost in this digitized world.

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      • Two great perspectives Matt and Haley. I think that 3D scanning can and is important when documenting and preserving historical artifacts that will in time whither away. It also giving researchers more of an opportunity of engagement, which I also believe is a very beneficial aspect. I do understand however, how it can be questioned whether or not the digitized artifacts can give the same sense of awe and wonder. I think it could also, in a way, be almost demeaning to the artifact itself. Something that is so historically valued, that at once took a valiant effort to observe, is now available at the click of a link.

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  2. I believe that Lauren made an excellent point that because of recent experiences and especially the media’s emphasis on flood of fake news many surfers are more skeptical now than ever before of what they read on the internet. This creates an environment where sources for journalism or modern history are much more important to the lay person than in previous decades, preventing full passivity to what they read. I also liked how Andrew emphasized how impersonal some photographed collections can be. Even though we see the work and read a few details about it, many 3D pieces do not get the full respect they deserve, it is impossible to engage with a piece through an image that would otherwise leave you in awe through the pure scale of the project. If people do not make time to engage with something in person they never will truly be able to understand that work of art the way it was meant to be or even the horror of an event in cases of war.

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  3. I liked what you guys mentioned about the need for 3D printing and scanning. Being able to hold on a replica of a historical artifact means that you are probably not going to tune out but it presents a different way of learning about things. Due to the sensitivity of many artifacts we can not hold or use them, but if we were to make a 3D model of them we could experience what it would be like to march with a Civil War era rifle or to hold a copy of the Rosetta stone in a way that few of us could ever experience now.

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  4. I like the statement given by Lauren because it’s clear how passivity affects how we look at historical information due to misleading articles or false information. Having the internet at your disposal is a great place to start looking into certain topics in history, but we cannot rely on everything we read on the internet. For instance, when I viewed a website on the railroad and modern America by the University of Nebraska and it was a very in-depth and well citied source by student of the school. Nothing was falsely written and it was nice to have a lot of content at my fingertips. I believe that people are more careful with viewing history on the internet today, but people still could get suckered in or mislead by lack of information given by others online.

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  5. While I do agree with what Lauren said concerning how due to passivity history can now be engaged in new and innovative ways I do not think passivity is without its errors. One of the biggest of these errors is how the opinion of a cashier is now weighed the same amount of a history professor. It seems like everyone now has an opinion about everything. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but that does not mean that everyone’s opinion is equal. All one has to do is look at the comments section to see how this plethora of opinions has turned into a complete breakdown of respectable discussion. Like Lauren said passivity is a great tool, you just have to be aware when using.

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  6. Although Lauren recognized the perils of passivity, I find her comment about the capacity of the vast amount of historical information available to stimulate excitement or interest about a topic to be very insightful. In a sense, the interactive format of many websites and the mysterious nature of the different paths behind one click of a link have a possibility to actually make one more interested despite the danger of it. I think a passive attitude may develop when one feels excited, but overwhelmed with the vast nature of his or her discovery, ultimately hindering the process of real understanding. The impermanence inherent in a digital display and the uncertainty of what direction to take with all the information can lead one to abandon that pursuit of knowledge all together. It also remains to be seen if the constant access to information will impact the degree to which future scholars will actually be able to take hold of a particular question and spend enough time and effort to sufficiently mull it over enough to make a significant contribution.

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  7. Andrew offered a fantastic point regarding the ease of clicking past a significant piece of historical art. In it’s physical form, the art demands and invokes interest which leads us to stand and gaze at the piece in all of it’s worth. When we are at home and encounter the same piece through digital media, the awe that the physical piece might inspire likely won’t be there, since its the same pixels you were looking at Facebook with. I agree with Lauren when she says that it (passivity) can also be a good thing as well, as it can invoke interest in history that was lacking prior to an encounter with digital history. I think that when done correctly, and with the right form of history, passivity can be the catalyst to a deep love for the study of a specific event, person, or place of the past (history).

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  8. I really appreciate Andrew’s consideration of what is lost when an artifact is digitized. More and more, I have been contemplating the emotions that go into studying history, and specifically the emotions towards a particular figure or event in history. An historian has a certain degree of affection and relationship toward the subject of their study. How has this relationship changed since the rise of digital history? The internet provides a kind of emotional separation from its contents, manifesting in a lack of empathy. Therefore, does digitizing history encourage a lack of empathy towards it?

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