A Problem Needing Research
There can be no doubt that the impact of technology on the study of history has been both a beneficial and negative event. History like many subjects has been uniquely impacted by advancements in technology. The extent to which this impact has been negative or positive is ambiguous and often difficult to understand. The muddled nature of the topic is caused by a large lack of research.
Negative Impacts of Technology on the study of History
It [technology] redefines “freedom,” “truth,” “intelligence,” “fact,” “wisdom,” “memory,” “history” — all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask. (Postman, 2011).
Postman views this problem with technology as a loss of meaning as words as events are redefined through technology. He uses television as an example of this problem:
…the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence , history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response. Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television.
Postman is not alone in his condemnation of technology for polluting history. The advent of many technologies such as radio and mass production of newspapers and books have also been considered perpetrators of distorting history. Raymond Cattell (1972) pointed out the many fallacies of media’s treatment of truth:
Everyone knows that the mass media do not confine themselves to transmission of fact. Even when they do not seek to create new values they actively use persuasive propaganda, either for political parties, or for the unconscious values in their personal background such as the essentially science-unsympathetic literary educational background cited above. Consequently, although every liberal rightly sided with the “freedom of the press” in the centuries preceding our own, when this was a bulwark of liberty against tyrannical governments or churches, a perceptive person must recognize that functions have changed. This freedom has nowadays the complexion of license, and needs sane controls… It has been recognized by every sane observer that the media are in fact a prey to every fad and fashion, every sentimentalism and every popular error of thought all expressed with a loud mouth. (2) To practice as a dispenser of authoritative information on matters beyond the daily news history, values, economics, psychology, sociology when the journalist’s professional training obviously does not fit him in the least to do so, as countless “leading articles” easily reveal (Cattell, 1973).
Cattell describes the use of media by journalist as being prone to misrepresentation due to lack of oversight and lack of values. According to Cattell the mass media has no issue with misrepresenting the facts of history due to its own guiding self-interest. This fact is proved out in a large number of articles and studies. CNN reported in 2010, that historians bound that a new fourth grade history book was filled with errors ranging from wrong dates to factual errors concerning events (McConnell, 2010). Over 140 corrections were needed in the books analyzed. CNN cited the reason for these errors is that the school district decided to go with a less expensive media outlet (McConnell, 2010). This is not the only example of how self-interest of mass media has no concern for historical accuracy.
Foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard examined 18 of the most widely used American history textbooks only to find that they were filled with mistakes concerning historical events.
One reason the texts are so bad is that they are not adequately reviewed by experts in the field. The authors also appear to overlook basic sources and most lack footnotes or bibliographies (Bard, 1993).
The BBC reported in 2014, that a history textbook used in India was filled with over 120 errors. The errors were so obvious and egregious that it is impossible to think that they were just mistakes. The book contained errors such as:
“Japan dropped a nuclear bomb on the US during World War II,” and “Proportion of poisonous gas CO3 has increased due to cutting of trees,” as well as “Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on October 30, 1948" (BBC, 2014).
Mass media can be seen through these examples as being promoters of misinformation. The advent of mass publication has allowed history to be corrupted through the education system itself. The major cause cited behind these issues has been cost cutting on the publishing end in order to make sales. One might wonder how these errors in history relate with technology and the link between the two is more obvious than what most people would consider.
According to Blackwell, (1997), the advancement of technology, while making media more accessible, also makes it more prone to materialism. Essentially, the easier that it becomes to produce media the less expensive it becomes and as a result media becomes ever more competitive requiring more and faster means of production (Barfield, 1997). This is a of course a view steeped in materialism especially that of Marx, but there is a substantial evidence to support this idea. When one looks at technological advancements such as the cotton gin which were meant to reduce labor ultimately made more labor by increasing the demand. This concept is even more prevalent in the modern internet era in which connectivity and ease of communication has added to the work day.
A PEW Internet study showed that in the American workforce, those that own Blackberries or another smart phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) are widely affected, with 63% feeling as though gadgets and connectivity increase demands that they work more hours (PEW, 2008). Americans are not only able to work in more places more often; they are also working harder because the ability to has created a demand for it. Ronald Downey, a professor of psychology who specializes in industrial organization at Kansas State University, is quoted in a WIRED Magazine article about technology in the workforce. Downey says our “expectations that technology would save time and money largely haven’t been borne out in the workplace… It just increases the expectations that people have for your production” (Reuters, 2011). The same rule seems to apply to technology such as mass media production. Despite there being unprecedented access to media the demand for it continues to rise with the cost of it being driven down. This connection between technology and materialism shows how media becomes vulnerable to economic factors. For history, this means that technology will have many negative impacts because accurate historical reporting becomes prone to the mass media outlets.
Positive Impacts of Technology on the study of History
In contrast to the aforementioned negative impacts of technology on history there also exists literature which shows how technology positively impacts the field. One of the most important ways that technology has impacted the study of history is through transparency. Often there is great difficulty for many countries in teaching embarrassing or negative history. According to (Hornsby & Straub, 1993) countries such as Brazil, which was a nation of slavery like the United States, did its best to forget that slavery was an issue. After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the education system failed to teach the history of slavery. As a result of this lack of transparency the nation ignored the issue and the people who were once slaves (Hornsby & Straub, 1993). This impacted Brazilian society, economics, and culture permanently. As a result of not having an understanding of slavery and its consequences, Brazil has the largest level of poverty in South America (Hornsby & Straub, 1993). Millions of former slaves were left uneducated, landless, homeless, illiterate and directionless (Hornsby & Straub, 1993).
Having millions of people being able to access and alter media adds a layer of transparency to history. It is not as easy for revisionists to recreate history without being identified in their revisions. According to Bertot et al (2010), social media and internet media provide a failsafe for historical accuracy because reputable social media sites will have enough credible users that will spot erroneous or fictitious information. Qualman cites how this has allowed social media site Wikipedia to rise to its size and compete with large media outlets because its community works hard and spotting erroneous information (Bertot, 2010).
One can see this see this positive impact in countries which have biased educational systems and highly censored internet. This problem is pervasive in countries which are theocracies and religion is allowed into the educational process.
According to Bassam (1998) one of the major problems in the Middle East is the pervasive problem of Islamic fundamentalism because it accepts the inerrancy of the religion and refuses to objectively study the past or present. The true danger is not the acts of terror and violence that fundamentalism seems to breed but the consistent infiltration of fundamentalism into educational institutions within Islamic states.
“Islamic (and other) fundamentalists, in their vision of “remaking the world,” reclaim not only the sciences, the family, and education (Bassam, 1998).”
Many Islamic countries are plagued with problems that are the result of an inability to critically look at history. For instance, because these nations consider their laws without flaw due to the fact that they are based on religious doctrine; strides cannot be made to correct certain social problems such as revisionist history (Bassam, 1998). This problem continues because it is considered heresy to examine many of these problems in a critical manner and history goes unexamined (Bassam, 1998).
This problem can be found in post WWII Germany in which the education of the events of WWII were often taught in the most detached manner possible and with little critical thinking. In “Learning What Was Never Taught” by Sabine Reichel one can begin to understand that the proliferation of Nazism was a result of a serious flaw in the education system that existed in Germany during this era. Reichel’s recount of her teacher, Casar Hagner, his view expresses this idea when he states
“My own generation and my students lived in a very strict and conformist structure which existed much earlier than 1933…Today, it wouldn’t be possible to stand in front of a class in uniform and in all seriousness talk about racial theory. The students would die laughing” (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 2009).
This view shows that there is positive influence in having a history open sourced in the manner that it is today. Technology has in this way improved historical reporting because it allows for a diversity of perspectives. Both Bassam and Reichel provide evidence that when history is forced to conform to a few standards or to the values of culture that this can limit independent thought and the critical view of ideas. Further evidence of this concept was shown in the recent upsurge of neo-Nazism in Germany. Despite laws forbidding Nazism in Germany, this form of thinking has continued to rear its ugliness. In 2012, the BBC reported that Neo Nazi Party members have continued to operate within the country and have gained support in recent decades:
This comes after a public outcry following revelations in November that a neo-Nazi cell had apparently been able to go on a nationwide spree of racially motivated murders over several years, under the noses of the German intelligence services.
After decades of silence and hesitation to teach German children about the Nazis, this lack of transparency has provided fodder for pockets of neo-Nazism to surface.
The literature concerning the impacts of technology on history as a field of study is sparse and difficult to obtain. What is found are many different views being espoused concerning historical topics such as historical accuracy and media information. There is a severe lack of study and data concerning the direct impacts of technology on the study of history. This situation has been further complicated by the fact that there is a great deal of assumption concerning technology such as internet. There are few empirical studies of the impacts of social media and other technologically driven media outlets. Even looking at studies concerning the effects of mass media there is a great deal of controversy over the impacts of these different outlets. The problem seems to lie in the fact that the fast pace of technology seems to move faster than scholars with regard to studying its impacts. The direct impacts on the field of history from technology are therefore unclear at this time.
The literature does however offer a great deal of indirect impacts concerning history and the how the field is studied and taught with regard to technology. As discussed earlier, the field of history seems to show both positive and negative impacts resulting from the impact of technology. It is possible to further extrapolate on the impacts by researching more primary and secondary sources of information as well as making correlations with historical study and current technological practices. For example, the use of social media for reporting history could be judged on first hand observations and comparisons with accepted sources.
The literature concerning technology and its impacts that does exist seems to be polarized either into a negative camp or positive one. This polarization is a disturbing trend because it is typically based on highly subjective reasoning. For example, many of the scholars who view technology in this manner seem to relate technologies impacts with cultural and social issues. The problem with this form of reasoning is that it is looking at the technology as being causal rather than humans using it incorrectly. This situation is problematic because the focus of their research is aimed at the impacts on people and social situations rather than on educational practices.
There is still a great deal of information which can be gleaned from secondary sources and direct observation of trends in education. This lack of literature makes research in this area vital in order to understand what the real implications of evolving technologies are with education. For this reason more secondary sources will need to be incorporated into future research.
Bard, M. (1993). Rewriting History in Textbooks. Retrieved from Jewish Virtual Library: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pub/texts.html
Barfield, T. (1997). Cultural Materialism. Oxford : Blackwell.
Bassam, T. (1998). The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley, Califoria: University of California Press.
BBC. (2014, February 24). India: School textbooks say ‘Japan nuked US’. Retrieved from BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-26325994
Bertot, J. C. (2010). Crowd-sourcing transparency: ICTs, social media, and government transparency initiatives. In Proceedings of the 11th Annual International Digital Government Research Conference on Public Administration Online: Challenges and Opportunities. Digital Government Society of North America, 51–58.
Cattell, R. B. (1973). New Morality from Science: Beyondism (General Psychology). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Hirschberg, S., & Hirschberg, T. (2009). The millenium reader 5 ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: McGraw Hill Company.
Hornsby, A., & Straub, D. G. (1993). African American Chronology (Vol. 2). Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group.
McConnell, D. (2010, December 30). Dozens of errors cited in Virginia textbook. Retrieved from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/30/virginia.textbook.errors/
PEW. (2008). Networked Workers. [Summary Report] . Retrieved from PEW: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Networked-Workers/1-Summary-of-Findings.aspx.
Postman, N. (2011). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology . (K. Edition, Ed.) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Reuters. (2011, December 15). Work More, Do Less With Tech. Retrieved from Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2006/02/70274.
Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash
Triola Vincent. Mon, Apr 05, 2021. The Impact of Technology on the Field of History Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/the-impact-of-technology-on-the-field-of-history