Does technology impact the preservation of historical data?

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advancements in technology, and effective data protection measures, that we can preserve historical data for future generations. Such technology will allow future generations access to the archives and resources we have been gifted with, regardless of their geographical location.

The rapid pace of technological innovation is constantly pushing the boundaries of the digital realm, resulting in an exponential increase in its capabilities and reach. There is no doubt that technology has had both positive and negative effects on the preservation of historical data which can often be difficult to understand. I’m here to elaborate on its impacts!

The first words that come to my mind when I think about technology are probably: life-changing, accessible, and easy. When “historical data” is mentioned, the terms I think of are: records, heritage, and preservation. But how are technology and historical data linked, and what impact do they have on each other? And is it bad or good?

How Can Technology Threaten Preservation?

When talking about the value and significance of history, we often think about keeping sacred stories and important truths safe. With the potential for hardware failures and outdated software, it can be hard to fully trust computers to protect historical data. Therefore, some people fear that technology hinders the preservation of historical data. You know how frustrating it is when your laptop crashes – imagine it failing when important historical data is being administered! A key concern is the reliability of computers in ensuring the protection and security of archives.

Can We Trust All Historical Records in the Digital Age?

Furthermore, as Katharina Hering states in her 2022 article Technology and the Historian: Transformation in the Digital Age, it has become easier to create fake records and manipulate historical data once it has been digitised. Thus, whilst it is often said that history shaped the present, it is now arguable that the present also has the capacity to shape the past.

And the worst part is – how would we know? Basic checks on the provenance of a source can still be used, of course: who is the author? Is it a reliable website? Has it been peer-reviewed? But if such information has been altered, there is little way of knowing without intense verification. This is an ongoing and increasingly significant debate, and a common challenge in academia, as technology and the ability to manipulate data becomes ever more sophisticated, meaning we cannot fully trust the reliability of digital sources.

The Insatiable Human Desire for New Technology

But there is no going back. Every day new software and apps are released. More powerful, more accessible, aimed to make our lives better and ensure that we can access things faster and more easily. The article below from 1996 about the new laptops on the market suggests that what consumers wanted in a laptop was “everything from your office except the coffee machine”! As the article suggests, people always want more. More accessibility, more convenience, for everything to be faster and easier.

The insatiable human desire for the latest and greatest technology has created a culture where people seek the newest innovations without regard for the potential consequences. Companies and marketers have capitalised on this phenomenon by utilising effective advertising and sales tactics to sell their newest technologies, as we can see in the advertisement below from 1996: “Techno Wizardry. Magic Prices.”

As a result, we are left with a society that values the latest gadgets and technologies above all. Still today, people throw themselves at the newest iPhone or the latest update. Therefore, can we really blame technology when society is responsible for driving this change in the first place? Humans have always been impatient to uncover the mysteries of technology. The negative impacts on the preservation of historical data – the potential loss or ability to manipulate data – are just some of the unfortunate results of this relentless technological development.

The impact of Technology and Globalisation on History

Technology has also had more subtle impacts on History as a discipline – not only on the storage of historical data, but also on how it is studied. Technology has, no doubt, enabled the globalisation seen in today’s world, and the way historical data is treated, studied and processed are also intrinsically linked to and impacted by globalisation.

The article ‘Plotting a Future for History’, from The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2000, that I found in Gale Academic OneFile, outlines the view of historian William McNeil who argued that globalisation means History as a discipline should not be split into subdisciplines, but studied in a broader sense. “With the increasing globalization of society,” McNeil criticised the “cacophonous meaninglessness of ever narrower specialization”. “The disappearance of a coherent, intelligible history, is,” he felt “a great pity.” Thus, through its impact on society and connections to globalisation, we see another way technology impacts History, and historical debate.

New Ways to Safeguard Historical Data

Whilst there are undoubtedly ways technology can threaten the preservation of historical data, it is also arguable that technology has greatly improved preservation. With the emergence of new technologies, there are now better ways to safeguard information and ensure its secure storage. Migrations to new file formats and regular backups have helped to mitigate the risk of data loss and degradation. I would argue, in fact, that so much progress has been made, that in the majority of cases, digitised documents are safe. Considering the advancements in technology and the implementation of strict security measures, it is evident that we have come a long way in ensuring the safety of documents. While there may still be certain vulnerabilities, such as malicious attacks or human error, it is undeniable that we have made significant progress in safeguarding sensitive information. As we continue to refine our practices and strengthen new technologies, it is fair to say that we look towards a future where the majority of documents are protected and secured.

And it is thanks to these advancements in technology, and effective data protection measures, that we can preserve historical data for future generations. Such technology will allow future generations access to the archives and resources we have been gifted with, regardless of their geographical location. Thus more and more knowledge can be stored and passed on, allowing the rich cultural heritage of our past to not be forgotten, but remembered.

The Power of Access

Indeed, technology allows a much larger population to have access to resources worldwide than was ever possible in the past, opening up the mysteries of history to a wider audience, and often making research more efficient. The Gale digital archives are a perfect example of this. How else would you access such rich archives of primary sources about the Napoleonic Wars, or the Civil Rights Movement? You would have to travel and spend hours in the French and American libraries – a task impossible for many. Technology has made it possible for people to access historical resources and information from the comfort of their own homes. With the advent of digital databases and the internet, sources can easily be searched and retrieved.

A New, Richer Version of Historical Knowledge

In summary, I believe technology has had both positive and negative impacts on the preservation of historical data – and the practice of History as a discipline. Despite the ongoing debates regarding its usefulness, and its dangers, I would argue technology has been of greatest benefit to History, particularly in terms of helping people access resources. While the use of technology can also be a threat to the accuracy of all information – historical data included – ongoing digital advancement encourages a new, richer version of historical knowledge.