Archive for January, 2014

What’s the Deal with Rousseau?

I thought I’d explain why my profile picture is that of eighteenth century Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Well, it’s mainly because I love philosophy, but mostly because Rousseau inspires me. His social and political ideas are still, in this day and age, pretty profound. His essay on state of nature makes a brilliant case for human compassion and picks apart Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s arguments on the foundation of society. I admire him for challenging the status quo at the time, which was basically that man needed a governing authority to keep from killing each other. Rousseau’s response to that was that it was actually human compassion that kept us from killing each other, not a governing authority. I’m all for human compassion. We need a lot more of it.

Rousseau also had this idea that I have to agree with, about property. He stated, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” This, he goes on to elaborate, is the true source of all man’s misery. I cannot argue with that. Almost every war I can think of has been fought over some kind of property, in part or in whole.

His essay on man’s inequality was harshly criticized by Voltaire who wrote him a letter accusing him of going against the human race. “Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid,” he wrote. Rousseau’s response to that was, “Monsieur, I hate you.” Why waste time arguing with someone who clearly didn’t get it, right? Anyway, I love Rousseau. So much so that I applied his ideas to The Walking Dead, compared that to Hobbes’ view, and wrote a philosophy paper on it. It got an A and you can read it here. So, that’s why I chose him for my profile pic.

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What is Digital History?

According to The Journal of American History, digital history is “anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship.” (pp. 453) Digital history appears to be new enough that its range is pretty vast. Almost anything that was produced or distributed with the aid of any technology can fall into this up and coming field. William G. Thomas III’s definition of digital history is also vague, but I like where it’s going: “To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.” (pp. 454)

By the time I finally got around to going to college pretty much everything was either already or on its way to being digitized. As my favorite Latin American history instructor would always tell her students, we have it easy. Most of us don’t know what it is like to have to look for a journal article by using a card catalog. An incalculable quantity of information is available to us at the click of a mouse. And any information we, as historians, put out there can be read, viewed, and experienced, just as fast.

Best of Both Worlds highlights the other side of the coin. Digital history is not only about making it easier for historians to create and distribute their research, it’s about seeing the transfer of knowledge through from origin to recipient. Historians don’t just want to share information with other historians. That would make for a very short conversation. The goal of historians is to convey their findings to the public and get them to engage. I like to think about it like T.V. show or movie or book that I am really into at the moment. All I want to do is share my passion with others. It wouldn’t be any fun, though, if I was the only one talking. Museums in particular have a huge task in getting people to engage. Most museum visitors go to look, not to ask questions. This is where digital history is crucial. I agree with Matthew K. Gould who finds that “digital humanities is not just ‘the next big thing’…but simply ‘the Thing’…” Welcome to the twenty-first century.

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