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Review: Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age by Roy Rosenzweig

Review: Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age by Roy Rosenzweig

 

            A level head and an optimistic spring in your step, that’s what Roy Rosenzweig teaches through the eleven essays that comprise the posthumously published Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. Written between 1994 and 2006, the essays grapple with questions of the digital humanities, specifically history, in a well-proportioned and active dialogue Rosenzweig’s own scholarly contemporaries. According to Anthony Grafton in the introduction to the compilation, the obvious enthusiasm for engaging with others scholars and a passionate viewpoint on the internet’s potential was just the nature of Rosenzweig during his life. His passion for history, history education, and the accessibility of knowledge to all people ring clear over each other essays in the book.


            Taking the book as a whole, an interesting progression of ideas emerges. The earliest essays of the compilation, dating to 1994 explore with hopefulness the rise of the internet, the World Wide Web, and the earliest boom and bust of websites and the corresponding economic patterns. Noting that there was almost too much history of the internet to encompass in a single essay even in 1998, Rosenzweig’s commentary now serves as an insightful observation of what is now the basis for a world-wide, ever-present phenomenon. As the essays move forward in time, and the internet the essays deal with is a more stable presence, Rosenzweig’s writing turns from reporting to more creative speculation. Topics such as open source editing, only a vague concept when the big topic was still hypertext, merit their own articles by 2005 and 2006. Rosenzweig covers history and use of Wikipedia and similar sites, the increasingly pertinent issue of historical accuracy, and the availability of the Web’s abundant resources. Written now eight and nine years ago, these later articles reveal a commendable amount of foresight and a prescient understanding of the relevant issues of the digital age.

            But is the optimism so clearly espoused by Rosenzweig well placed? Does the internet give Clio a megaphone or a gag? How much further will Rosenzweig’s foresight last? One of the central tenants of Rosenzweig’s thought that runs throughout each of the essays is praise of the decentralization of knowledge present through the internet. “Unlike television,” Rosenzweig claims, “the Web allows alternative or contrarian viewpoints to flower, and it encourages users to compose their own narratives of the past” (Rosenzweig, 178) He consistently pushes for a public space, a space accessible to all – a space that could possibly undermine the institutional structure of history in its currently scholarly state and leave nothing in its place. While not the most crucial topic to humanity as a whole, this debate regarding the who’s and how’s of historical knowledge is the foundation of Rosenzweig’s scholarship as presented in Clio Wired. The circumstances of his early passing lay an unfortunate cast over his stance on availability and accessibility of online resources. Today in 2014, while you may be able to find each of the articles in Clio Wired online for free, this is still not the norm. How would Rosenzweig respond to the ever more pressing crisis in the print academic publishing industry, unmonitored plagiarism throughout the Web, and the inundation of advertising that was certainly not present in the days of his earlier writing?

            Despite the insight present throughout Clio Wired, we unfortunately will never have Roy Rosenzweig’s exact view on the social media boom or other recent features of our technological society. But, taken as a whole, the essays in Clio Wired perhaps reveal one of the most important tools for responding to the digital age productively. Rosenzweig’s positivity and propensity for collaboration points to a state of knowledge where useful information isn’t just in the cloistered walls of academia or strewn crudely across millions of websites, but where all people can become contributors and benefactors of history as a whole.

 

Rosenzweig, Roy. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.

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