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H-Net at the AHA

H-Net at AHA '97

THE PAST AND FUTURE OF THE INTERNET
by
Robert Michael
Professor of European History
UMASS Dartmouth
co-editor H-ANTIS, H-W-CIV, H-HOLOCAUST

Friday, Jan. 3, 9:30-11:30, Hilton, Morgan Suite

A note of warning: Having written this paper on the Internet a few weeks ago, much of it is hopelessly out of date.

        A brief chronology of events leading to today's Internet:
        In the beginning was the Word, wrote John in his Gospel. 

He must have been a historian, because he could have started with the first grunt, slap, or wall painting. Then there were scribes copying words into manuscripts. A few thousand years later, printed books arrived. In the 18th century, Leibnitz invented a calculating machine that heralded the computer. A century later there came the cable, making possible the telegraph and telephone. 100 years later came computers linked to each other by cable to make the Internet a reality.

In 1945, one of America's foremost physicists, MIT's Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development coordinating the activities of American scientists in the application of science to warfare, noted that the human mind associates thoughts "in accordance with some intricate web of trails [links]." Whereas the human brain's "speed and flexibility" will probably never be equalled by a machine, machines can "beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage." Information could in future be transmitted post-electronically to and from the human brain, thereby allowing us to forget what we don't need and focus instead on the knowledge we require to live good lives. Observing that "man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems," Bush sought to reshape the relationship between science and human society. Instead of science being used for war, scientific advances could lead the way in helping human beings gain knowledge to the end of gaining wisdom in order to satisfy their "needs and desires" without destroying themselves. Of course, all governments ignored these reflections.

In 1957, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik to allow computer scientists and engineers working on military contracts all over America to share expensive computers and other resources. As an afterthought a few researchers found a way to send messages--later called E-mail.

In 1960, Theodor Holm Nelson, a vastly creative Swarthmore graduate, wrote: "It occurs to me that the future of humanity is at the interactive computer screen, that the new writing and movies will be interactive and interlinked."

In 1965, working on digital media designs that transcended the "prevailing paradigms," Nelson coined the words hypertext and hypermedia--systems that allows users to mouse-click their way from words or pictures in one document to those in another--and he foresaw a "docuverse" or universal library of multimedia documents.

My first experience with the Internet occurred in 1984, when an Internet journal called Troisieme Republique published my long article on the French Radical-Socialist Party. I didn't know what the Internet was.

On 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, a computer pro working at CERN (Conseil Europeean pour la Recherche Nucleaire, located near Geneva on the French-Swiss border), suggested a method of streamlining record-keeping at CERN: He proposed to catalog CERN's structure electronically. "A 'web' of notes with links (like references) between them." Berners-Lee launched the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and Hypertext markup language (HTML) used on Web pages linking Web sites.

As of November 1996, there were 50 million Internet users world-wide with Americans making up 75 percent of the world's Web users. 60 percent of American users are either in education or computers. Most of the exploitation of the Internet has occurred in the English-speaking nations, where telecommunications in general and the Internet in particular are deregulated. Last summer while traveling in Eastern and Central Europe, I found many academics there driven to learn about and use the Web--the advantage going to those who knew English and whose nations had begun to deregulate telecommunications. I taught computer professionals and faculty from the former Soviet Union who came to Central European University at Budapest so they could exploit the Web. Because of state monopolies on telecommunications in Hungary and Germany, we were told that it costs the Hungarians nearly a $100 per hour to go on line.

WHY HISTORIANS AND THE INTERNET

An interesting question is why historians have been so far out front in using the Internet. Wouldn't we all like to think that the explanation is that historians are a progressive, creative, and far-seeing lot and that they were among the first to understand that the Internet could truly revolutionize the teaching and understanding of history? But I doubt this. Perhaps it's just that we deal with facts, whatever and wherever they are, and computers and the internet are ways of organizing these facts. Besides, lots of historians are interested in graphics, in show as well as tell. Here the Internet provides a rich mine of resources for them.

I think though that there are three main possibilities for historians' leading position.

First, diving into this new electronic medium of the Internet is a break from the same old stuff that we sometimes dry-as-dust historians have to deal with. As Peter Shoemaker has said of early medieval historians like himself, "You wake up to another day of research, pour coffee, read the Times to see if any more evidence has turned up, realize that for another day you will have to massage the same old facts, take a shower, turn on the computer, convert notes to [hypertext markup language], find a place to put them [on the Web], eat lunch, see how many different ways you can now access your notes, eat dinner, go to bed."

The second possibility lies in the historians traditional position as high priests at the temple of knowledge; practitioners of the one truly comprehensive field covering the written record of human behavior. Why not then continue as the high priests of the Internet, the newest medium recording human endeavor?

The third possibility, in regard to scholarly email lists, is that historians are used to flocking together into organizations such as the AHA, NCHE (National Council for History Education), CLS (Council of Learned Societies), OAH (Organization of American Historians) to present, compare, and criticize each other's ideas and for the pure fellowship of it all. Thus, for example, the establishment of nearly 80 scholarly email lists as H-NET, the humanities network, founded by Richard Jensen of the University of Illinois Chicago, edited by more than 140 academics, such as myself and the others on today's panel, and serving nearly 40,000 scholars in 61 countries. As to the Web, historians love to browse electronically perhaps because they have generally felt comfortable browsing through libraries' open stack collections, where books are collected together on the same subject. Historians, and we are not of course the only scholars who do this, have to organize their research material and present it--to students and to colleagues--and so the establishment of history web sites is a natural consequence.

THE IMPACT OF THE INTERNET

The impact of the Internet, that is, the computer and its email and World Wide Web functions, have changed teaching, research, and collegiality. The Internet expands our horizons, our imaginations, and our capacities to find, store, organize, use, teach, and publish information.

In the Fall semester 1995, I may have been the first professor to teach an electronic course on the Holocaust, using the Web and email. This class was featured in a U.S. News and World Report story. The students were mostly local, but also from North Carolina and Italy. Locations where the Holocaust would rarely be taught, I think. The lectures were already on disk and were made available at the UMASS Dartmouth Website to those with the correct password. We used email and the Web to ask and answer interpetive questions. My class was put into contact with Holocaust Websites for graphics and documents. They could read what Holocaust deniers had to say, and we could discuss the material and the students could even reply to the deniers via the Internet. The students also communicated with Holocaust Survivors and children of Survivors in Australia, the United States, and Israel.

During the regular semester, students contact me to submit papers or to ask questions and obtain advice during my "electronic" office hours, which run 24-hours a day, 365 days-a-year. Yet I spend a relatively short time actually answering questions whenever and wherever I want. When I gave a seminar on History and the Internet at the University of Vienna last summer, this was the use of email that most impressed the Vienna faculty.

Email provides fast, almost instantaneous, communication with libraries, archives, and colleagues all across the globe, and with administrators at one's own university or elsewhere. I contact colleagues, librarians, administrators on all kinds of issues. I have exchanged email posts with the chancellor of my university, something I would have been unlikely to have done viva voce or by snail mail. The issue at hand was an important one. I tried to convince him that the humanities can employ the new technologies as well as any of the sciences. That is, that the use of the computer and, by extension, the Internet is as important to History as it is to Biology or Physics. What lay behind this argument was the continuous drift of technology and the funds away from the humanities and toward other departments. I wish I could say that I was successful.

At last June's UMASS Dartmouth commencement, the Nobel lauriat Elie Wiesel was invited to be the main speaker and to receive an honorary degree. Since I have been teaching and publishing on the Holocaust, I naturally wanted to meet him. After an exchange of email posts with the dean, who was chauffeuring Wiesel through the day and its ceremonies, my wife and I were invited to meet Wiesel. The chance of a lifetime made more likely through email.

Besides one-on-one email communication, there are public email networks or lists. Recently, 8,786 such lists were counted. Thousands of members of these groups with common interests communicate among themselves electronically. By joining some of these groups, we can correspond simultaneously with hundreds of fellow professors. I belong to more than a dozen lists, from the Holocaust to classical Greek philosophy (SOPHIA), from antisemitism to the History of Western Civilization. These lists not only allow us to share our interests but also to gain a a wealth of information. We can get questions answered. For example, years ago I was listening to the McGlaughlin Group on PBS, and McGlaughlin mentioned a phrase that sounded to me like "hypox legomena." Unable to find the phrase in my dictionary, I contacted the Sophia list. Within a day I had collected 26 replies to my question from colleagues all over the world who delighted in informing another professor. I was told that the correct phrase was "hapax legomena," which means a one-time-only usage of a term or phrase in a body of work. These Email networks can also help us in the early stages of a research project by supplying specific or theoretical information; suggesting bibliographies for material we are seeking in libraries or at Internet sites. And of course once our ideas are full-blown and our research done, we can use these email lists to gather informed criticism from our colleagues.

Last summer my wife and I planned a trip to Eastern Europe, including Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague. I sent email posts to four or five networks to which I belong and received dozens of helpful suggestions and made contacts in all of the cities we traveled to. We received hundreds of bits of information, advice, photos, maps, names and addresses.

THE WORLD WIDE WEB

At 7:36 p.m., eastern daylight savings time, 14 November 1996, there were 68,173,788 indexed Web pages residing on the Lycos search engine.

The World Wide Web is the other crucially important computer aid for faculty. The Web enables us to search and find most kinds of information within a few seconds. Color graphics, moving pictures, and sounds as well as texts are available through the Web. The information available is nearly unlimited in breadth. Indeed, it is "breadth-taking" how many topics are covered on the Web. One sticking point, however, is the lack of depth in the available material. If the present trends continue, more and more material increasing vertical as well has horizontal knowledge will be stored on the Web. Several Websites have been adding texts to their pages. I could mention the University of Virginia French texts, the Dartmouth College Dante collection, and I have heard that the Library of Congress is proceeding with its attempt to put the content of all of its holdings on line. The Internet Public Library is a virtual library containing the full text of 3,400 books online--not many, but it's a start. Each entry is accompanied by bibliographic information, including title, author, date, Dewey Classification(s), and hypertext URL(s). The downsides are the limited number of books, the huge memory demands on your browser, and the antiquity of the translations and editions.

SEARCH ENGINES:

Sam Johnson has said that "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."

There are dozens of search engines that help us discover on the Internet material for our students, for our research, and for everyday living. It takes some time to develop the skills necessary to use search engines efficiently, but our efforts are well worth the work.

Each week, the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, publishes the Scout Report (http://www.cs.wisc.edu/scout/report/ and http://www.cs.wisc.edu/scout/report/pdf/), emailing its subscribers a selection of new and newly discovered Internet resources of interest to researchers and educators. The 13 Dec. 96 issue, for example, covered Web resources in Research and Education, General Interest, and Network Tools. The Tulip Book of P. Cos, 1637, was the 7th item in the research and education category. Its Web location was indicated (http://www.bib.wau.nl/tulips/) and this is how it was described: "Those with an interest in the historical side of commercial horticulture will enjoy the efforts of the Wageningen Agricultural University Library (Netherlands) in bringing a facsimile of a 1637 manuscript tulip book to the web. Published by nurseryman P. Cos of Haarlem, the 75-page book contains 54 gouaches of tulips, followed by 14 additional drawings and 7 watercolors of carnations added at a later date. In comparison with other tulip books, this one is special because not only their names are mentioned, but also their weight and the price for which each bulb was sold. Each page of the book occupies its own web page, and the image files average 30KB. [Like so much on the Net] the site's content and navigation system are presented in English."

The 9th item is called 10 Downing (www.number10.gov.uk/to/index.html),
a Web site opened recently by the British Prime Minister's Office. "Although it does contain selected Prime Minister's speeches, transcripts, and interviews, Prime Minister's biographies (back to Harold Macmillan at present), and a tour of #10, its greatest utility is as an entry point to British executive department government sites. The Cabinet Ministers' Biography section contains information on 23 ministers and links to cabinet web sites. There is also a page of government department pointers."

The Scout report also describes a new search engine called InterNIC WebFinder (http://ds.internic.net/ds/webfinder/WebFinder.html), which "finds web pages associated with organizations." Rather than search the text of pages, titles, or URLs of web pages with spider technology, "WebFinder ssearches a database of organizations, recovering all the web pages associated with the organization.

The Internet Future:

There is good news. Recently, 35 leading American research universities and the Federal government have contributed $300 million to establish a new Internet for research, one that is much faster than the present networks and will be able to transmit large amounts of data. According to the project director, Michael Roberts, the new system "will focus energy and resources on the development of a new family of advanced applications to meet emerging academic requirements in research, teaching, and learning."

In response to growing academic criticism of the Internet, much of it well-deserved, University of Pennsylvania Classics Professor James J. O'Donnell--with whom I took electronic course on St. Augustine a few years ago--has reported that scholars in the fifteenth and sixteenth century criticized the print medium. These critics argued that "the unleashing of the power of distributing the written word would give rise to unorthodox and heretical opinions" and, O'Donnell notes, they were right. Yet face-to-face communication--that precious and intimate form of communication--did not cease after the invention of the printing press; it was enriched. Indeed, where would we be without our mostly printed sources for our lectures?

Abuses, misinformation, plagiarism, skulduggery, junk, pornography, and scams abound on the Internet. We need to teach our students to verify the information gained from the Internet just as we teach them to verify the information obtained from documents and print sources. We have to find ways to prevent unwanted material from entering our computers. We have to insure that our academic freedom to teach, to do research, and to communicate freely with our colleagues all across the globe is not impeded. We have to make sure that the international collegiality made possible by the internet does not destroy the sometimes fragile but necessary collegial relationships with members of our own departments and university.

Conclusion:

The Internet may be rather disturbing to many of us used to the traditional methods of communication and research. Everything seems too fast and, in a sense, too facile. I fully believe, however, that we have to come to grips with this new technology and, as scholars alive and well in the twentieth, soon to be twenty-first, century, turn it to our advantage. Although many academics refuse to use the Internet for their work, and this of course is their prerogative, it seems to me that rejecting the Internet for our scholarship is like a 16th-century scholar refusing to use printed material. We simply have to realize that the Internet is here to stay, and we can use this new medium to our own advantage. So long as the focus remains for us--as well as for our administrations and for our students--teaching face to face. The new technologies can be used to enhance our teaching, make it more creative, impressive, and easy, and can be used to make our research more efficient and complete, but, in my view, it can never replace the face-to-face contact between professor and students, that is, the traditional university teaching environment. A place where many people, hopefully, believe in cognoscendi causa, learning for learning's sake. Where teachers help lead both themselves and their students toward wisdom.

As the new technologies become more important, we can still teach our students to be critical and humanistic. But we will fail them and ourselves unless we take pro-active measures to harness the Internet. We have to demonstrate to our students that we can help them order the chaos of facts now available on the Internet into understandable constructions. We can either continue to be leaders in using these new technological tools, or we will very likely end up being buried by them.

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