From the Telegraph to the Internet: Project Reflection

My digital history paper makes use of currently available digital Corpora to explore how people reacted to and interacted with the telegraph as a means of communication and it used these findings to examine the parallels that can be drawn between the introduction of the telegraph and the widespread adoption of email, cellphones, and other modern methods of instant communication. Using digital tools such as the New York Times – Historical, Mike Davies’ Online Corpus of Time Magazine, the Corpus of Historical American English, and Google N-Grams, it is easy to compare public reactions to the introduction of new communications technologies and analyze what concerns and issues weighed on their minds at the time.

The Corpora allowed me to search words and phrases to see when they first appeared, how and when they have increased or decreased in frequency, how they have changed in meaning over time, and how the correlate with other words. Using the corpora allows historians to quickly search, isolate, and identify certain historical trends which has opened up avenues of research that were simply impossible in the past. For this project I used various corpora coupled with the NYT database to show that people had very similar reactions to the introduction of the telegraph as they did to more recent communications technologies.

To give just one interesting example, I discovered that people had uncannily similar reactions to the introduction of the telegraph and the BlackBerry as a work device. The information supplied by the telegraph was like a drug to businessmen, who swiftly became addicted. Despite their information addiction, many complained about the fact that they were always connected and instantly reachable impacted their family life and leisure time. “The merchant goes home after a hard day of work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London… the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send his message to California.”  This same information addiction is well-documented in the modern day. One woman commented regarding always being connected to work via email, “I quit smoking 28 years ago, and that was easier than being without my BlackBerry.” Today, we debate whether there is even a distinction anymore between work life and leisure when we are expected to answer emails that arrive long after we have clocked-out of work.

The most important finding, however, has been the demonstration of how new digital methods like the corpora have affected the study of history. Tools like the various corpora examined in this paper have changed the way historians can look at the past. The use of the corpora have opened up avenues of research that were simply impossible in the past, and as  Patrick Leary argues, has allowed us to conceptualize and study history in ways that were simply not possible even a decade ago.

Show and Tell: Google Docs Text Conversion

Aside from doing (and knowing) everything, there is a neat feature on Google Docs that you might find immensely helpful if you find yourself doing archival research.

When researching at the archives, most people take digital photographs of the documents they’re looking at. At the end of a day you’re left with hundreds of photographs that you now have to sort through, catalog, read, and take notes on. Personally, I used to print all of my images and then spend hours going through them highlighting the key points and making general notes based on what the documents contained.

Google Docs now has a feature where you can upload a photograph of a document and it will convert it into keyword searchable text. It can be done completely automatically in two easy steps.

Step One: Select your image file to upload (it must be less than 2mb) Make sure you select: “Convert text from PDF and Image files”

Step Two: There is no step two. Google does everything for you. What you end up with is your uploaded image file like so:

And directly below the image will be your converted text:

The text conversion is never 100% perfect and the accuracy depends on how clear the original document is, but it is still far more efficient than manually transcribing or taking notes on each document. An additional benefit is that you now have an archived copy of all your files in case something happens to the originals. Plus you can also use the search feature on Google Docs to keyword search all of your documents at once in case you need some information you remember seeing but can’t remember what document it was in.

Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisims Chapters 1 & 2

The first two chapters of Kirschenbaum’s book engage in an in-depth study of not only how digital storage works, but more importantly, how we interact with it. Although highly technical, Mechanisms outlines much interesting information and raises many thought provoking questions.

Ever since the first public debut of the UNIVAC computer in 1952 (which tipped the scales at 13 metric tons and entered the public mind by correctly predicting the outcome of the 1952 Presidential election) we have dealt with information in a new way. Kirschenbaum is interested in how digital technologies have progressed from the public spectacle of UNIVAC to being so ubiquitous that digital technologies in the form of information storage can be carried around in your wallet. (Credit cards, Metro passes, etc.)

To most people, digital storage is something we know exists but never see. (Unless you’ve had a reason to take apart your computer before, most people have never physically seen a hard drive.) Kirschenbaum traces the evolution of digital storage in order to make an interesting point. Despite the “advanced” nature of even early storage media – the floppy disk – the physical media still needed to be able to be read by both machine and human. One needed a hand-written label on the disk in order to know what was contained within. Although later iterations such as the CD could store immense amounts of information, it was still necessary to label them. Once copied and labeled with a maker, CDs were then treated tenderly and stored carefully in cases to avoid damage.Kirschenbaum points out that the physicality of storage determines its value. CDs are fragile and are treated delicately. No one would ever think of throwing an uncovered CD into a bookbag and carting it around all day. Yet, we routinely do that with USB drives without ever worrying about the information on it getting damaged. (Nor ever labeling them because they are easily manipulated.) The information contained within these two storage mediums could be identical, yet our interaction with them is very different.

Kirschenbaum is interested in the physical materiality of digital media. It used to be that digital files were physically “yours” in that you would save them to a floppy disk and carry them around with you. Today, all the files we are using for this class reside on the hard disk of a public computer somewhere. We don’t keep them in our possession when we leave this room, and we trust that they will be there when we return next week. More importantly, digital technologies have changed the very nature in which we conceived of certain processes. Take typing for example: when typing on a typewriter there is a physical process that you are involved in. You push the key, and you can see parts of the typewriter move and work to produce what you asked it to do. With a computer, all of these physical actions are hidden away and we only remain on the surface of the screen. The act of “writing” has become completely immaterial. We experience “digital writing” fundamentally differently than we do “analog writing.”

Getting into different types of storage, Kirschenbaum points out that although they serve the same purpose, storage technology such as the floppy disk and CD are immensely different from the hard drive – not only in their physical properties, but in the way we conceive of them. The hard drive resides in a sealed case deep inside your computer, and aside from the occasional clicking sounds, you interact with it only through icons on a screen. The hard drive was revolutionary in that it replaced the previous magnetic tapes and punch cards. Tapes were useful at running programs that were always run in sequence (such as weekly payroll with its alphabetical list run in the same order each week) but were not able to process user-generated information randomly. The invention of the hard drive allowed for much more complex variable processes such as inventory control where different items get sold randomly and in different quantities each time. Computers with hard drives could randomly access different items without running through the same entire process each time.

The proliferation of computers throughout everyday life has led people to interact with information in a very different way than in the past. We seem to have a notion that digital information is ephemeral and untrustworthy. However, one of Kirschenbaum’s chapters outlines how digital information is much more resilient than we might expect. Every email you send leaves a copy of itself across countless different servers as it makes its way to its destination. Every Word document that you delete still has multiple “autosave” copies that remain hidden on your hard drive.

Digital Project – JFK’s AU Commencement Address

On June 10th 1963, President Kennedy gave the commencement address to the American University graduating class. Although it was an exciting event for those present, it was largely ignored by the domestic media. Little did they know that the real audience for the speech was Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy spoke of the need for peace, a reduction in Cold War tensions, and most importantly, his willingness to sign a limited nuclear test ban treaty. This last point was a veiled signal to Khrushchev – the two governments had been working covertly for years to get such an agreement.

This AU Commencement Address was the catalyst that led to the signing of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – the first successful treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union since the start of the Cold War, and the last Soviet treaty Kennedy would sign before he was killed.

With the 50th anniversary approaching next year, now would be an excellent time to create a digital exhibit of this material. The AU archives maintains a small online presence of the event with some photos and short summary. However, their site is directed mainly towards an AU student audience, and tells little of the greater significance of this event.

Using Omeka, it would be possible to consolidate AU’s display into a much more elaborate exhibit of photographs, as well as incorporate primary documents and historical analysis to explore not just why this event was important to AU, but why it was important in a larger Cold War context. Given the approaching anniversary, done right, this could garner some attention from a larger audience than the AU archives’ site currently draws.

Telephone, Telegraph, Internet: New Technology, Same Complaints?

I grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, home to the headquarters of “Research in Motion” – the maker of the venerable Blackberry. In a city where a large proportion of the population worked for RIM, including many friends of mine, I encountered a unique phenomenon. Although the Blackberry has lost much of its luster in the past year, it was not too long ago referred to as the “Crackberry,” denoting the fact that its users were often addicted to the device.

Despite the rabid addiction many of my friends had, I would often hear a growing number of common complaints – not about the device itself, but about the effect it was having on their lives.. Mainly, that with 24/7 email connectivity many people felt that they were pressured to work outside of normal work hours; that they could never truly leave work at the office; that the ability to be reached on the device at any time infringed on their privacy and sense of “down time.”

Although we think that we live in an age of cutting edge communications study, that has no historic parallel, this is a false assumption. Previous communication methods such as the telegraph and telephone revolutionized the world then just as thoroughly as the Internet does our world today. I would be interested to discover whether during the advent of the telegraph and telephone people had the same sort of concerns with the introduction of those technologies into their daily lives as we do today. Did some become “addicted” to using the telegraph to communicate? Did society lament that the ability to communicate through the telephone was diminishing our social mores and written communication skills? Did businessmen complain that with a telephone at home their bosses could reach them during off-work hours and that this increased their level of stress?
I intend to sort through historical newspaper articles to see what the general public was talking about with the introduction of each subsequent technology. Using digital tools such as “The Online Corpus of Time Magazine” I will be able to organize such a wealth of newspaper articles and mine them for keywords related to my subject of study. Once an appropriate sampling of articles have been obtained, I intend to use digital tools such as “Wordle” to see what types of words people were using to describe these new communications technology.

The purpose of this project is to make use of new digital analysis tools in order to help us understand how people in the past reacted to new communications technologies.