Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's Not About Computers

On January 3, 1983, Time magazine declared that the 1982 "man of the year" was actually a machine: the computer. "There's a new world coming again," Roger Rosenblatt wrote, "looming on the desktop." A series of articles provided a thumbnail history of computing, described different brands of hardware, predicted huge impact and "awesome" sales figures, introduced people like Jobs and Wozniak and walked through a simple programming example. There was even a glossary for "gweeps." (According to Time, a "gweep" was a hacker suffering from overwork. With 47,000 hits on Google today, the word is encountered just a bit more frequently than "absquatulate.") "All clear?" Otto Friedrich asked, "Those who think so are called 'computer literate,' which is synonymous with young, intelligent and employable; everybody else is the opposite."

1983 was probably a good year to start thinking about introducing personal computers into university coursework. Many people had been using them for years already, and it was clear that they would play a very important role in the decades to follow. Some historians and history educators were already there. Joanne Francis published Microcomputers and Teaching History in 1983. Richard J. Jensen's Microcomputer Revolution for Historians came out the following year, as did Roy Rosenzweig's article on using databases for oral history. Teaching history students how to use computers was a really good idea in the early 1980s.

It's not anymore. Students who were born in 1983 have already graduated from college. If they didn't pick up the rudiments of word processing and spreadsheet and database use along the way, that's tragic. But if we concentrate on teaching those things now, we'll be preparing our students for the brave new world of 1983.

So if digital history isn't about computers, what is it about? Stay tuned.

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