Transcription using cylinder phonograph copy. By The drawing is signed, 'Electrical World, N.Y.' [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons I’m celebrating the acquisition of a new piece of electronica—an AltoEdge USB foot pedal. This little gadget connects to my Mac via a USB interface and controls the ExpressScribe software I use to play back my oral history interviews as I transcribe them. The pedal and software combined take the sting out of a difficult job and boost my productivity in a key area of my enterprise. They also provide an object lesson in change, which is the underlying topic of all history.

I’ve written recently about transcribing these interviews. The job grows larger as the recorded hours accumulate, and so it naturally crops up in my thoughts, much in the way a dark, massing thundercloud will also claim your attention. My archive has grown so large that transcription now threatens to swamp the rest of my project.

I heard about about the pedal and software from a friend who transcribes dictated medical records. I was intrigued, but also hesitant. I’m leery about acquiring gadgets and a bit frugal besides, but in the end I ordered the pedal and software. They cost about $150 together, and the package also included a set of headphones. The transaction didn’t take long. I downloaded the software in minutes; the pedal and headphones came within days.

I’m pleased with the results. The pedal took only a minute to set up and it provides excellent control over the software. The pedals—there are actually three of them, integrated into a single unit—can be configured to issue about a dozen commands, although I’ve opted for only the most basic ones: rewind, fast forward, and play. Where technology is concerned, I have utterly pedestrian dreams. The software has a host of features I have not yet exploited, but one of them, background noise reduction, quite nicely dampens the fuzz and rattle of the recordings. These are all relatively small advantages, but when combined, they become a big deal. I used to play back the recordings directly from the digital recorder. The background noise was tiring. I had to take my hands off the keyboard to pause or rewind the recorder.  (Aww, poor baby!) Transcription is noticeably easier now. I’m about 30 percent faster at it.

Computer, digital recorder, USB interface—these words give the impression that technology has penetrated deeply into my life and my project (which it has) and that I am a highly proficient member of the digiterati (which I’m not). Most people view technology as a new thing, a phenomenon of the last few decades whose effects on humanity are widespread and unprecedented. But technology is not new at all. It has been with us since the first proto-human picked up a rock. I’m not sure why we are so fascinated by the technology of our age. Certainly powerful commercial forces are at work. Or it may be that the very nature of information technology, which moves exceedingly small things at blindingly fast speeds, conjures up visions of faeries and sprites.

I use the computer and Internet regularly in my project. They provide access to census pages, ship manifests, obituaries, and news clippings. It is gratifying to see my ancestors’ names appear on screen and makes me feel, momentarily, like some sort of wizard. Microfilm preserves the headlines of years gone by, along with the typography, graphic art, and fashions of the long-ago. The graininess of those images only heightens the effect of remoteness, of our incessant, pell-mell rush from the present into memory. The telephone, automobile, and airplane enable me to bridge great distances. I take them for granted because they are not new, but they are essential, and their presence has transformed the world.

These tools all shape my project in manifold ways, and one day another writer with different ambitions than mine will explore the impact of technology on historical research—a history of history, if you will. That will no doubt be a fascinating work, but what continues to enthrall me is the shock of discovery whenever I visit the past, its habits and manners so different from (and eerily like) our own. It is fine that technology facilitates our recall of these things and contributes to our knowledge. Still, for me, technology remains a sideshow. The central miracle is the reanimation of previous lives.

© 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.