Some Comments on Writing History in the Digital Age
October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I’ve really enjoyed cruising through the Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki open peer-review volume called Writing History in the Digital Age which is slated to be published by University of Michigan Press’s new Digital Humanities Series in their digitalculturebooks imprint. I commented on many of the contributions and mined them all for references and ideas. I’d encourage anyone interested or invested in the future of history in the digital age to check out the volume and to contribute to its open peer review. Since I have read all the articles in the volume and have been thinking a bit about history in the digital era myself lately, I thought I might offer some overarching comments on the volume (as is my wont).
1. Coherence. One of the first things I noticed about the book is the wide range of contributions. These range from two recent Ph.D.s discussing how they used email to keep themselves motivated and sane while writing their dissertations to discussions on databases, GIS, visualization, and even non-linear digital editing. Articles on the use of Wikipedia and Social media in the classroom stand alongside more theoretical or research oriented papers. While such scope is commendable (and must reflect the “big tent” approach to digital humanities, in general), it caused me to wonder about the limits of a specific sub-field called “digital history” and how we plan to organize and reflect on the intersection of digital tools and history as the discipline becomes invested in digital technologies. For example, there were no articles celebrating the contribution of the so-called “personal computer” or “word processor” in the volume. These basic technologies clearly fell outside of what the authors and editors regarded as the discourse of digital history (although one can argue that these technologies had as big an impact on our field as Wikipedia or Facebook).
Edited volumes always have ragged edges where the definitions and ideas of the contributors fail to line up precisely across the entire book or clash with those of the editors. This is part of the charm of the edited volume; it captures a snapshot of a particular topic in the minds of a group of scholars (as opposed to the carefully composed portrait that is a monograph). At the same time, recent discussions on the definition of the digital humanities might feature more prominently in a volume like this. Is there really enough theoretical, methodological, and topical coherence between all the papers here to justify their appearance in the same book?
2. Institutions. One of the more interesting aspect of the volume was the subtle but (almost) ubiquitous mention of institutional support for the various initiative detailed. In some cases, the support came from powerful national organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities. In other cases, on campus labs or centers like Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney or MATRIX at Michigan State, provided the infrastructure necessary for a project’s development. Some initiatives were far more modest in scope and extended only slightly beyond the classroom’s walls or an immediate community. Few of the articles in this volume, however, problematized their work in terms of a formal research question framed in response to a pre-existing body of scholarship. (Few began with the ubiquitous phrases: “Scholars have argued…”)
It appears, then, that the impetus for working in digital history derives as much from institutional pressures (and opportunities) as traditional appeals to the scholarly conversation. While this is hardly surprising for a recent development in the discipline, it may foreshadow an interesting shift in the structure of humanities scholarship. The pressure to collaborate and innovate is pushing scholars in the humanities away from well-trod arguments and to the brink of a kind of rupture in the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense). The external pressure and resources deployed by on campus and national institutions have insisted that historians (and other scholars in the humanities) shift their arguments from the small-picture debates that have long shaped these disciplines, to big picture, transdisciplinary, collaborative thinking. This is manifest in (some, but not all of) the scholarship that these projects produced: Writing History in the Digital Age recognizes a different audience and a different set of discursive rules than writing traditional history.
3. Methods and Techniques. Traditional historical practice has been short on method. The so-called historical method is, in fact, a set of practices cobbled together from various other fields and epistemological systems. With the rise in digital history, however, a new interest in methods and practices has come to the fore and a number of the articles in Writing History in the Digital Age reflect this development. Digital historians are more willing to experiment with methods grounded in geography, the social sciences, media studies, and, even, computer programing and game studies.
At the same time, this methodological growth requires critical attention to new techniques. Archaeology for example, has developed a robust methodological discourse over the past 40 years as the disciple embraced a “methodological turn” that sought to critically examine the tools, practices, and assumptions that shaped archaeological knowledge. The essays in this volume, in contrast, showed very little in the way of genuine methodology. Of course, some of the essays with a pedagogical bent, showed an awareness of and willingness to contribute to recent pedagogical developments, but few of the more research oriented pieces considered explicitly and critically the methodological assumptions of their use of digital tools.
The absence of methodology extends to some extent to the techniques (for lack of a better word) used to generate the kind of digital analysis that their contributions celebrate. While software, programing and markup languages, and hardware appeared regularly in the pages, we were rarely invited to look behind the curtain to see how these aspects of digital history influenced the ways in which history could be written. (The notable exceptions to this were the several essays that discussed Wikipedia, but even these essays focused on the social, rather than technological aspects of this forum. For example, several of the essays mention the automated “bots” that crawl Wikipedia and can change entries systematically, but few essays explain how these bots work and why historian-trained bots couldn’t do the same things.) My feeling is that the next step in the study of digital history will involve a much more critical approach to the methods and tools used by digital historians to produce new knowledge.
4. The Future. One of the most significant gaps in this small book were essays with an eye toward the future. Writing the future is always a risky game, especially for historians who are so accustomed to “looking backward“. At the same time, part of the writing digital history game is positioning history in a place not only to take advantage of digital tools created by other people, but also to shape how new technologies develop. I would have loved to hear how folks invested in digital history, as the contributors to this book clearly are, see the future of technology impacting our work as historians.
Developments like the massive growth of computing power available to mobile devices, enhanced and augmented reality, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), an endless stream of cloud services, the chaining notion of curation and the personal web, and the rapid mutation of social media communities, all offer new venues for presenting history, but also new spaces and tools for the analysis and interpretation of past events.
Writing History in the Digital Age represents a moment in time in the discipline’s embrace of digital tools. At once it is possible to see ragged edge of the profession’s handling of digital media to communicate and interpret the past, as well as its growing confidence in embracing (if not fully engaging) new technologies.