Hist 696: what difference does history make for new media?

Yes – that is intentionally inverted.

You see, I was converted to “digital” and “new media” before I was converted to history. I was convinced before beginning the class that digital technology makes possible substantial changes on the types of questions we can ask, how scholarship is disseminated, and who makes up the audience for academic work. It was because of these changes that I became interested in the digital humanities in general – it seemed a much needed counter to the growing insularity of traditional scholarship. The weaknesses of traditional scholarship were all to apparent in during my masters degree studies. (The nail in the coffin was students and a professor agreeing that theology was not and should not try to be relevant to religious practitioners; and this was at a Divinity School. Granted it was a class on Schleiermacher – he’s pretty impossible to make relevant.) If scholarship was only for the benefit of other scholars, it was not something I wanted to work on.

The primary aspects of digital scholarship that attracted me were the community emphasis on sharing, on public engagement, on creating things that were useful to someone. Of the humanities, history and particularly public history seemed, to me, to be most committed to those goals and so I decided to locate myself here. Overall, I think it has been a good choice, though one that has required another round of methodological gymnastics on my part.

Because of this, my largest take-away from the course is a better understanding of what it means to be a historian engaged in new media. One point that I am continuing to wrestle with is the importance of narrative in historical scholarship. I am slowly recanting an earlier renunciation of narrative, and am coming to realize the importance of the story, both for the presentation of the information and for the project of communicating that information to a larger, hopefully interested, public. Data and visualizations are not enough – they must be structured and used to tell a larger story. My current obsession with Deep Mapping is due in part because of the very real potential here to combine narrative with spatial analysis, while encouraging investigation and contribution on the part of the user. So thank you history (and Sharon) for telling me that I cannot simply plot points – I have to plot points in the context of a narrative.

The tradition of public history, I think, will be particularly important as digital scholarship expands, reminding us as scholars of the world outside the ivory tower that we can and should engage. However, that sort of engagement will depend greatly on fighting for open access, for open sourcing data, and the like. Both digital and public history point toward a new paradigm for scholarly activity, one that values public engagement over prestige and exclusivity. I think both face an uphill battle and that they offer one of the better answers to questions about the ongoing value of the humanities.

To answer the question as posed, I think new media changes nothing and changes everything for the project of historical research. History is still engaged with the project of uncovering the past and telling the story of those forgotten or removed from the standard narrative (cultural historian alert). These projects continue in a digital form. However, digital scholarship changes sources, the types of investigations that can be carried out, as well as raises new issues about assumptions within the analytical tools themselves. Digital scholarship is not an “easier” way of investigating the past – I would argue that it requires even more work and maybe even more attention (is that possible) to assumptions at play in data gathering, storing, analysis, and presentation.

My largest question leaving this course regards the implications of digital structures on how we view the world. I am not entirely comfortable with breaking the world into discrete pieces of information. As mentioned by Manovich, digitization is the process of making the world modular, and seems to me to conceive of each piece as independent, though together constituting a whole. However, there are some real questions to be asked about applying such a mode of analysis to human persons – is each individual a discrete element? How would you break an individual down further? Should you? If individuals are not discrete, self-contained elements, which, since I reject an atomistic view of persons, I hold, what does this mean for how I “digitize” history? The necessity of discrete modules in current computational structures is problematic for me and should be addressed in attempts to analyze individual lives through digital methods.

Overall, however, I am still convinced that digital scholarship is worth the risks and offers a chance to investigate historical information in a new light and engage with the larger world in a new way. I look forward to facing again these questions and more with you all in Clio 2.