The Future of Digital History, #rrchnm20

The Future of Digital History
George Mason University
November 15, 2014

First, I want to thank Roy for his generosity to young scholars like me a few years ago. Roy Rosenzweig’s mentorship of young scholars was so significant and his impact on many of our careers was extraordinary.

Following on the spirit of yesterday’s unconference session, I’d like to start with a Roy story. In 2002 Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, asked me to present the digital article “The Differences Slavery Made” to the AHR Board of Editors. I was nervous. The review process had been disorienting for Ed and me. Our experiment in form appeared to be inexplicable to our colleagues or worse taken as a threat. We had pulled back the navigation design and architecture of the project to satisfy the AHR reviewers. The conversation with the AHR board was polite but tense. Roy was at the conference that year, and I remember his warm encouragement and enthusiasm–this was an opportunity, he said, to demonstrate to the board the value of digital scholarship and digital history, it can only be for the best.

Then after the piece was published, at the 2004 AHA pre-conference workshop on digital history, Roy called the article “hypertraditional” in his plenary session remarks. He was right on, and yet this was a sly, subversive comment. It was difficult to tell if it was meant as a compliment or a criticism! It was both. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the final result was not what we wanted, but it was what we could get through. Roy recognized that reality, but he was simultaneously prodding the AHA and us. We still need Roy’s prodding.

I think Roy’s comment still holds: much of what is digital history today can be described as “hypertraditional.” We are stuck in this gear so to speak, and I think we can agree it is time to move beyond hypertraditional, and to realize the full promise of history using digital media.

As we have discussed, Roy was excellent, brilliant, indeed exceptional, at working from the inside of the AHA, as Ed Ayers said a few moments ago, to “highjack the institution”–we need to do more of that. We need more chairs of history departments who understand, support, and cultivate digital history.

Yesterday the provost described his foray into Silicon Valley recently where he asked leading developers and CEOs, “what is the next big thing? what will change way we think and change our culture in a profound fashion?” Their answer, he found, was simple: the next big thing is the fundamental disappearing of the boundary between the physical and cyber world. These will be interwoven, integrated, seamless, blurred.

Perhaps because I just read (and taught) William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the melding of the physical and virtual worlds suggests that we need to think about the future of digital history as embedded more fully in cultural products and media. In the Neuromancer world the physical and the cyber have been so fully integrated (and embodied) that it is difficult to tell the difference between RL and VL for Case, and Molly, Armitage, and the rest.

Moreover, in the Neuromancer places–Chiba, The Sprawl, or the BAMA–there are no sites of historical meaning or cultural memory. Strikingly, there are no historical reference points in the cities and environments of these worlds, few markers of the past, and few clear indications that history and the present are connected. This is a world where its inherited history and culture have been forgotten or cut off, rendered into data, encrypted, swapped, stolen, and traded, but largely buried.

In imagining the future of digital history, as the cyber and physical worlds come together, we might think about how history can be more present in our lives, environments, and spaces, where all aspects of the past are accessible and integrated into the present.

In the future of digital history the line between past and present will disappear, just as there will be a gradual elimination of the physical and cyber.

Yesterday your provost gave the Google glass example–how can we envision history as worn, as encountered everyday, as seamlessly woven into the fabric and material of our physical and virtual worlds.

He also suggested that we will soon have a rewired generation of human beings. In fact, they may be the first generation in a long time able to use the digital environment to break through to the past. We typically lament presentism in history, but it may be that presentism is a function of the print culture, and that digital culture changes the terms on which students engage with history in a more clarifying way.

In the future of digital history the past will be more present in our everyday lives than before, at least potentially. We need to think carefully about the ways we build the historical into the present as the physical and the cyber worlds are integrated — what modes work best?

I am sure that you saw the Gallup / Inside Higher Ed poll released last month on the use of technology in academe. The poll surveyed 2,799 faculty and 288 tech administrators.

Some of the results were not that surprising. Faculty doubt that online teaching can produce results equal to in person courses! Okay, that’s not surprising.

But this poll featured a tag along question related to technology at the end: do you agree or disagree with the statement the digital humanities has been oversold. Only 12% strongly disagreed with this statement. Indeed, over 50 % either strongly agreed or agreed, while 25 % have no opinion

Now, some in this room probably strongly agree with this statement!

Digital humanists, as far as I can tell, largely ignored the report but I think it offers a healthy corrective. And we might want to consider why so many faculty across the disciplines might think that digital humanities has been “oversold.”

The poll reveals a fault line in the digital humanities. In part we have confused or misunderstood what the digital means in digital humanities. DH has been broadly understood as big data-oriented and primarily computational and algorithmic, hence digital. But this is an organizing premise that will perpetually result in the digital humanities as oversold. It’s an example of what Ed sometimes calls “anticipointment”–the sense that we have anticipations or expectations for the digital that can’t help but be unmet and therefore disappointing. By digital we should mean something much more than big data or computation, we should mean an engagement with the medium that challenges us to rethink, reconfigure, reconceptualize, and reimagine the forms of historical expression and historical knowledge, suitable to the digital tools, networks, and machinery at our disposal.

In digital history we will do those computational things, of course, and we have for a long time, but our purpose is more radical, a reconstitution of history for the digital era in which a fully complex social reality of today, the present, meets or resides with and in relation to a fully complex social reality of yesterday, the past.

Now the future of digital history also requires that we do some things that we have not done or only partially achieved. For the future of digital history what do we need more of?

1. Review more–There is little review of digital history, it is limiting the field. We are relying on peer review in the grant application process, and to a lesser extent in tenure and promotion, but the future of digital history will require critical engagement of interpretative procedures used or deployed in digital history.

2. Interpret more–Digital history projects are generally one off, silo-ed, and internally collaborative. We have built deep thematic archives and sophisticated examples of digital projects, but these often go un-cited and unincorporated into the scholarly record. They need to be cited, integrated, mixed into, and associated with other works of historical scholarship. We in digital history have not done this very well in some respects, because we have been concentrating on building our own digital projects. The future of digital history will need to feature works that associate and interrelate digital objects.

As a corollary, we need a renewed engagement with the form of history in cyber. I was struck by Dan Cohen’s comment yesterday that he first met Roy Rosenzweig at a Hypertext conference. We need to re-examine how historical narrative and interpretation might be best adapted in the digital medium.

3. Reciprocate more–Community-based, shared digital history project should characterize the future of digital history. Here, we should meet our audience where they are. It will require us to be less directive, less authoritative, and more dialogic in the history we produce. One area of especially fruitful reciprocal engagement would come from family history. Genealogy-based history could allow us to connect with the broader community in a more intentional and productive way. Of all of the communities interested in history, genealogy remains one that digital history has bypassed. We should close this gap.

If we review more, interpret more, and reciprocate more, digital history will work within our institutions effectively and we will reconstitute history for the digital age.

Gibson described cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, . . . a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” His dystopian vision of “the matrix” with its “jacking in,” drugs, and lost identities, suggested that cyber society had lost its humanity.

As the cyber and physical worlds converge, we in digital history might do more to bring the past more directly into the present, reconstituting history to be simultaneously accessible and integrated into the present, both in the physical and the virtual worlds we inhabit.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

O Say Can You See Project on Early Washington, D.C. first release: petitions for freedom

After months of research and case file imaging and encoding, we are beginning to release the petitions for freedom that came before the Circuit Court of Washington, D.C. between 1808 and 1862. These releases are the first phase in our collaborative research project on early Washington, D.C. with the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). In the early period Francis Scott Key played a major role in orchestrating these petitions, but he also represented some of the slaveholder defendants. Our research goal is to uncover and encode the networks of relationships embedded in these cases. The next release will include the encoding of hundreds of individuals named (in depositions, summons, petitions, dockets, and other records) and the thousands of relationships among them (client of, mother of, father of, neighbor of . . .).

For the first release: go to O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C. Law and Family Project

Early Washington D.C. Law and Family Project

Special thanks to the team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Kaci Nash, project manager, Laura Weakly, Karin Dalzel, Mike Dick, Kylie McCormick, and Stephanie Camerone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fall 2014 Graduate Interdisciplinary Readings Seminar in Digital Humanities

Next week we begin classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I’m looking forward to teaching the Graduate Interdisciplinary Readings Seminar in Digital Humanities again. This course is the foundational readings seminar in the Graduate Certificate program in Digital Humanities. For more on the program’s structure and requirements, go to the Graduate Certificate home page.

You can download or view the current syllabus for my course here. I’d welcome any comments and suggestions either on this blog or through Twitter (@wgthomas3).

Posted in Digital Humanities | Tagged | Leave a comment

Reading list for graduate seminar in digital humanities (Fall 2014)

It’s time to work on syllabi for Fall courses, order books, and prepare readings. With the DH2014 Conference in full swing I am thinking about assignments for my graduate seminar: “Interdisciplinary Readings Seminar in Digital Humanities.” This course is the foundation seminar for our Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities at the University of Nebraska. My colleague Steve Ramsay taught the course last fall, and I taught the course in 2012.

Based in part on the Multi-Lingualism and Multi-Culturalism Committee at DH2014, I have required an essay assignment that asks students to engage through social media with one or more scholars or working groups outside of the U.S. and publishing in a language other than English. I’ll have more to post on the particulars of that assignment soon. In the meantime the course will include the following readings (all are tentative, of course, until the syllabus is finalized and I will post my syllabus for comments and suggestions soon):

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918)

Ayers, Edward L. “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” Virginia Center for Digital History, (

——–. “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” EDUCAUSE review, August 2013.

Borgman, Christine. “The Digital Future is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities,” Digital Humanities Quarterly (2009).

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1945).

Natalia Cecire, “When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue,” Journal of Digital Humanities, 2011

Ethington, Philip J. “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledege,” American Historical Review (2000).

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Habermas, Jurgen. “Science and Technology as ‘Ideology’,” in Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970).

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Socialist Review (1985).

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977

Koh, Adeline and Roopika Risam, #DHPoco: Postcolonial Digital Humanities, Comics.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry in the Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Lanier, Jaron. “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” Edge (May 2006).

——–. You are Not a Gadget: a manifesto. New York: Vintage, 2010.

Licklider, J.C.R. “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics (March 1960).

Lunenfeld et al. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0″ (UCLA, 2009).

Mahoney, Timothy R. “Gilded Age Plains City: Spatial Narratives,” Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (2009).

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

McPherson, Tressie. “‘Who the Fuck Do You Think You Are?’ Academic Engagement, Microcelebrity and Digital Sociology from the Far Left of the Matrix of Domination,” (2012)

Michel, Jean-Baptiste et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” Science Vol. 331 (14 January 2011).

McCarty, Willard. “Humanities Computing,” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (2003).

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso, 2007.

Murray, Janet. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

Ramsay, Stephen. “Toward an Algorithmic Criticism,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 167-174.

Staley, David. “Historical Visualizations,” in Journal of the Association for History and Computing Vol. 3 No. 3 (November 2000)

Thomas, William G. III, and Edward L. Ayers, “The Differences Slavery Made: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” American Historical Review, December 2003.(

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 49 (1950).

Turkle, Sherry. “Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality,” Mind, Culture, and Activity Vol. 1, No. 3 (Summer 1994).

White, Richard. “What is Spatial History?” (working paper, Spatial History Project, 2010)

Unsworth, John. “What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?” (2002)

Zittrain, Jonathan. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

selected readings from Debates in the Digital Humanities online and the Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities online

Posted in Digital History, Digital Humanities, Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Congratulations to Dr. Jared Leighton

Last week, a 2013 graduate of our department, Dr. Jared Leighton was awarded the highest honor in the University of Nebraska–the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award. His advisor Professor Patrick D. Jones was on hand the make remarks and present the award to Jared. Jared’s dissertation is truly groundbreaking, and I am honored to have served on his dissertation committee.

His work explored the gay and lesbian activists, black and white, in the African American freedom struggle from the 1950s to the 1970s. For his dissertation, “Freedom Invisible: Gays and Lesbians in the African American Civil Rights Movement,”

Dr. Jared Leighton wins the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award, February 2014. University of Nebraska.

Dr. Jared Leighton wins the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award, February 2014. University of Nebraska.

Jared conducted dozens of oral histories and submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to declassify F.B.I. files on the subject. The result is a stunning piece of research and a sophisticated and subtle analysis of gay and lesbian activists. Leighton argues that the black freedom struggle provided an important training ground for gay and lesbian activists, and he turns our attention toward a range of complex and intersecting motivations for activism among gays and lesbians, as a result moving beyond the standard interpretation stressing the religious basis for activism. Congratulations Jared!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment