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.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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3 Responses to The Future of Digital History, #rrchnm20

  1. Jeremy Browne says:

    I coordinate a DH minor, and I’d say DH has been oversold, but that’s normal for any innovation. Take a look at Gartner’s Hype Cycle, and try to place DH thereon. DHers should worry about how to best mitigate the “Trough of Disillusionment,” not how to maintain an elevated level of expectation.

  2. Pingback: The Future of Digital History, #rrchnm20 | William G. Thomas III Tweet Critical Gaming | Erik Champion

  3. Before I comment on the essay, I want to underscore your remarks on the importance and contribution of Roy Rosenzweig to the field of digital humanities. Even before I became an apostle of digital history, in 1978 I met Roy as chair of a search committee and recommended his hire. Again as a member of a review panel, I argued hard for his proposal. In the first case, I lost. In the second, the panel voted to approve over the strong objections of one member. Both of these experiences shocked me out of my naiveté that the profession would embrace a promising, ne exciting, new approach to interperting the past.

    I agree with everything you say so well here. We need to unlock the potential of digital humanities as never before, to unshackle it, for example, from the custodians of the past who see history as bounded, episodic, and disengaged from the present. I remain convinced that we have a long ways to go in digital history before we realize the power of the digital medium to “reconstitute” the past. My experience has taught me that the gap between the promise and reality will not be closed until we somehow close the gap between preachers and unbelievers. Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for the digital turn remains stronger than ever.

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