History in a Digital World

28 Jan

By Tim Rainesalo

Defining digital history is a tricky business. Is the concept of using digital resources to explore historical topics and questions significant enough to warrant it being singled out as its own historical field? After all, almost every academic profession now depends on computers in some way and social networking technologies pioneered on sites like Twitter and Facebook become a more prominent part of our daily lives every year. This level of technological immersion is both a blessing and a curse in that it makes it easy to focus on the technology we use instead of the way in which we use it. Given that many of us consider online databases like JSTOR and even some blogs to be educational resources that are as viable as any traditional print media, it is understandable that we might at first be unable to see the forest from the trees. While exploring the theoretical base of digital history is vital, much of this article will be devoted to my interpretation of digital history as a virtual playground.

Understanding digital history must begin with an understanding of Digital Humanities, the broader field that birthed it. Very simply put, digital humanists study how digital technology changes our analysis, understanding, distribution and collection of information related to the humanities and how to best use these digital resources to push our thoughts in new and interesting ways. [2] Still, the question remains; what makes digital history unique? William G. Thomas III offers four key concepts that push digital history beyond a simple sub-genre under the digital humanities umbrella: the capacity for play, manipulation, participation and investigation by the reader. His characterization of the field as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication” where advances offered by the Internet and other software help to develop and spread new ideas comes closer to the virtual playground I imagine.[1] This spread also increases collaboration in constructing innovative interpretations of the past. This reciprocal relationship extends beyond collaborations between different historians to include the general public in the historical discussion–oftentimes on a global scale.

Although theoretically sound, this explanation still did not ‘click’ for me. After all, digital history is as much about the process of creating digital resources as it is the finished product–in fact, its manipulable nature means revisions and improvements can go on almost indefinitely. One of the most enlightening descriptions of this integral component of digital history also comes from Thomas III who, in a roundtable discussion on digital history with several of his peers for the Journal of American History, equates the field to gaming:

“The best analogy may be gaming—users have control over where their characters will go and what they will see and do, but the creator/author controls the parameters of that experience. And history in the digital, it seems to me, is an experience for users—a process, an active, spatial, virtual-reality encounter with the past.” [3]

While clearly far from perfect, this analogy reinforces the need to approach digital history in 21st century terms of collaborative interactivity. At its core, digital history is a continually evolving and collaborative creative process interested in providing new, interactive ways for audiences to explore history on their own terms in an environment whose basic parameters are set by a diverse team of historians and programmers. Creating an archival database is similar to creating, maintaining and upgrading a massive online multiplayer game. It also highlights the four previously mentioned aspects unique to history in the digital realm. Much like an MMO, digital history is built on reciprocal relationships between digital historians designing the resource (i.e. the game world) and between the designers and the community of users. Like any good gaming studio, success lies in assembling a team of uniquely skilled but complimentary professionals—archivists, preservationists, librarians, programmers and website designers, etc.—who come together to create something unique.

Like a good sandbox game, digital history presents its arguments and ideas in a distinctly nonlinear fashion, allowing visitors to playfully engage history on his/her own terms. Each player can manipulate his own experience, choosing to follow a single narrative or take on several ‘side quests’ to see how far these historical off-shoots carry him. Although largely scorned as a resource by traditional ivory-tower academics, Wikipedia provides the perfect example of the possibilities for developing new webs of connective meaning in a digital age. When scrolling through the entry regarding George Washington, for instance, the viewer is free to click on a hotlink to the page dedicated to Martha Washington, and thus potentially learn more about the man through a study of his wife. This, in turn, may lead to an interest in the former President’s home and the way in which this information (seen in digital format) is presented in a live interpretation of the home. Like side-quests that help flesh out the central ‘world,’ these branching stories have the potential to alter his perception of the overall world and enrich his experiences by forming connective webs of inquiry that can extend beyond the digital realm to encompass the real world.

This level of interactivity and potential for playful exploration may appear limitless on the surface, but as Thomas points out, the original ‘development team’ of digital historians are ultimately in control of shaping the world the audience explores. However, the choice of how a resource develops does not rest only with the creators. For, just as an MMO is nothing without its player community, a database or online archive is useless unless the invested community can and does participate in the world’s development by positing new additions to help make their experience smoother and more enlightening. Are pathways to information still too arduous? Digital historians can listen to the suggestions and requests of their ‘player base’ to create a new layout, interface or webs of connection to make navigation and exploration easier. Instead of a new weapon or community-generated item, users may offer up additional resources, like a previously untapped collection of letters that broaden and enrich the community’s experience.

This approach also outlines the limitations and difficulties still facing digital history. Most prominent among them is the issue of shared authority and how to maintain a professional level of historical authenticity when the reciprocal nature of digital communication means ceding a certain level of control to a non-professional online community? Although the quality control of the average Wikipedia article is now much more satisfactory than it was even a few years ago, mistakes and misrepresentations still occur. And even though digital communication with invested audiences offers speedier and more numerous responses, these problems are nothing to sniff at. While audiences appreciate this interactive, reciprocal approach to historical exploration, digital history continues to face resistance over understandably divisive issues like quality control, accessibility to sources and shared authority. Given all this, we must ask what the future holds? Will it become a more integral part of the way we do history? Personally, I believe greater acceptance and incorporation if its techniques are just a matter of time. After all, with so many other fields already relying on digital distribution and interaction to help collect data and spread news of new findings, history must embrace this new age of digital communication or risk being left behind. Confronting the problems we’ve briefly touched on will not be easy, but I believe it can and will be done.

[1] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–491.

[2] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 3-11.

[3] William G. Thomas III, “Interchange”.

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