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Part 1. Re-Visioning Historical Writing
In the first part of this volume, Sherman Dorn asks, “Is (digital) history more than an argument about the past?” He draws distinctions between thesis-driven scholarly monographs and digital history projects, with examples and ideas for evaluating the latter. In “Pasts in a Digital Age,” Stefan Tanaka follows up by arguing that today’s digital media revolution should remind us that our present-day conceptions of history did not arise until the late-eighteenth century, when people began writing about the past in a linear, chronological structure.
Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?
Digital history is one more historiographical development since World War II that has challenged professional historians’ definition of scholarship. While oral history and quantitative social history questioned the primacy of the written document and an elite focus, they and public history challenged the centrality of the researcher trained in academic history departments, and postmodernism undermined the authority of categories. Of central concern is not whether the online world has infected humanities scholars in the United States with intellectual challenges (and status anxiety) but what new forms these are taking and the new professional and intellectual questions that digital history poses for historians. As younger scholars worry about what “counts” as scholarship in an online universe, fearing that their senior colleagues will not respect anything other than monographs published by university presses, they partly replay previous waves of concern about professional legitimation.
Other chapters in this book illustrate the degree to which historians have continued to extend long-term changes in the discipline. The use of databases for notes is a more sophisticated version of electronic note taking that started with the first laptops. Mapping locations of community events and resources is an extension of quantitative social history’s wrestling with data. Social history “from the bottom up” becomes more intense and more public when members of a community can more easily contribute to and discover work about their shared history. Creating video games out of history is in some ways a new version of the simulation role playing that teachers have used for decades.
Yet there are new opportunities and challenges that did not exist several decades ago. One is the ability to display primary sources and related data objects tied to those sources (tables, charts, and maps). As this volume’s chapters by Stephen Robertson and John Theibault demonstrate, we are surrounded not just by the type of static images and data objects that historians have used to make arguments for years but by the ability to present audiences and interlocutors with manipulable objects, using software to allow readers to zoom in and move around, add or subtract data layers, change axes and variables, or set the data object in motion.
The second feature that is new today is the spread of publishing platforms. One made Wikipedia possible. Another allowed this volume to have open peer review. At the same time, we have seen the erosion of the university press and subscription-based journal publishing as a viable commercial infrastructure for scholarship. The ease of disseminating gray literature and the growth of technological platforms for open-access publishing has undermined the case for continued reliance on subscription-based journals and university presses as gatekeepers with prepublication review. Intensified budget pressures on academic libraries have accelerated this discussion. The results have included more experimentation with alternative publishing pipelines and processes, as well as the challenges in intellectual authority captured by the chapters of this volume focusing on Wikipedia.
The third development is an artifact of the production of history in the first few decades of the “digital age” in historical scholarship: historians’ first-mover advantage. It arose from funders having a range of interests; from a few senior historians, such as Roy Rosenzweig and Edward Ayers, using funding to develop diverse projects; and from the development of digitization technology far in advance of electronic book publication. The first-mover advantage for CD-ROM and then web projects leveraged interest in digitizing a range of sources at a time when it was neither technologically realistic nor professionally advantageous to try to publish long-form arguments online. Into that gap stepped funders, institutions, and individual academics and teams of scholars who had different priorities. At the same time, two developments at a national level in the United States created educational audiences as well as funding streams for a range of projects: a push for state-level standards in traditional K–12 academic subjects, including history, and a dedicated funding stream in the Teaching American History grant program.
As a result of funding, entrepreneurial academics, ready audiences, and technological developments that benefited other formats over electronic books, the early production of digital history thus emphasized infrastructure over electronic equivalents of monographs. This first-mover advantage for new formats existed even when an individual digital project (such as Ayers’s The Valley of the Shadow) was rooted in more conventional questions of scholarship. It required building idiosyncratic infrastructures that we usually associate with wealthy private or flagship public universities, but less prestigious public institutions, such as the City University of New York and George Mason University, built long-term structures where the new digital scholarship has thrived.
These developments happened in an era of existential threats to humanities scholarship whose roots lie far from the influence of technological change on the mechanics of scholarship. Long before Amazon.com, scholars have seen declining state support for public universities, vocational rhetoric surrounding the politics of higher education, the growing use of contingent academic labor, and increased pressures for scholarship at institutions that had focused on teaching only a few short years before. Yet despite these ominous signs, the growth of digital scholarship provides an opportunity to understand our field in a richer way, and this understanding can serve both pragmatic and philosophical needs.
In one pragmatic sense, scholars whose work goes beyond the long-form argument need a way to help peers and administrators understand their work. Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered describes a general way of communicating for such understanding but is not sufficiently specific for each discipline. Public historians have often struggled to communicate the meaning of their scholarship in research-oriented institutions, and the development of disciplinary support for their work and appropriate tenure and promotion standards has been relatively recent.
In a second pragmatic sense, we need a better way to teach historical scholarship for undergraduates, not only for the ordinary reasons why history departments should be concerned about an undergraduate education, but also because we need better teaching of history in elementary and middle schools. Frequently, the second-to-last exposure to history for an elementary school teacher is her or his high school history classes, leaving the task of helping them understand history as a discipline to just one or two college courses. College history classes have little room for error in educating future teachers about what history is and can be.
But if we use digital history projects as an opportunity to explore the nature of historical scholarship, that opportunity stretches beyond the practical issues of tenure, promotion, and exposing future teachers to disciplinary conventions. We can use the best of digital history work to redraw the discipline’s boundaries. In attempting to battle the perception of history as a set of dates and names, or “just one damned thing after another,” as Toynbee and Somervell put it, historians may have gone overboard in arguing that history is “an argument about the past,” as a poster available to schoolteachers puts it (fig. 1). The heterodox developments of the last few decades provide an opportunity to rethink the definition of historical scholarship. (See additional images for this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.)
Diverse Digital History
Digital history projects have a broad range of quality and scope. This section provides brief descriptions of several projects that were created by professional historians, public historians, and other scholars. It describes projects with differing polish and scope, beginning with two projects originally distributed on CD-ROM.
Who Built America? was an extension of a two-volume social history textbook of the same name, with two CD-ROMs constructed and published in the 1990s. The CD-ROMs provided a digital expansion of the common textbook sidebar presentation of primary sources, including audio and video clips of speeches as well as photographs and text or facsimile primary documents. Creating such a compilation is a labor-intensive process, in part because of extensive licensure issues involved in using media.
The Valley of the Shadow was also an extension of a book project, in this case Edward L. Ayers’s comparison of lives in two counties (Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia) before, during, and after the Civil War. The project had an early online life, which Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig described in 1997 as a guided exploration of primary sources: “It allows students to construct their own narratives of life in both towns in the years before the war, but it seems to encourage narratives that follow the framework of Ayers’s planned book.” In the years since, it has had various versions, including the transformation of the materials to a website that now serves as an official “archive” of the project.
The American Memory project displays both notable and little-known primary sources, photographs, and other artifacts in Library of Congress collections. Begun in the early 1990s with a pilot project and CD-ROMs, American Memory has continued as a sprawling online display of historical artifacts. Individual items in the collection are displayed with archival metadata and can often be reached either as part of an organized presentation or through search tools.
The Papers of George Washington is a 43-year-old editing project that has produced more than 50 volumes of edited material (out of an anticipated 90). One digital version of the papers has public access. A more scholarly online version of the papers is available by individual or personal subscription as well as by purchase of individual printed volumes from the University of Virginia Press. The general-access version contains a number of entrees to the primary sources, including chronological back/forward buttons that are akin to page turns.
Hypercities (http://hypercities.com or http://hypercities.ats.ucla.edu/) is a geographic display platform for layered maps built on Google Maps and the ability to geocode pictures and maps. While other platforms built on Google Maps focus on current events (for example, Ushahidi, originally created to map Kenyan election violence in early 2008), Hypercities focuses on the collection and curation of historical map information. It is the result of a 2008 MacArthur Foundation grant to Todd Presner of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Philip Ethington at the University of Southern California and has been used for a number of classes at various institutions as well as for scholarly research (such as Ethington’s work on the history of Los Angeles).
Europe, Interrupted is an online exhibit of the Inventing Europe project sponsored by the European Science Foundation and the Foundation for the History of Technology. It presents a structured path through collection items using the “exhibit” metaphor for presentation. It is an example of the type of exhibit produced using the open-source Omeka presentation software that public historians can customize for specific exhibits in museum collections.
History Matters is a website originally created in the late 1990s by the same organizations that created Who Built America? (the American Social History Project at the City University of New York and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). The website supports survey courses in U.S. history at the high school and undergraduate levels (and is subtitled The U.S. Survey Course on the Web), with a range of materials from selected primary sources and historical links to sample syllabi, exemplary student work, and other resources for teachers.
Digital History Undresses Scholarship
The scope of these and other projects illustrate their breadth of purpose and the varied extent to which individual projects make an explicit argument, ranging from what one might call demonstrative argumentation (Europe, Interrupted and the individual Women and Social Movements websites, as Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin’s chapter explains) to arguments-in-process (see Erickson’s chapter), evidence sets from projects that are either at the “messing around” level (Hypercities) or more carefully curated for the public (The Valley of the Shadow), edited collections with an implicit argument (Who Built America?), edited collections without a demonstrative focus (American Memory and The Papers of George Washington), and infrastructure (whether for research, such as software packages specially built for humanities projects or the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series database, or for teaching, such as History Matters).
This range uncovers history as more than a polished argument about the past. Presentation of historical scholarship as an argument presumes a finished product. But most time spent on historical scholarship is messy, involving rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public. As reviewer William Thomas observed, the digital age also allows scholars to scale up the extent of explicit argumentation, either by redesigning a project’s public face or by inviting open commentary (as this volume has done). This capacity is more than accessorizing; it allows explicit, public reworking of argument.
Tools for Presentation of Artifacts and Events, Learning, and Argumentation
Recognizing the breadth of presentation is separate from having trustworthy evaluation practices. Projects described above have won a number of awards, and yet, of the collection listed here, only Europe, Interrupted (and none of the award-winning projects) focuses on the type of argument that historians value in monographs published by university presses. Can we attach evaluative criteria to nonargument scholarship? The fields at the margins of history departments provide a partial solution, as academic historians in the post–World War II era have recognized the value of nonargument activities and functions. Public history is valued in theory, even if only a few history departments have faculty who engage in public history projects (and fewer who have earned tenure on that basis). Archivists are essential to the work of historians, but they are usually trained in schools that teach library or information sciences. History faculty whose primary tool is archaeology have the ability to write methodological papers for specialist journals. If this pattern extends to digital history, one should expect that a few departments will devote significant resources to the formal training of digital history technicians, those who have programming skills and some disciplinary history background, and that most departments will struggle to evaluate digital history projects except where professional awards clearly convey peer approval.
But there need not be significant difficulty in understanding the contributions of digital history projects. As demonstrated in the projects described in this chapter or in the rest of this volume, academic historians have little problem recognizing the value of outstanding digital history work. The question is how to articulate the contributions of digital history in a way that is conceptual rather than ad hoc. We may use the existing outstanding digital history scholarship to generate those concepts, and the rest of this section catalogs an initial classification.
Tools to Present Artifacts
There is a range of recognized professional presentations of historical artifacts, generally primary sources but also multimedia files. The Library of Congress American Memory project is the most extensive in North America, but both The Papers of George Washington and The Valley of the Shadow organize primary sources for an audience. The scope is different in each case: the Library of Congress (or a research library’s special collections department) cares for and presents material from multiple collections in its custody, while an edited version of an individual’s papers or a thematic collection is narrower in purpose as well as scope. The critical traits of an archival resource for historians include custodianship and proper sourcing, and the critical traits of an online presentation of historical artifacts parallel those: care of the digital resource and clear provenance. One can see similar parallels with edited collections of primary sources (a “Papers of . . .” project), though in the case of The Papers of George Washington, it is clear that while the editing quality is the same for the (identical) hard copy and online main text, the public digital version is missing critical traits of annotation that historians expect of scholarly edited collections of quality.
Tools to Present Events
A second general use of tools for digital history is the presentation of “events,” or, more generally, specifics of history bounded by time and place. A number of tools exist for creating online time lines such as the SIMILE tool that has been incorporated into Google Docs or the EasyTimeline markup format in MediaWiki software. One does not need an online tool to create a time line. But complex time and space data require specialized tools for presentation. The construction of historical maps has been an art form for centuries, generally beyond the recognized skill set of academic historians. Hypercities has attracted considerable attention in the few years of its development, because it allows the presentation of data in a form that is attractive, thought-provoking, and conceptually simple, with successive layers representing change over time. One does not need to be an artist to use Hypercities, though the required digitization and geocoding tasks require time and attention to detail. One could also argue that statistical presentation is an equally important activity in presenting “events,” if one considers a datum bounded by time and place, with presentation of statistical data being a skill often neglected in history departments. Gapminder is currently the most generally known infrastructure for presenting historical data series online in an attractive and conceptually simple manner.
Tools for Teaching and Learning
Classroom-focused digital history projects can encompass an expanded/enriched textbook, a teaching portal with a range of resources, or other configurations. The construction of any website around learning is more than the appending of lesson plans to an existing website. It is the deliberate composition of resources that includes primary sources and support for activities that teachers might design or facilitate for students.
Tools for Argumentation
Tools for constructing arguments have begun to catch up with other digital technologies. Blogs have been a tool for short-form argumentation that has made self-publishing of short commentary accessible to individual scholars for more than a decade, but long-form or multimedia arguments have generally required specialized website construction until recently. Some blog tools, such as the WordPress plug-in Digress.it, now allow the publication of book-length projects with open commentary as the projects evolve (including the project that prompted this essay). Omeka is a tool for online public history exhibits discussed earlier. Some of the more adventuresome university presses, such as the University of Michigan Press, have also explored different ways to extend the definition of the long-form argument beyond the hard-copy book.
As suggested earlier, historians will probably recognize the value of digital history in presentations of artifacts and sets of events and event representations when they contain the recognizable elements of quality work in offline parallels: care in custodianship and curation, tracking of provenance, match of organization with purpose, and accessibility of presentation. Such digital history projects may be viewed as inferior to long-form arguments unless they are adjuncts to scholarship that academic historians already recognize. But recognizing such projects as valuable scholarship does not require rethinking the fundamentals of historical work, since it matches up well to the traits of existing scholarly infrastructure for historians.
What requires more deliberate effort is the evaluation of scholarly work in creating tools and infrastructure. Here, an important consideration is the public visibility and use of the work. This is a pragmatic issue in terms of long-term impact as well as immediate value. Tools by themselves have little value as archived; because software quickly becomes outdated, a tool that is not used within a year or two will have no one providing feedback, no volunteers for further development, and no chance of support from potential funders. Yet, to gain users, most tools generally require a team that builds a community as well as creating a software package.
This requirement of effective team building makes collaboration an essential part of tool building, which may be the most difficult criteria for historians to assimilate in evaluation, more than use. Historical scholarship generally operates as solo projects or as the product of very small teams of scholars. In contrast with those small teams, a much larger community is required by the development, persistent use, and maintenance of software packages such as Omeka or Zotero. A history department at a research university may give tenure to an assistant professor who writes a single-authored book on an obscure topic with fewer than 200 copies sold, based on a university press’s prospective valuation of the manuscript and postpublication review by a small number of senior scholars. But if assistant professors continue to work on a software package they contributed to as graduate students, that collaboration risks their careers, even if the software is used extensively by museums and historical sites and has a broader professional impact than narrow monographs. I suspect many history departments would gladly value a scholar who headed such a project, but historians find the contribution of other project members difficult to evaluate.
Toward Bricolage or Narrative?
In addition to the difficulty they encounter in evaluating collaboration in infrastructure, historians find the value of long-form arguments easier to evaluate as scholarship because the long-form argument contributes to historiographical discourse. As we construct arguments, we patch together ideas of our peers, trained by the practices of graduate education (“What is the contribution of this week’s book?”) and the ethics of citation (“Where did I read about that theory?”). In this discourse community, a peer’s polished argument is labile feedstock. Should digital history projects thus shape their public sides closer to argumentation, to be digested and recycled by the bricoleur historian?
There is more long-term value in maintaining a range of presentation of history in digital form than in trying to match contemporary writing habits too closely. It is not utopian to trust that bricoleurs will find value in pieces of digital history not presented as argument. It is not utopian to understand that while the definition of historical scholarship is centered heavily on the argument, there is an older tradition of history as narrative. It is not utopian to trust that if 20th-century historians learned to become bricoleurs, 21st-century historians will use digital forms to modify both argument and narrative. This chapter addressed argument; the next addresses narrative.
1. For an example from oral history, see Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991). For the barest taste of more general historians’ navel-gazing, see Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Joyce Oldham Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994); Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007); Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble (New York: New Press, 2005).
2. This chapter focuses on both the professional dynamics in the United States and websites in English, but the argument is more general: we should see the diversity of successful digital projects everywhere as a way to talk about historical scholarship.
3. The access (and business) models chosen by scholars heading projects do not always allow public access. The website for The Papers of George Washington, described in this chapter, requires institutional subscriptions for scholarly details. Subscriptions are also required to access the Women and Social Movements collections (described in this volume by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin) or the tables and figures of the online Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition, ed. Susan B. Carter et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), available at http://hsus.cambridge.org.
5. Maris Vinovskis, From a Nation at Risk to No Child Left Behind (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008); Alex Stein, “The Teaching American History Program: An Introduction and Overview,” History Teacher 36, no. 2 (2003): 178–85.
6. For a sample of the recent literature on such changes, see Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); David L. Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
8. Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship, “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian: A Report,” AHA Perspectives, September 2010, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1009/1009new3.cfm.
9. Arnold Toynbee and D. C. Somervell, A Study of History (New York: Dell, 1965), 295; National History Education Clearinghouse, “History Is an Argument about the Past” (poster), described in “Free Historical Thinking Poster!,” August 17, 2010, http://teachinghistory.org/nhec-blog/24174/.
10. There are also creditable digital history projects by amateurs, such as Phil Gyford’s presentation of a 17th-century London source, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys,” as a series of blog entries, at http://www.pepysdiary.com. The Internet advances the blurring of boundaries between academic and other production of history, a topic this volume’s chapters on Wikipedia explore further.
11. With some important exceptions, such as The Papers of George Washington and Women and Social Movements, digital history projects in the past decade have generally had publicly accessible online distribution. This essay does not discuss distinctions between public and subscription availability and related issues of ethics and business models.
12. Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Joshua Brown, Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 (Santa Monica: Learning Technologies Interactive/Voyager, 1995), CD-ROM; American Social History Productions, Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946 (New York: Worth, 2000), CD-ROM.
16. Edward Ayers, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the Civil War, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/. For this site, it is implied that the term archives refers to a static entity that will not be revised, rather than a living, curated collection of materials.
17. Library of Congress, “Mission and History,” American Memory, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/about/index.html.
18. The Papers of George Washington, http://gwpapers.virginia.edu; Mount Vernon guest version, http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN.xqy; Rotunda scholarly edition by subscription, http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN. The project has received considerable support over the decades from the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
19. Hypercities, http://hypercities.com or http://hypercities.ats.ucla.edu/; Ushahidi, http://www.ushahidi.com/; Philip Ethington, “Ghost Metropolis,” Hypercities, 2011, available at http://hypercities.ats.ucla.edu.
20. Europe, Interrupted, http://www.inventingeurope.eu/invent/exhibits/show/europeinterrupted; Center for History and New Media, Omeka, http://omeka.org.
21. American Social History Project and Center for History and New Media, History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/.
22. An online exhibit such as Europe, Interrupted is a relatively straightforward translation of long-form historical arguments to a hyperlinked environment, akin to a conventional, curated public history exhibit with a strong focus.
23. Will Thomas, comment on Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed. , Fall 2011 version. This undressing also demonstrates how historians make choices as they fashion scholarship; for more on selection and silencing, see, for example, David William Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon, 1995), especially chap. 1.
24. The Directory of Archival Education of the Society of American Archivists (http://www2.archivists.org/dae) lists seven archival degree programs located in history departments.
26. Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments (SIMILE) project, SIMILE software (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), available at http://www.simile-widgets.org/timeline/; WikiMedia Foundation, EasyTimeline extension, http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:EasyTimeline.
27. The classic is Charles Joseph Minard’s display of Napoleon’s march into and out of Moscow. See Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. (Cheshire, CT: Graphics, 2001), 40–41. See also, more generally, Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
28. Gapminder Foundation, Gapminder software, available at http://gapminder.org.
29. WordPress Digress.it plugin, http://digress.it.
31. See comments by William Thomas and Timothy Burke on Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version; James E. Porter, “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community,” Rhetoric Review 5 (1986): 34–47.
Pasts in a Digital Age
Digital media are altering our practice of history. The essays in this volume explore the many ways we have used and can use it to facilitate our research, aid and improve our teaching, and enhance scholarly communication. Others are also encountering a horizon of which Clay Shirky warns, “The communications tools we now have, which a mere decade ago seemed to offer an improvement to the twentieth-century media landscape, are now seen to be rapidly eroding it instead.” When applied to history, the preceding epigraph from Mayer-Schönberger suggests such erosion. Since the eighteenth century, chronological time has been foundational in how we conceive of and practice history. Erosion or not, a horizon of change also emerges when we line up his statement with the proliferation of digital information and the second epigraph, from Elizabeth Eisenstein.
These statements raise the question, to what extent does electronic media change our relation to the past and future? The Internet is the largest repository of data, ever. Today, information is more readily available, the Internet seemingly forgets nothing, and we see people and institutions confronting their future past. Individuals now have to prevent their past that might possibly haunt their future. Indeed, we need to question to what extent the past is past and whether the distinction of past and present has ever been clear. Electronic data is ephemeral; digital information disappears, is erased, and is frequently modified. Our governments and corporations regularly shred hard drives. Regardless of one’s position, the past is not just becoming larger, it remains varied and is changing.
History and how we write history will also change. But to negotiate this transformation and especially to use this as an opportunity to explore new modes of writing history, we must understand that some of the issues we are confronting are not as new as we might think; similar issues arose during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when history became the form of knowledge we know and practice today. For example, Zygmunt Bauman describes modernity today as passing from the “solid” to a “liquid” phase. Yet while social forms of modernity might now be more fluid and ephemeral, we must ask how today stacks up to what Marx identified over 150 years ago when he wrote, “All that is solid melts into the air.”
At this point, before we celebrate or lament the changes, it is important to recognize that the deep, chronological way of thinking about the past that pervades modern society is far from natural. Unless we are mindful of the conditions that produced this naturalized understanding of the past, we restrict our options to a return to a nineteenth-century mode of thinking (still practiced today in academia) or a valorized “new,” as if new social forms are better simply because they are more recent. Moreover, we might learn about different, “new” ways of interacting with the past from these earlier moments.
History as a Virtual Reality
History, as we understand it today, emerged during the late eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, a specific form of historical thinking emerged, where people began to separate past from present and to write about the past using a linear—that is, chronological—structure. The iconic phrase that has been used to capture this shift is from Leopold von Ranke, who wrote in his first major work, Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations (1824), “To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years. The present attempt does not aspire to such a lofty undertaking. It merely wants to show how, essentially, things happened.” This is the passage from which historians have extracted his most famous and misused phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen, to claim scientific, neutral, and objective status.
The popularization of one phrase from this passage indicates that sound bites, excerpts distanced from context, are not new to the electronic age. More important, this phrase that stands for the objectivity of history was only the last part of a passage that advocates for a new understanding of the past. Ranke is proposing a new reality: historical thinking. This historical thinking is the chaining of facts together into linear narratives where chronological time—not place, community, or environment—become central to understanding. The purpose of the past is no longer something continually present in our lives through Ranke’s sarcastic “lofty undertaking” that judges and instructs. The history that Ranke sought to replace was a practical past, historia magistra vitae. It is a repository of moments, ideas, deeds, and events that guides life in the present. It is an ethical past.
The new, linear mode of understanding the past led Thomas Carlyle to complain in 1830, “Things done are in a group, not in a series.” The historian Aron Gurevich described time during the ancient period as “spatialized,” that is, dependent on space and environment: “Ancient man saw past and present stretching round him, in mutual penetration and clarification of each other.” Locale, not time, then provided a different understanding of depth and connectivity. More recently, the psychologist Sam Wineberg argued that historical thinking “goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.”
In the world of the early nineteenth century, the “common sense” of today’s history was then a new “virtual reality.” History became a technics, a science of describing that plotted facts according to the recently popularized Newtonian time, increasingly accepted as universal time. Here, Michel de Certeau’s sage reminder that chronology and time are not synonymous is pertinent: “Recast in the mold of a taxonomic ordering of things, chronology becomes the alibi of time, a way of making use of time without reflecting on it.” In contrast to the practical past, the historical past is separated from people. Data becomes a commodity—something dated, recorded, and verifiable, shorn from its immediate context. The subject shifts to the rise of some collectivity, usually the nation-state. Human activities—that is, social life, sensibility, the everyday, emotions, and culture—are de-emphasized and have often been excluded from the historical past.
This form of historical thinking is not going to disappear; nor should it. It serves as the basis of our liberal-internationalist world. For this reason, alone, it has purpose. This historical thinking emerged to deal with the new ideas (such as linear, progressive time) and forms (like the nation) that became increasingly common during the early nineteenth century. The new practices provided order for an expanded realm that now included the Americas and Asia and for the concomitant rise of new data that had to be defined, collected, and organized. Institutions—libraries, archives, universities, and publishers—were reordered and created to manage this new knowledge. The practitioner of this form of historical thinking becomes the professional historian safely ensconced in the university. These are components of our academic and liberal-capitalist world. Carla Hesse calls it the modern literary system.
This modern literary system is built on a notion of information scarcity. Its goal is to collect, categorize, and disseminate information to better understand this ever-expanding world (both geographically and scientifically). As the increasing specialization of academia indicates, it is an ever more complicated structure that has been more or less effective for rendering a complex world understandable. Here, drawing from complex adaptive systems, the terms complex and complicated are distinct. Our current mode of accommodating increasing scale is to continue piling stuff into these categories (and create ever more subcategories) and building more complicated systems to handle them. History is one technology that gives form to and supports such complicated social forms. For example, throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nascent nations struggled to find and write their own history. (It is amazing that places with several millennia of civilization, like China and Japan, learned, in their late nineteenth century encounter with the West, that they were without history). In these history-writing projects, the relegation of the past into chronological narratives of the nation-state and the subsequent forgetting of this act reinforced the new as “real.” The proliferation of history departments throughout the world has helped to naturalize those social forms that seem decreasingly stable in the digital realm.
We must remember that the spread of this form of historical practice both synchronized the world and proselytized a certain kind of forgetting, a devaluation and even denigration of the multiplicity and heterogeneity of pasts. The parallel that I am drawing between nineteenth-century transformation of history and pasts in a digital age is in the historical condition of what we consider solid as well as the commodification of data that occurred to support that solidity. In short, our current understanding of history, the history that might be changing under pressure from digital media, has parallels in the commodification of data, the changing subject, and the new relation between past and present.
Toward Complex Pasts
We need to ask to what extent our current structure is still apposite. If modernity is indeed moving from some version of solid to liquid, then by its very connection to institutions and knowledge systems, the modern literary system is also shifting. Moreover, there is an important shift that makes Eisenstein’s hypothesis worth serious consideration. Digital media no longer operate under the condition of information scarcity. Indeed, there is a proliferation of data, ease of access, and means of disseminating interpretation. Observers and scholars now recognize this shift. Bauman’s recognition of this change is a different, perhaps radical, way of knowing: “A swift and thorough forgetting of outdated information and fast ageing habits can be more important for the next success than the memorization of past moves and the building of strategies on a foundation laid by previous learning.” Mayer-Schönberger, too, recognizes the reversal of this relationship between preservation and forgetting, where the former has become the default. In his book delete, he offers a concrete proposal that information contain user-set expiration dates. On the surface, for the historian, this proposal sounds preposterous. Yet it points to the massive amounts of data that are increasingly being saved. This does not make history and the past outmoded; it does alter how we value, access, and use pasts and histories.
Moreover, the use of the computer is a terrific aid to existing practices, but I (and, I believe, many others) have often wondered while adapting to digital media, “Why do we do xxx this way? ” Of course, we have been taught/socialized/professionalized to these forms of historical thinking in high school, graduate school, and beyond. But at this point, I would like to introduce a simple but important observation from Jerome McGann: “The simplicity of the computer is merciless. It will expose every jot and tittle of your thought’s imprecisions.” Interestingly, the more we integrate digital technologies into history, the more we confront practices that historians have naturalized to manage the past as “imprecisions.” Digital technologies often bring out the peculiarity of inherited social forms; we begin to understand data differently, we have new ways to connect data, and we have more tools through which we can represent the past.
Before I continue, it is important to point out that the interpretations that I am offering are not created by or new to the digital media. As I hope my endnotes suggest, historians—often called intellectual historians or philosophers of history—have long written about the limitations of our current practices of history. It has been a recurrent theme. Indeed, a history of forgetting about the history of history might be in order here. But as McGann, Bauman, and others suggest, the digital does provide us with an important opportunity to explore the possibilities for reconsidering and reformulating the practice and value of history to contemporary society.
One way that I see history benefiting from the intervention of digital media is through an understanding that other forms of sociotemporal modes of organization did and do exist. I recognize that we operate in a modern temporality and that we cannot merely disavow or easily forsake it, even if doing so is a good idea. Yet it is different to operate within it and write history as if it is the only form of time. We have an opportunity to recognize that history has forsaken an important task that some might call practical, others ethical; we can also recognize that understanding is the accumulation not of data but of locus, relations, and connections. I extract the following discussion from a project, “1884,” that seeks to write history using digital tools. I will not explain this project here, but I draw from it to suggest some ways that digital technologies have helped me formulate history differently.
An image of temporality that I use to imagine complex and heterogeneous pasts comes from Michel Serres: “Time does not always flow according to a line . . . nor according to plan but, rather, according to an extraordinarily complex mixture, as though it reflected stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps—all sown at random, at least in a visible disorder.” Serres’s turbulence recognizes the multiple ways in which time might be organized; yet there is still a dominant flow (that of liberal capitalist society). It accounts for multiplicity and heterogeneity in relation to a hegemonic process; it accounts for complex adaptation where one shift might reverberate broadly.
Once freed from the limitations of absolute, linear time, we are able to use the past much more differentially; we can think of different ways to structure more expansive and heterogeneous pasts that operate in the multiple temporalities of life. Data can record happenings, not just facts. For example, in 1883 and 1884 Meiji Japan, there was a spike in newspaper accounts of mysterious sightings. This is an example of how history fragments the past, by rendering these beliefs as the forgotten of history; today, these sightings are categorized as time forms of past or backward societies—superstitions and folklore, not facts. For example, the Shizuoka daimu shinbun, a regional paper, reported on May 18, 1884,
Chiyo (14 years old), one of the three daughters of the Fujimoto household, was routinely babysitting for a year at a shop in Gofuku. On the third of this month she did not return; her master inquired about her whereabouts, became suspicious, and began searching. Her parents became frantic. Five or six days later Chiyo returned in a daze. She said that she went with an unknown, old, white-haired man who said that he would show her interesting places.
Kidnapping, disappearance, running away might explain why Chiyo disappeared. Yet the notion that she was “spirited away,” kamikakushi (the English title of a popular anime film by Miyazaki Hayao), was common. We could dismiss this incident as the antics of an imaginative, naughty teenage girl as interpreted through the backwardness of a rural society steeped in superstition. Yet when placed alongside a depression that began in 1881, the proliferation of stories of mysterious happenings also signals beliefs or anxieties of various people during a period of severe hardship and rapid change. We might also wonder if there is a connection to the rise of interest in the supernatural, folk, and ghostly in Japan today. Here, time need not designate one as old and the other new.
Decades ago, Georg Simmel argued that human society operates at a different temporal scale than technological society: “The things that determine and surround our lives, such as tools, means of transport, the products of science, technology and art, are extremely refined. Yet individual culture, at least in the higher strata, has not progressed at all to the same extent; indeed, it has even frequently declined.” Rather than pity the backward for their ignorance and misfortune, this notion of heterogeneous time gives us a different understanding of how individuals deal with an increasingly abstract, rational, and mechanical society. A survey conducted in 1946 Japan provides an example of such a coexistence of multiple time systems. That study showed that many communities still used the lunar calendar over 70 years after Japan adopted the solar calendar. Ninety-three percent of urban residents solely used the solar calendar, while only 8.8 percent of rural inhabitants solely used the solar calendar. Among rural residents, 37.6 percent only used the lunar calendar, and 48.8 percent used some combination of the two. This heterogeneity existed amid an era of unprecedented unity within fascist Japan (at least, that is what the history books say).
From this recognition of heterogeneity, it is possible to think of a scalability within the nation that is simultaneously diverse but also contained. Here, I find the metaphor of wayfaring from Tim Ingold, in his recent book Lines: A Brief History, to be helpful in thinking of different ways that people, things, and institutions connect and interact. In wayfaring one moves along, taking in the surroundings, and inhabits that which she or he traverses. In contrast, in transport one moves across, from point to point, or from one predefined category to another.
Ingold applies this formulation to narrative, and I would extend it to academic disciplines, including history. Travel becomes the effort to reach the destination, a modern liberal-capitalist nation-state; mapping is provided through the models and tools for achieving that goal, and textuality becomes the establishment of a history (building on the lessons from Ranke) that synchronizes a Japanese history into the teleology of world history at that time. It is a complicated negotiation of different categories—Ingold’s precomposed plots. The variability of the regions and of people’s beliefs and anxieties is lost. Stories are replaced by “important” knowledge. Ingold argues for a storied, not classificatory, form of knowledge. The former is like the wayfarer who inhabits the specific “timespace,” is embedded in practice and movement, and sees within the complex interplay of ideas, people, and events. At times, individuals connect, directly or indirectly, to the categories of the nation-state; at other moments, they do not. For me, this is not an exercise in bringing back individuals to history. It includes some of that, but it leads to a very different narrative of Japan’s transformation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A second way that a different understanding of pasts might help us write deeper and, I believe, more accurate histories is to reconsider our understanding of change. We can describe quite well how societies have (and have not) become like the present. The default mode for ordering and connecting data has been from old to new. Such a structure is anything but neutral. It is a technological metric that establishes value, with recent or new being better than older. It orients society toward production, not life. It presupposes mechanical, orderly causality. Yet through psychological and cognitive studies, we know that in individual learning, the mind is not a blank slate or a computer hard drive that merely needs to be filled with meaningful information. It is a complex process of biological organisms, acquired knowledge, external stimulus, and environment. Societies, too, have inherited practices and knowledge systems that affect how the new is understood and adapted. Sylvia Scribner uses the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky to state what might seem obvious: “Societies and cultural groups participate in world history at different tempos and in different ways. Each has its own past history influencing the nature of current change.” Yet in our understanding of other cultures, we almost always locate them (as if they are singular, such as “the Japanese”) in some temporal category of the “not yet.” We describe how they have made mistakes and failed (to be like our idealized selves), not how those processes are and are not appropriate, how they are understood, and how different places adapt those processes.
A different way to study change would be to adapt Lucian Hölscher’s notion of a historical event as a “common reference point of many narratives told about it.” Such a concept recognizes that there are many stories told about an event, at that time, later, and even later, by historians. Ambiguity, insignificance, and conflicting views coexist. To return to my discussion of the non-West as the “not yet,” Hölscher’s new annalistic history enables us to write a much more layered history that sees the variability of process (such as modernization), place, event, and the way that a particular past impacts change. A simple example is the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, DC, in October 1884. Forty-five countries participated in this conference, which determined the prime meridian, international dateline, and beginning of the day. Each country had one vote; Japan and Hawaii were equals with the United States, France, and Great Britain. The conference is significant in that it moved us toward a universal world time; that is, it became possible to both standardize and synchronize world time with the decisions of the conference.
From this event, we can see that Japan officially adopted modern time before many European countries and the United States. Japan unified time around the 24-hour clock and adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873; it synchronized its time with Greenwich time in 1889. The United States did not officially adopt Greenwich time and the time zones until 1918, although railroads adopted the time zones in 1883; France remained 9 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Greenwich time until 1911; and Germany unified its time in 1893. In this case, Japan was not behind; indeed, it was often ahead. But the setting of the beginning of the day at roughly 180 degrees longitude geographically codified Asia as the East (Oriental), that is, the “not yet.” Examining the move away from absolute time to a temporality that includes a multiplicity of time systems, tempos, and utility, as well as ignorance, gives both a history of our current knowledge system and a deeper, richer understanding of the past, of other cultures, and of how people either changed or did not.
Finally, while I am troubled by the “forgetting” of the past as well as the limited context and meaning that past events now contain, I am more worried about the limited recognition of the past that occurs under our existing historical practices. We too often insist on a single, correct understanding of an event or of the past. A richer history would include a heterogeneity of interpretations, the diversity of practices, the contestations, and the processes and negotiations by which people have dealt with such differences—turbulence. Keith Sawyer points out that innovative change occurs in heterogeneous group settings; uniformity and certainty reinforce the status quo. Digital media present us with an opportunity to use tools that facilitate more complex, not complicated, narratives and stories of the past and how they continue to operate in our present.
By bringing out such variability, we can show more of the operations of history, the stories embedded in primary data and the negotiations and decisions that lead to the structures, ideas, and social forms of our narratives. Constantin Fasolt quotes a rather casual but provocative statement by Thomas Kuhn: “In history, more than in any other discipline I know, the finished product of research disguises the nature of the work that produced it.” In the writing of history, we traditionally background our research, the management of a multitude of information, data, and social forms, for a more or less straightforward, unitary narrative. We limit our studies to book or article length, omit contradictions, and make decisions on conflicting views. This has considerable implications for the relation of past and present in history, but my hope is that if we bring stories together with the narratives of historical thinking, we might be able to regain the role of practicality that professional historians gave up over a century ago. Moreover, the role of the historian shifts from expert who masters (and protects his or her) knowledge of a specific (increasingly narrow) area—an increasingly futile task—to that of a skilled and reliable organizer of the myriad data that helps us understand human experience. Here, it is worthwhile to consider (but not imbibe) Bauman’s warning that knowledge for the future “is not conformity to rules . . . but flexibility.”
My hope is that an expanded past can bring the diversity of human experiences back to history. That, of course, is an overstatement, but we need to return the practical aspect of pasts to history. Digital tools help us reformulate history so that we might recover some of the complexity of human activity.
Acknowledgments: This essay began as a talk delivered at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska. I would like to thank Kenneth Price, Katherine Walter, and William Thomas III for the invitation to speak and for the stimulating environment that received me.
6. See, for example, works in media archaeology, such as Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, eds., New Media, 1740–1915 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), and Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999).
7. For excellent studies of the relation between absolute time and the formulation of history, see Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), and Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
11. Thomas Carlyle, “On History,” in Historical Essays, ed. Chris R. Vanden Bossche (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 7; Aron J. Gurevich, Categories of Medieval Culture, trans. G. L. Campbell (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 29; Sam Wineberg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
12. One of the best studies that describes this transformation of the reckoning of time in Europe is Donald J. Wilcox’s The Measure of Times Past: Pre-Newtonian Chronologies and the Rhetoric of Relative Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). For an account of the transformation of time in Japan, see my New Times in Modern Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Two fine overviews on the social constitution of time are Barbara Adam’s Time (Cambridge: Polity, 2004) and Norbert Elias’s Time: An Essay (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
14. For two fine works that discuss the transformation of the knowledge system, see Thomas Richards, Imperial Archives: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993), and Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).
16. For two rather different works on complex systems, see John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), and R. Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
26. See, for example, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). I have written elsewhere that Asia is still in the place of the Orient. See “Time and the Paradox of the Orient,” Tōajia bunka kōshō kenkyu, 2009 bessatsu (special issue) 4 (2009): 165–74.
28. See, for example, Jean Comaroff’s discussion of “ritual commemorations of the past” in “The End of History, Again: Pursuing the Past in the Postcolony,” Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, ed. Ania Loomba et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).