I remember a few years ago, studying with some CS friends, I probably an old language from a paper book, them running experiments on a machine, a conversation arose about the idea of computers as the “new literacy”: just as the ability to control prose and poetry versus to keep simple accounts and records characterised a distinction between literacy and a sort of user-end literacy in the ancient world, I could check e-mail, but not programme, and therefore was not educated in today’s world! What a bunch of funny guys, right? The concerns beneath our little session of banter however provide the real meat of our first week’s readings. What does it mean to be digital and what command do we need over tools to operate in today’s world?
The question of the hour: what is digital history? We might distill from readings that “it” is a category of discussion, motivated by a desire to apprehend and perhaps to direct the changes in practise that emerge out of the shift to new technologies both by historians and by our history-practising culture at large. As a category of discussion, it also has an economic and financial aspect as practitioners negotiate within a living system of funding, work, and authority. The range of answers we get in “The Promise of Digital History” from historians participating in the JAH interview speak to “digital history” as this kind of deliberation.
Specific answers to the JAH interviews discuss concerns about changes in the tools, presentation, and audience that describe the discipline of history. I think of how print and mass print changed things: how research was done, etc. who had access, who practiced, the development of systems of research developed around the emergence of (more) multiple copies now more economically and widely distributed. These factors surely contributed to the slow replacement of history as creative interpretations of annals with the more rigorous and systematised history we think of today, the characteristics of the print-and-paper system infiltrating and shaping the components of the history artefact — from margins and font to formatted bibliographies.
We might reflect on the William Cronnon reading here as he describes the professional practise of history. What features of his model is digital practise renegotiating? Tim Sherratt’s presentation of his work provides our first example this class of a novel or innovative approach to doing history with new media, using the expanded capabilities of computing to analyse a large body of data. It is an effective and powerful alternative to the close reading and the monograph. As Dan Cohen noted in the JAH interview, the close reading is endangered by the ability to quickly find contradictory or complicating evidence with a quick Internet search. He cautions us not to ignore the power of new modes of research. I should add here that for the Art Historian, the problem is parallel to the historian’s insofar as the close reading of image documents. It seems to me that we must embrace “new literacy” if we are to pursue the degree of rigour we in fact developed digital tools to improve.
There’s an interesting point in that statement though: to date, we have been developing tools to improve tasks we were already doing, but in turn are changed by the tools we use as we use them in new ways. But the idea of literacy itself seems problematic to some of the commentators, especially in the JAH interview as they ask to what degree we should expect graduate students to learn programming. I suppose its the difference between the building and operating a printing press and commanding prose though. Perhaps our goals should be, rather than learning to programme, learning to make use of the growing body of applications that allow a user to develop and analyse digital content and to be informed enough to communicate with developers of tools about the needs of historians This is Cohen’s solution and William Turkel’s, the later with the caveat that “architects know about plumbing”… a lot about plumbing.