Interaction Between Digital and Material Worlds

I am really excited for the Digital Sandbox Workshop at IUPUI on Thursday, August 15. The members of the executive committee, myself included, have been working hard all summer to organize this workshop, and I think the history, liberal arts, and humanities students that plan on attending will be in for an exciting day of learning about digital technology and the digital humanities. In my opinion, there are three central concepts that we are aiming to address with the workshop (as I have written elsewhere), and these concepts should be a part of every digital humanities class:

1. Tools: What digital tools are out there for my use? What do they do? Where can I find them?

2. Theory: Who created these tools? Why did they create them? Does digital technology democratize information to humanities content that was inaccessible through 19th and 20th century methods of information dissemination? (a question I attempted to address here) If we “go digital,” who might we be leaving out of the discussion? What are the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with big data through new methods of historical research such as topic modeling and distant reading?

3. Building: How can I use these tools to enhance my own scholarly work? To steal the quote from our workshop, “Play, Create, Collaborate.”

All three concepts are intertwined. I can’t build unless I have a knowledge of the tools I could use to help me accomplish what I want, and my product won’t be very good unless I understand the promises and perils of my tools that may affect my work. Of all three, I think the Digital Sandbox needs to focus on making IUPUI students aware of what is out there for their use, and I think most of our panels are geared towards meeting this objective. But time also needs to be made for discussion on theory, and an article by Thomas Peace for Active History has me thinking of ways to incorporate theory into the workshop.

As his article boldly asserts, “digital history isn’t for everyone.” Focusing on internet usage in Canada, Peace points out that in 2010 there were roughly 6.8 million Canadians who did not regularly engage with online content. Many of these people believed that they had no need for the internet, while others could not afford to have an internet connection or they believed they didn’t have the skills to use the internet. While those numbers have probably decreased since 2010, it is nevertheless significant that such a large number of people (especially those who are stuck in poverty) are prevented from engaging with the work of historians who are putting their work online. Peace specifically calls out Library and Archives Canada, which has stated that in order to move forward with its “modernization” efforts, they have “moved to a single platform, the Internet,” because “information has been liberated from its physical containers. As a result, there has been a steady decline in a static relationship between particular content and a particular communications medium.” Peace challenges us to ask whether or not some people who want to learn more about history may actually lose out thanks to this increased attention on the digital medium for scholarly work.

How do we address this problem? Peace argues that historians need make their research accessible not only in the digital world, but the material world as well. In sum, historians need to be out in the community as often–if not more often–as they are staring at a computer screen. In another thought-provoking essay, Peace introduces (to me, at least) the concepts of active and passive history. Passive history involves learning about history through television and historic site interpretation, but through a person’s “preexisting understanding of the world.” What I get from this definition is that people absorb historic information passively when they use it to suit their own purposes without engaging with the past or “thinking historically.” As Josh Tosh explains, “Many of our most popular heritage sites encourage a view of the past which is superficial, nostalgic and conformist; they are not so much a means of education as an adjunct to tourism.” Getting audiences to think critically about the past, to see change over time, to link past, present, and future together, to look at both the good and bad moments and events in history, to provide context for those historic events that goes beyond family history… that is all active history.

In concluding the first piece I linked to, Peace states the follow:

As online services and digital history grows in prominence, Active Historians need to critically reflect on their audience and understand who isn’t able to come into contact with our research and ideas. We also need to push back against projects that over-emphasize the potential of online dissemination. Instead we should emphasize ways in which the digital and material worlds can interact, reinforcing and enhancing the public’s access to information and analysis about the past.

I am not sure how many other digital projects out there besides the one Peace mentioned are “over-emphasiz[ing] the potential of online dissemination” and would like further clarification on that point. Nevertheless, I agree that a major part of doing “active history” is providing access to information about the past in as many forms as possible, and the notion of fostering interaction between digital and material worlds is one I will continue to ponder as I learn more about the digital humanities.