Digital History Skeptics and the Questions They Ask

Thanks to commenters on the previous post: great questions! As soon as I get home from my almost Internet free writing break, I will return to that portion of the chapter.

The next little chunk will go in the Introduction. My writing group advised me that I needed to give more space at hte beginning of the book to digital history skeptics, and I think they are right. What digital practices should not be doing is consolidating themselves at the expense of engaging with the norms of the  historical profession and graduate education as it exists. Because it is the project of this book to move the conversation between DH and non-DH historians forward, I am spending part of this week exploring the ways that criticisms of the digital dovetail with more established skepticism among book historians about the quality of research intended to engage a broader public through the use of alternative narrative forms.

Digital history holds out the possibility of writing books that cross multiple archives and address big, perhaps even transnational, questions across hundreds of years. They put the researcher at the center of a dizzying number of documents, narratives and histories, traveling further in time and space while actually staying still. The possibility of “visiting” digital archives from one’s own desk, traveling to an archive with an imaging device to shorten trips and drill deeper into a collection at leisure, and extracting data from archives without even reading the documents, have promise and pitfalls that I will address. But they are changes that are occurring whether a scholar believes herself to be a digital practitioner or not. Furthermore, these changes are occurring in the context of a profession that masks these enormous changes in how we learn and write. In fact, our seeming reliability of history – both in its academic and its popular modes – as a way of seeing the world lies in fact that its product, history books, have been researched and written in more or less the same way since history departments began to evolve out of political science, economics and law faculties in the 1880s.  We do it better, the array of legitimate historical subjects is larger than it ever has been, but our product – the book — binds historians to a set of ancient, and often very successful rules, that contrasts with digital technologies’ search for innovation and audience.

            Yet an open question for historians is: what are tools that simply need to be mastered, and what are “digital history” practices? “Digital history isn’t a field, it’s a technique,” one colleague said to me in the midst of a conversation about defining a line in the department. While the comment was intended to convey a good reason why proposing to spend a precious hire on a digital historian was intellectually unserious, it was also an opening to do something we rarely do in history departments: discuss how our discipline has changed, what changes we support, and why.  I am not sure that digital history is a field if, as historians, we define fields as having subjects; and if we replaced the word “technique” with “method” my colleague and I would be in almost perfect agreement. This does not mean that methods are not historically contentious either, but – as Renee Romano and I argued in the introduction to our edited collection, Doing Recent History (DATE), while historians are often not explicit about their methods, you don’t have to scratch very deep to find them.

            A historian of science for whom I worked back in the 1980s, a woman who was one of the best regarded scholars in her field and worked in three languages, would point to the rise and fall of cliometrics, one of the early digital history techniques, as an excellent example of the faddishness that could take a department straight to hell. What I did not learn for at least another decade was that history departments’ hostility to both the expense and the methodological strangeness of cliometrics had not destroyed the work, but mostly driven it out of history departments.

            Many history departments demonstrate their continuing reluctance to move off the digital dime in ways this book will discuss, proposing the new conversations and incentives that might overcome this conservationist tendency. As younger historians become more involved with digital techniques and intellectual cultures, this will be a crucial way of incorporating them and ensuring their success in higher education. But perhaps that most compelling reason for departments to have the conversations I propose in this book is the future of historical thinking and writing depends on it. The new texts, new language, new habits and new information technologies that has resulted from mass culture’s shift to digital platforms at the end of the twentieth century requires a deeper understanding of media and its platforms than most historians have. Documents sometimes have odd and circuitous journeys to archives, disappearing both by default and by design. Yet how we look at them, how we extract information from them, and how we understand their provenance has been the collective work of over a century across fields and periods. In less than 25 years, our paper world has moved online, but the work of preservation and interpretive technique has not kept pace; nor has our pedagogy embraced the complexity of writing and thinking in a digital environment that can easily overwhelm us.

            Some years ago, Anthony Grafton, discussing the future of writing with a group of history bloggers, grinned from under his beard and said: “Historians study change – we don’t recommend it!” Said in jest, it speaks to a laudable commitment to material truths that can slip into cautious defensiveness when scholarly traditions meet new intellectual realities. History is perhaps the only humanities field where being skeptical of or hostile to theory is no bar to professional success; and one of the few where story-telling is a legitimate method for making a persuasive argument.  That these stories could be, among other things, bigger, more persuasive, more exciting, and distributed to broader audiences through the use of digital tools and techniques is the endgame of digital humanities more generally.

            Yet there is tension about the value of big stories too. One question is whether the desire for big stories is generated by the presentist concerns of the middlebrow audiences to which they appeal. Richard White, in an essay about what he calls “big history,” begins the essay by describing a literary inheritance from his father, Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume The Story of Civilization, a popular phenomenon that could not contrast more sharply with White’s own prize-winning books. “I buried the maroonish volumes in a remote bookcase behind a door,” he writes. “I was slightly embarrassed to display them; the prose, as I recalled (rightly), reeked of hubris and antique presumption.” If the popularity of a semi-risible series like The Story of Civilization was driven by the vogue for book subscriptions and now serves as a spectral presence in the household of a prize-winning historian whose books describe sweeping transformations of the American West, White sees digital history as the potential source of equally bad books. “Digital innovation has produced big data by allowing us to access reams of statistics, search libraries of digitized books, and make spatial and temporal connections on a vast scale.” Yet, White argues, not only is this not producing better history – the books derived from big data are worse. They insist on a uniquely correct point of view, against which all other arguments must fail; they obscure “the complexities and contradictions that dominate our daily lives;” and “By increasing the scale and speed of human history, big historians dehumanize it.”[1]

            My point here is not White’s criticism of history done badly, or his irritation with narratives so vast that they can only serve one, flattening, argument to which no book or series of books can properly serve. But perhaps unintentionally, White also conflates academics using digital technology to produce old-fashioned middlebrow history with the unwelcome intrusion of digital methods in history more broadly. Indeed, White closes his essay by speculating that an otherwise reputable historian has been led astray in part by “our present media culture,” and has produced not a book, but an app.[2]

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[1] Richard White, “Nature and the Pitfalls of Big History,” Raritan v. 35 no. 3 (winter 2016), 15, 28.

[2] White, “Nature and the Pitfalls of Big History,” 29.

Source: https://digitalulab.org/2016/06/25/digital-history-skeptics-and-the-questions-they-ask/