Tuesday, March 04, 2014

History on Digital: Simulation and Distributed over the Internet

An assertion is made, "All war is a failure" and the 61 countries that were involved in World War One (1914-1918) is reduced to just 4 states and one empire. A series of tweets follows that could not be called a discussion, with a re-tweet and a counter assertion running parallel to each other. Is this public history (i.e. the creation of knowledge from and for historical paradigms in the public sphere)?

I follow history online. From the twitter account Real Time WWII to the spatial experience of Rome Reborn. Between these two examples are the millions of documentaries on YouTube (I can recommend All History Buff). I also use social media to teach cultural studies from a historical perspective. My area of research expertise is narrative studies related to technology and spatial representations. In this post I want to discuss an aspect of public history online that occupies a lot of my thought. I propose that the 'real time' of mediating history with digital media poses potential problems for critical method as we understand it today. This problem emerges from a long tradition of reading as arguably the dominant form of media consumption in relation to history.

The mediation of culture is widespread today (8-9 Kaun and Fast 2014). Part of that mediation is the presentation of history, often in 'live' 'real-time' or participatory modes using digital media. Digital media offer offers specific temporal and spatial perspectives on the presentation of history that result in immersive experiences and a strong sense of identification with the subjects of mediation. It is in this way, of activating space and time in narrative that Social Networking Sites (SNS) "should not only be considered as infrastructures that allow for social interaction, but as emerging actors in their own right" (Kaun and Fast 51).  

Examples of history in 'real time' via digital media such as Real Time WWII, the Virtual Harlem Project and the London Museum's Street Museum app are examples of mediation of history using digital tools that place people in the visual and temporal field of their subjects.

Many times I have opened Twitter and read @RealTimeWWII with the feeling I am reading newspaper headlines for the day.

Another example of this 'live' feel to history is @kokoda1942LIVE, a Twitter account of the New Guinea campaign by the Australian army against the Japanese in World War II. As well I have roamed the streets of Harlem in the 1920s and visited an empty Cotton Club, with jazz playing.

The question I ask is did I learn anything from being in a space that simulates the events or time that is the subject of the history? My answer is, I do not believe that simulation alone is enough for the advancement of historical scholarship. The positioning of a viewer within the representation does not mean there is knowledge produced.I contrast the above image from Virtual Harlem with one taken from Harlem in 1920s.

Virtual Harlem, Street Museum, @Kokoda1942Live and @RealTimeWWII are examples of digital media in the service of history with a strong element of simulation added. The three examples provide a suggestion of sharing something of the time and space depicted. They do not necessarily stimulate questions, provide multiple points of interpretation or the polyphony that is so often found in well researched history, anymore than a photograph or a sonnet does.

There are however, examples where I do believe digital media can be used for effective historical scholarship. Examples include Dr. Heather Richards-Rissetto’s work in Copan in Honduras with gesture-based 3D GIS system to engage the public in cultural heritage (Richards-Rissetto 2012 2013). Another example is Dr Cecilia Lindhé working in Sweden on ‘Rethinking medieval spaces in digital environments’ (Lindhé 2013).

Cecilia Lindhe's keynote paper - Digital Scholarship ‘day of ideas’ - Thursday 2 May 2013 from HSS Webteam on Vimeo.

The Rome Reborn Project is further example that builds models using digital media that are then tested against evidence:

"Rome Reborn is an international initiative whose goal is the creation of 3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550). With the advice of an international Scientific Advisory Committee, the leaders of the project decided that A.D. 320 was the best moment in time to begin the work of modeling. At that time, Rome had reached the peak of its population, and major Christian churches were just beginning to be built. After this date, few new civic buildings were built. Much of what survives of the ancient city dates to this period, making reconstruction less speculative than it must, perforce, be for earlier phases. But having started with A.D. 320, the Rome Reborn team intends to move both backwards and forwards in time until the entire span of time foreseen by our mission has been covered."
Like the work of Dr. Heather Richards-Rissetto the Rome Reborn project attempts to triangulate known facts against a three-dimensional model and the existing theory, to come to some new conclusions about how Rome developed as an urban space.

Kinect and 3D GIS for Archaeology from Jennifer von Schwerin on Vimeo.

The glaring conclusion here is that the powerful reach and popularity of digital media should be considered according to specific needs when practicing public history online. The feedback and interactive potentials of digital media should be separated from the popularity of digital tools. Each has affordances, but they are not necessarily in the service of each other. There are enormous opportunities and great possibilities to be gained from working in history with digital tools in the public sphere. But a literacy needs to be developed along the way, as well as distinct goals and methods too.

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