History is Not the Past

As we approached our final week of class (save for troubleshooting our Air Canada project), Shawn asked us to reflect on what we thought the holes in our introduction to DH might be. He suggested we peruse Digital Humanities Now to see if there was anything there that piqued our fancy which we didn’t get to cover in the class. Unsurprisingly, however, the offerings on Digital Humanities Now pretty closely mirrored the debates, issues, successes, and failures we would discuss each week. Knowing that Shawn gave us an introduction which allowed us to understand the DH field as a whole, the only hole I felt in this year’s offerings would be a deeper discussion into the “so what” of DH. A discussion of how DH may or may not be changing what we think history is and what history is doing.

This is not to say that DH practitioners aren’t thinking about this and including this in their work. I know that many are, and that questions about the nature of history and representation inform many, many DHers work. However, I feel that the new-ness of many of the tools and methodologies still overshadow the meat of the historical work being done. Surely this is something that will shift and grow over time. In fact, I know it’s starting to, because of this perfect passage from Tim Hitchcock’s Big Data for Dead People that I got so excited about that I texted it to a few friends word for word (I have very patient friends):

“… history is not the past, it is a genre constructed by us from practises first delineated during the enlightenment. Its forms of textual criticism, its claims to authority, its literary conventions, the professional edifice which sifts and judges the product; its very nature and relationship with a reading and thinking public; its engagement with memory and policy, literature and imagination, are ours to make and remake as seems most useful.

DH lets us make and remake our understanding of the past using incredible tools which give us incredible insights. As long as we remember that history and digital history are not the past themselves, then all’s well that ends well with me.

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A Digital History of Evil


As all well-trained academics, I read this week’s selections in the order they appeared in the syllabus.  As much as Michael Widner’s protestations to the contrary in “The Digital Humanists (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State” and “Digital Humanists Responses to Surveillance”, he paints the uses and abuses of Big Data by the NSA as part of the above video’s narrative of  the History of Evil.  Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart, however, show how humanists can use these Big Data tools for the forces of good (good being understanding history in new and novel ways, of course) as well.

Widner’s pieces foreground that there’s “an awful politics built into the current digital environment.”  I find this doom and gloom a bit naïve however, as aren’t there “awful politics” built into all of our environments?  Last week’s readings showed us how skewed the current academic publishing systems are.  And the History of Evil animation demonstrates how the “awful politics” of systems of power have permeated Western society since ancient Grecian times.

But this week’s pieces have also demonstrated how Digital Humanists can use the tools of these systems to combat some of the “awful politics” afoot.  Graham, Milligan, and Weingart and Tim Hitchcock demonstrate how using Big Data digital tools can let historians perform distant and close readings, on a scale unfathomable before our current digital age.  These four authors, in concert with Franco Moretti, also usefully point out that although these tools may offer new ways of seeing, they also require the keen eye of the humanist to make sense of the data and question the systems that lead to these conclusions.

I think all of our authors would agree that the keen eye of the humanist is still required throughout academia – in the digital world or otherwise.  And just as it may be “safer, really, to keep an eye on everyone,” we have to make sure we keep our gaze turned steely back at the systems that watch us, too.

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Shawn of the Dead

This week, we read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.  In it, she highlights the “undead” nature of the current academic publishing system, which is “governed by a kind of zombie logic.”  She continues: “These old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent, wholly devoid of consciousness, eating the brains of the living and susceptible to nothing but decapitation.”  Although Fitzpatrick recognizes her own hyperbole in this metaphor, I nonetheless think it is apt for what she and many others see as the way forward in academic publishing.  If you want to defeat the “undead” that is the current system of closed-door, blind, anonymous, untenable book publishing, academics will have to work collaboratively, try new avenues and modes of publishing, and rethink the world in which they operate.

One of the many strengths of #hist5702x is the collaborative nature of our Air Canada/CSTMC project.  From the get-go, we’ve made decisions as a class, we’ve worked in smaller groups on individual tasks, and we’ve problem solved as a team.  As many of the other returning blogs this week have pointed out, we’ve been having a bit of trouble with modelling.  All last week, it was standing room only in the Underhill Research Lab as group after group troubleshot their wonky models (my own included).  Throughout this process, however, no one seems to be too flustered, because we know between the ten of us (I am of course including Professor Shawn Graham in this equation), we know we’ll be able to figure out a solution.

This past few weeks’ frustrations are also indicative of another broad trend I saw in the readings, and in much of our discussions of emerging DH practices: namely that of quantifying DH work in the traditional academic setting.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out that academics who are trying to move beyond the article/book/peer-review paradigm get stuck in finding ways that their digital work – and all its concomitant fiddling – can be quantified in order to count towards publications, tenure, and the like.  I’ve found the same frustrations popping up in my own work: when fiddling with models is feeling too time consuming, it’s easiest to return to writing the book’s narratives rather than to stick it out in the lab.  The next few (very busy) weeks will surely see a balance between the two as we prepare, all together, our “final” product for CSTMC.

DH pushes us out of our comfort zones, makes us search for new solutions, and requires a lot of leg work.  And as a lover of a good zombie narrative, I know that this is how our heroes win the day, too.

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No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

This week in everyone’s favourite #hist5702x our class focused on the implications of combining historical (and archeological) work with the digital world.  Namely, when we work with tools new to the traditional academe, what becomes of our work?

In class, we took at a look at the terms of service of a few of the apps we’re using for our Air Canada collection project through the Voyant text-mining tool.  This nifty visualizer made it clear that the more you pay for an app, the more control you retain over the products you make with it.  123D Catch, the free app which we are using to make our models, has a sliding scale of how much it “owns” your model.  Augment, who has generously donated space for which one would otherwise pay, doesn’t seem to be interested in retaining any rights over what we upload onto their app.  However, the mere ability to do this kind of 3D modelling in the name of history for free is astounding, considering what some of the authors in our readings this week have endured.

Following our three assigned readings chronologically, it’s plain to see the amount of work past practitioners of DH modelling have put into creating and justifying their projects.  In 2005, Peter Dawson and Richard Levy outlined the incredible innovation and expense that went into recreating a Thule Inuit whalebone house – combining 2D archeological records with 3D scans of a North Atlantic Right Whale skeleton from the New England Aquarium in Boston (the Glenbow Museum has a flash animation of what it may have looked like here).  In 2009, Robert Warden outlined the brave new world of heritage conservation that terrestrial laser scanning and photogrammetry has afforded – a brave new world where equipment doesn’t come on the cheap.  However, David Crandall and Noah Snavely outlined in their 2011 article how they were able to create maps and models from mining free, open photo-sharing websites like Flickr and Facebook.  For those of us (cough, me) familiar with iDevices, the idea of not being able to do this kind of work for free definitely makes you (cough, me) thank your (cough, my) lucky stars that we came to these kinds of technologies much later in the game than our academic predecessors.  (Cough.)

But as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Although the software we are using for this project is free, the models and manuscript that come out of it may not be ours and ours alone.  Is this ok?  For our prototype, probably yes.  For future distribution of this kind of work in the museum?  This we don’t really know yet.

(It sure is fun though.)

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“Being There”

I’ve told the class – and anyone who’s deigned to ask – about my favourite museum before: the S. S. Great Britain in Bristol, England.  The S. S. Great Britain was the first screw propeller iron ship ever built, designed by famed industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The ship herself had an illustrious, decades long career, eventually finding herself sunk off the coast of South America.  In the 1970s, the ship was brought back to the surface, transported back to Bristol, installed in a dry dock, and over a series of years and a series of renovations, turned into a museum.

Now, I love this museum because – in opposition to the typical museum where you look at artefacts behind glass – you got to walk all around and through the entirety of the ship.  An audio guide triggered by either a GPS or an RSSI would give you information about a given room – the dining room, the kitchen, the third-class accommodations.  Although much of the ship was a recreation rather than the “real thing,” interacting with the past through sight, sound, smell, and touch made this representation of the “real thing” all the more “real.”

This week’s readings reminded me of the S. S. Great Britain because they all highlighted how AR can create a sense of “being there” which is integral to experiencing the past – for professional and amateur historians alike.  Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality as Stuart Eve put it) offers an avenue to get a feel for what it might have been like to “be there.”  Rather than relying on reproductions (like the S. S. Great Britain does), Mixed Reality interfaces let the user interact with both the contemporary and the historical environment at the same time.

Marrying the two worlds of the contemporary and the imagined historical presents yet another way of teaching the structures of history, of acknowledging the pasts relation to the present and the present’s relation to the past.  The goal of Augmented or Mixed Reality isn’t to recreate the past, but rather to highlight the layers of time, space, and meaning all in one place.

And isn’t that what historians have been trying to do all along, anyway?

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AR, DH, and Expo 67 as Heterotopia

1. A space that embodies many layers of meaning at one time;
2. A space that is neither here nor there;
3. A space that is physical and mental at the same time.”

From “Of Other Spaces” By Michel Foucault, loosely.

Although I must admit that is not a complete nor thorough definition of a heterotopia, it works for what we in #hist5702x are working through right now.

This week, our readings and class discussions danced around the ideas of historiography as a game, and games as historiography.  Whether a game is “set in the past” (a flimsy explanation of capital-H History in my estimation) or otherwise, when a player is playing a game they in equal measure learning the structures (the rules) of play as well.  Games introduce players to new worlds, but at the same time teach the structures of navigating their worlds, giving them the tools to understand their worlds in a particular way.

This is not so different from how historians operate.  In all capital-H Historical publishing, authors not only introduce their readers (or watchers or what have you) to new worlds, they also introduce a structure of knowledge, a way of looking at the past and accessing fantastical worlds which are neither here nor there.

I invoke Michel Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia to work through all this for selfish reasons.  As Jesse and I are going to be focussing on the Expo 67 angle of our investigation, I’ve started nosing around for sources.  One which I have found imagines Expo 67 as Canada’s national heterotopia – a place where contested ideas about what the nation was and where the nation was going could manifest in the same liminal space, where a definition of Canada was physical and mental at the same time.  I think our book will embody these dichotomies, not only in its intellectual content, but thanks to its position in the liminal space between past and present, physical and digital, and here and there at the same time as well.

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Real and Unreal Worlds

This week in #hist5702x (I feel like the hashtag is integral at this point, despite what Jimmy or Justin have to say) we’re taking our first trip to the Canada Science and Technology Museum.  But if I’ve gleaned anything from this week’s readings, it’s that AR (augmented reality) apps and programs can make the museums extend their reach beyond their four walls.

In Natasha Baker’s article from 2012, Tracy Ruddell states that at the Royal Museum of Ontario, “we’re all about real-world objects.”  And for many, that’s what museums are in a nut-shell: keepers of artefacts, disseminators of information, and dolers of heritage, science, or art.  However, the NMC 2011 Horizon Report for Museums writes that museums can’t rest on their historical laurels anymore.  To fulfill their educational and outreach mandates, the modern museum must have an easy-to-navigate web presence and must produce content that’s more than uploading static words onto a page.

What struck me the most about the potential for AR apps both in and outside of the museum (some of which can be found here and here) is their potential to connect the imaginary to the museal world of facts and figures, the intangible to the tangible.  Augmented Reality walking tours like the Museum of London Streetmuseum or even Carleton History’s own Rideau Timescapes app literally take the history out of the institution and layer it onto the built and natural environment.  Likewise, programs like QRator bring the outside world in to the museum by hosting new kinds of user-generated content, layering public perceptions onto the historical record of the artefact.

As the CHIN Professional Exchange on AR warns, the museum must be mindful of their audience when producing AR programs.  However, the museum must also be mindful of the new kinds of interaction that AR can foster.  What is being done to the artefact by digitizing it?  Does our understanding of the past change when the real is transformed into the unreal?  What happens in these blended reality worlds, and how does it change the user’s relationship to history?  What is the burden of responsibility when the museum makes “invisible things visible” (as the NMC Horizon Report puts it)?

Some of this and more will hopefully become clearer as our class moves through this project – into the “real world” of the museum and the “unreal world” of our AR production in weeks to come.

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