Do you remember that scene in the Labyrinth where Jennifer Connelly is running up and down the stairs in David Bowie’s castle, trying to find her baby brother, but the stairs are all flying around, ending nowhere, and generally defying the laws of physics? That’s the only analogy I can think of to describe the current state of digital history and humanities as I understood them from our readings this week. Jennifer Connelly is the history or humanities scholar, just trying to do the moral thing, fulfill her professional role as responsible older sister, but it all gets really hard when she finds herself in an environment where established codes of reality no longer make sense. In a similar way, scholars are finding themselves competing in the online environment with amateurs and hacks, or in their most dangerous form,as Robert Weible writes, “concocting and selling self-serving histories that play on public fears, prejudices and greed” for notoriety or monetary gain. In some aspects it’s actually worse than my Labyrinth analogy, because there’s no David Bowie in the online environment (well, there is, but he’s not pulling the strings). It’s a chaotic, democratic, godless place.
Cohen & Rozenwig make the important point in their introduction to Digital History that this kind of thing was happening before the internet, but “digital media undercut an existing structure of trust and authority and we, as historians and citizens, have yet to establish a new structure of historical legitimation and authority.”
Establishing this structure seems to be happening in a variety of different ways. One strategy is policing the system, as Onion and Werner did in their chastisement of the popular Twitter handle @HistoryInPics. But should academics raise awareness of bad practices by calling out illegitimate sources? Is this the best way for digital historian and humanist authorities to legitimize themselves? Weible describes public historians as those who “neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves,” supporting the idea that policing and sanctioning what’s out there is the social responsibility of the historian in the new online frontier.
Another strategy is the one Cohen & Rozenwig advocate for- academics should start building the environment they want RIGHT NOW through behavior (publishing articles online that are openly accessible) and creation (resource aggregation that meet the goals of their profession effectively and ethically). The sense of urgency in their book could’nt be clearer – getting ahead of competing interests is incredibly important in an environment where everything is in free fall.
A third, more complicated strategy emerges in Natalia Cercire’s “Introduction: Theory and the Virtue of Digital Humanities,” which questions the very authority of digital humanities, whose methodologies she sees as being far from settled:
“Yet in its best version, digital humanities is also the subdiscipline best positioned to critique and effect change in that social form- not merely replicate it.”
Far from building to build, Cercire would like to see DHs “dismantle” and question aspects of the profession before it is too concrete- even the language that is slowly starting to characterize what it is they do.
So I ask -can these strategies create the structure necessary for digital historians and humanitarians to flourish online? Will not establishing structure cause these disciplines to die out? Is chaos good for them too?