Strategies for Structure in Digital History and Humanities, or David Bowie Save Us From Ourselves

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?


3 Replies to “Strategies for Structure in Digital History and Humanities, or David Bowie Save Us From Ourselves”

  1. I don’t think that accepting structure means these disciplines will die out. Chaos and structure can coexist on the web. Due to the multiplicity of options to create content and the openness of the internet, digital historical works would still be created by anyone, allowing for the continuance of unique and innovative methods typified by this field of study. There is no gatekeeper who determines who can post on the internet (the telecom industries haven’t created it yet). Structures should be in place as a simple means to separate out the legitimate (but still debatable) from the illegitimate. While the works that go through the established structures will automatically be seen as legitimate, those that sidestep this route can still be published and stand on their own individual merit.

  2. I kind of like the idea of dismantling structure and questioning aspects of the digital history profession, but I also don’t think in terms of “before it’s too late.” I know in the grand scheme of things it’s early days yet for the Internet, but so far one of the best things about the World Wide Web, mobile apps, and other digital resources as a social tools is that users constantly construct and reconstruct ideas about how to use them. Though they’re the giants now, companies like Google and Amazon started as small groups thinking in innovative ways to change how we use online resources. As historians, especially digital historians, I think that we can accept structure, but also recognize that it’s changeable, not static. It’s important for us not only to do good traditional history in the digital community, a la Cohen and Rosenzweig, but always look for ways to bring something new to the game.

    On the notion of functioning in chaos: One thing I’ve learned studying history is that things might look like chaos from the ground, but once you step back and take in the wider picture, you can usually find some kind of structure, motivation, trend, etc. I don’t know if we’ve gotten to a point where we can step back and take in a broader picture of the Internet, but once we do, I think we’ll find that it’s not as chaotic as it may seem. After all, the Internet is just another place where humans create groups and societies, albeit in new and different ways. By finding overarching structures in the ways Internet denizens interact, digital historians can both dismantle and build in ways that effect real change and make sense from the chaos.

  3. I agree, Julie, that the digital history profession should accept structure, while remaining flexible to reevaluations and changes. While I agree with many of the readings that structure/boundaries/authority in some form are necessary for digital historical content–and that without this the Internet will be inundated with false information–I think one of the biggest challenges is deciding who this authority rests with. A central aim of digital history is to increase accessibility and engage more diverse groups of users interested in historical content. Yet if we begin to implement strategies that limit content/engagement I too think there may be a great danger in causing the discipline to die out.

    As a history graduate student, I am surrounded by academics who refuse to write in accessible language, and avoid engaging with genealogists, amateur historians, or even scholars in other fields–all too prove themselves somehow “better” and “more advanced” than others. Because of this, academic historians are rapidly losing authority over the field. Some would even say that we’ve already lost it. Most individuals do get their historical information from the internet, museums, and books written by journalists and amateur historians, not by scholars. When academic historians refuse to engage with these groups they’re no longer sharing important interpretations and information about the past, and they’re allowing the possibility that incorrect historical content will instead inform audiences. I think this is a challenge in doing digital history as well. As we try to figure out strategies for creating structures and “policing” content we must also work to not alienate user groups. How can we most effectively engage diverse groups of people interested in history, and how can we best incorporate knowledge and skills from different authorities in the field?

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