Sunday, March 20, 2016

Digital History Idea: Choose Your Own History

I've been re-reading some old articles about digital humanities and digital history from the 1990s and early 2000s, and they're a fun mix of excited, near-utopic predications and sometimes quaint worries - for example, from a talk by Ed Ayers on "The Futures of Digital History" in 2000:
When I talk to audiences of people who are not as taken with the new technologies as we are, I am invariably asked these questions: aren't you worried about putting all this information out there for just anyone to see? Aren't you worried that you will never be able to write a book out of so much material? Aren't you worried that these computers will merely contribute to the fragmentation of knowledge and the shortening of attention spans? Aren't you worried that traditional narratives and sequential arguments will be displaced by isolated pieces of evidence and scattered hyperlinks? Aren't you worried that you are complicit in the erosion of the academy's autonomy and its absorption by corporate culture and demands?
Some of those have proven unfounded; others (eg the corporatization of universities) so commonplace as to be irresistible, and any scholar's efforts minimally important.

In any event, the various articles I've been reading talk continually about all the different ways that historians could use the unfixed medium of the (then-emerging and -even-more-quickly evolving) web to emphasize the complexity of the past.

That gave me an idea: Choose-Your-Own-History. Or more accurately, if less catchy: a Make-Your-Own-Scholarly-Judgements Article.

Users would select a handful of weighted judgments - either as a bunch at the start, or at key moments in the paper - to simulate a scholar's own predilections. For example, a user might answer:

1) You are trying to interpret the actions of a deputy at the State Department, but don't know much about his past or his personality. Which do you assume :
    a) He is probably acting in his own rational self-interest (for example, career promotion). Most people look out for themselves first.
    b) He is probably acting in what he understands to be the State Department's interests. People often get absorbed in serving institutions' needs and established rules, even when flexibility might make more sense.
    c) We fundamentally cannot make such a judgment. Toss out this line of argument.

This would then re-render the article, emphasizing different evidence (or in the case of option c, possibly deleting a paragraph and softening the overall conclusions), highlighting changes in a different text color.

You would have to choose your topics carefully, but there are plenty of under-determined, important historical subjects out there. Why did the US drop atomic bombs on Japan? Was Martin Guerre's wife extremely clever and in on an almost unbelievably complex ruse, or dull and her memory so poor that she could make the almost unbelievable mistake of not recognizing the man who claimed to be her husband? How do we sort out the different sources (each writing some decades or centuries after the fact) for the history of the Roman Republic?

The primary audience, I think, would be undergraduates, as a pedagogical tool. It would underline the subtle decisions that go into research and writing, the construction of history that does not exist without an interpretation.

A further iteration might even gamify the concept: History Professor Simulator. Take a model something like Game Dev Story (or its flashier, in some ways inferior homage/knock-off Game Dev Tycoon) and demonstrate the difficulty of getting research done at all with the various demands on your time; the time spent on the bizarre demands of Reviewer 2; the real trade-off you make if you spend the extra 6 hours really reading this new book closely vs. skimming it and moving on. You can start as a grad student, and the impossible job market is a boss stage.

In any event, the non-game part of this could be done relatively easily and quickly. I think it would make a few neat points about history, and might be well-received in the history community. If I ever have a some time I want to productively procrastinate, I might throw it together myself - hence making this post as a dual self-reminder / suggestion for someone else. Whether it's me or someone else, the idea is out there: feel free to copy it.

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