When I first started the course which I produced this blog for, I can certainly say I was a different person in a few regards. One particular aspect of this was my attitude towards alternative mediums as source material (digital, photography, film, oral history, etc.). Over the last few months, I’ve come to see the value in digital mediums in particular, even identifying with mediums I hadn’t originally linked to Digital Humanities–I’ll cover this further, later in this post.
(Pictured above: one potential interpretation of how alternative reality can alter our understanding of the world around us.)
Lately, my class has begun talking of mediums which veer away from our ideas of conventional ‘history’ or ‘education’–. Some of the digital platforms which digital humanities scholars tend to incorporate or access simply reformat our current systems of understanding and presenting knowledge, such as Wikipedia as I explored in my previous post Wait, but Why?. Wikipedia simply reorganizes the encyclopedia format for faster access between articles and page. Yet, there are platforms which stray from our conventional understanding of knowledge production, preservation and access. As I mentioned in Game On, video games are one such example of this which challenge our understanding of how history is studied, made, and taught/explored. Other examples of this include alternative reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), writing programs such as Inklewriter, among other mediums.
Alternative reality in particular has been a topic which has come back to my attention in recent weeks. Over the course of the last few months, one such instance of it which we had covered was a software platform known as Aurasma at the time. Since then, it has been re-branded into HP Reveal. At the start of this semester I had questioned how such a technology would be even remotely relevant to the efforts of a digital humanities historian. I’ve been able to take away two major points which I felt needing addressing in this post:
- Updating technology.
- Grounding fact in the real world.
Perhaps one of the most universal truths members of any discipline must realize at one point or another in their careers is the nature of the world around them. With an ever-changing world, so to must the tools change to suit the world which they function in. Computers allowed accessed to lightning-fast calculations, film allowed for new forms of entertainment and tutoring, etc.. So to is history going through this presently through the form of digital humanities. The rise of mediums like AR, VR (to a lesser extent, Mixed Reality as well), video games, a variety of products and platforms put forth by google, and many, many more platforms have all collectively given historians new ways of engaging with their audiences. Video games and writing tools like Inklewriter have allowed historians to put their knowledge of the world to creative use in writing narratives to introduce students to different time periods and concepts. AR and VR have been used to give virtual tours to different environments in accompaniment to maps in a massive collaborative effort to allow our understanding of history become more accessible and widespread knowledge. Each of these goals are rather ambitious, but noble nonetheless to be pursued. Coming back to my initial emphasis of AR, HP Reveal demonstrates to historians the urgent need to remain up to date with the current methods of teaching, creating, and sharing forms of history in a world which is progressing as well.
Beyond this, alternate reality provides digital humanities historians with the opportunity to express and highlight the clear linkage between the subject matter discussed in their research and the real-world through physical means. Smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices are granting students and scholars to history alike the ability to create tours, references and other linkages to real-world locations and items through nothing more than QR codes and smartphone apps. Think of it sort of like having a teacher with you at all times on your request, but following your pace. The applications for this technology is surely not limited to these uses exclusively, but it’s a decent juncture to start at for now.
A photo of Johnston Hall, one of the various halls on my campus at the University of Guelph.
So then what? Then historians have a duty to follow the route of digital humanities scholars. In other words, those working in DH have set a precedent which members of the social sciences and humanities may feel obligated or required to follow suit with, and rightfully so. While it is important to constantly question the changes which are made or suggested on a daily basis, it is equally important for historians to keep an open mind to such changes even if they challenge or alter the standard at which work is completed, measured or consumed. To younger readers of this post, this may be a moot point, yet to some of the older readers I know this post may pass by, I also recognize the necessity to make this distinction. In some cases, this distinction may need to be reversed. This is largely due to the fact that each generation as of the last century at least (and that’s an incredibly conservative estimate at that) has had groundbreaking technologies introduced which have altered our way of understanding the world. Think of things such as the internet. Our parents had the internet which in turn revolutionized the way in which we handled data and connections. Other notable events throughout history include the invention of the printing press, the invention of the first automobile, human access to flight, etc.. Each of these events has altered our understanding of the world around us and the methods at which we transfer and access information from one another. Just as our parents have struggled with the internet, my generation will have an ‘internet’ of our own which will challenge our understanding of the world around us too, and so on and so forth.
The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.
-Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States.
As for what the future holds, who knows? But as historians, our job is to remain current while bringing to light to the one thing which will always remain new–history which students and scholars have not yet come across. Perhaps it is a never-ending duty, but such is the nature of history.