Augmented Historeality

I’ve never had any particular interest in architecture.  I know essentially nothing about it.  As a rule I have looked at buildings and seen only what is immediately visible, without understanding the hidden meanings of the aesthetic and structure choices made in their construction.  That started to change a few years ago when I attended a lecture on historical architecture in New England.  I learned the rudiments of ‘reading’ a building, and spent the next week pointing out dentals and palladian windows to anyone unfortunate enough to start up a conversation with me.  That brief encounter allowed me to see the world from a different angle, to add another layer of meaning to the landscape.  I have sometimes used this experience to describe one aspect of the study of history – the landscape springs to life when we know that it has borne witness to human stories for many times our own lives.  One of the most exciting developments in digital history has been the birth of “augmented reality” software, which simplifies the work of building new layers of meaning by literally applying those layers to whatever scene lies before us.

This technology has already become available to the public at large through location-aware smartphones.  Applications like Layar and Wikitude can lay information onto the landscape using a device’s camera and GPS systems.  The content available via these systems is still limited, and to be honest they feel sort of clunky and rudimentary to me, but they are a clear proof-of-concept.  Once developed a bit further and integrated with technologies on their way through the R&D pipeline these kinds of augmented reality systems are going to make for a whole new means to present historical content to the public.

Imagine the possibilities for a motivated and tech-savvy historical organization, say a local historical society: you have a great collection of relevant and revealing local artifacts and documents in your keeping, and a thoughtfully designed museum in which you do your best to showcase them.  No one comes to your museum.  There are plenty of ways to create visitor interest, but what if you could find a way to reach people who would just never come to the physical location and see your displays?  Well, you know where so-and-so lived, and where this old millstone came from.  If you fire up Layarcastrcacious V 9.0 and geotag some photos and expository text you can in a sense disgorge the contents of your museum into the world at large.  People might still gain much from an actual visit, but you can also further your mission among those who would remain unreachable by allowing them to de facto live in your museum.

Now, such a vision is obviously wildly optimistic and leaves plenty of unconquered problems.  I mean, you could also produce a cable access TV show and have it pumped directly into people’s homes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will watch it.  Nonetheless, the presence of an unobtrusive yet persistent little tag in the local information environment that reminds everyone who glances at the old Historically Significant Homestead that there is something to learn about it could, perhaps, eventually wear down even the most adamantly incurious passerby.  At any rate, if no one is coming to your museum anyhow then at least they can be reminded of that fact.  Look, as long as we’re going to the the digging and arranging of history I think it’s ok to be a little bit constructively passive aggressive about letting people know about it. . .

I’m Like a Broken Mp3

Anyone who has ever discussed with me the presentation of history on the web will have heard me praise and praise again the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s website exploring the 1704 Raid on Deerfield during Queen Anne’s War.  All things considered, I think that this remains the best example of the possibilities for history contained in the interleaved, hypertextual nature of the Web.  The site balances the visual with the verbal, presents multiple layers of information both vertically and horizontally, and challenges visitors with the presence of five different histories of the same event in addition to the usual neutral-curatorial one that they might expect.

I think that it is this last point that most impresses me.  Historians spend years learning to juggle conflicting perspectives, and to boil these down to something like a consensus account while still respecting their individual validity.  In many ways this is an enormously difficult cognitive task.  It requires some mental gymnastics to keep such a balance in working memory.  Consider the following puzzle:

In the inns of certain Himalayan villages is practiced a refined tea ceremony. The ceremony involves a host and exactly two guests, neither more nor less. When his guests have arrived and seated themselves at his table, the host performs three services for them. These services are listed in the order of the nobility the Himalayans attribute to them: stoking the fire, fanning the flames, and pouring the tea. During the ceremony, any of those present may ask another, “Honored Sir, may I perform this onerous task for you?” However, a person may request of another only the least noble of the tasks which the other is performing. Furthermore, if a person is performing any tasks, then he may not request a task t hat is nobler t han t he least noble task he is al ready performing. Custom  requires  that by  the  time  the  tea ceremony is over, all the tasks will have been transferred from the host to the most senior of the guests. How can this be accomplished?


Tough, right?  Now have a look the following familiar game:

These are essentially the same problem.  But we can grasp the second one almost instantly where the first seemed enormously confounding.  When we have a visual representation of the situation we can economize on the kind of logical memory bandwidth needed to move disks or honorable tasks according to the rules provided.  The Raid on Deerfield site provides the same sort of aid to comprehending the complicated circumstances around that event.

The ease with which digital presentation allows connections between ideas, or the ability to “swim up stream” from one point to another is pretty breathtaking.  In some sense it serves to externalize the hard, “unnatural” work of historical thinking.  The thought of such a process being done “for” the general public may strike some as troubling, but the reality is that this is generally already the case.  Sites like Raid on Deerfield simply make the process more transparent.  This can only encourage a better understanding of how historical accounts are constructed.

Down the Digital Memory Hole

Historians of the 22nd Century performing research in the PanGalactic MetaMegaArchive


For perhaps the first time since the sum total of human writing consisted of some small number of cuneiform tablets it is now conceivable that we may be able to save the vast majority of information produced and recorded by humans for posterity.  As an historian this idea is simultaneously wondrous and terrifying.

Imagine that you suddenly had access to everything ever jotted down on a scrap of paper by a subject you are researching.  Imagine you have everything anyone who met them ever said about them.  Every photograph ever taken of them, every train ticket they purchased, their financial records, their medical records, their sex lives, the time they spent reading and which books or newspapers they spent it on down to the second.  At first we may think “Goldmine! Bancroft Prize here I come!”  But then you realize – it took our subject the entirety of their life to generate such a mound of data.  How can you expect to digest it in any less than that amount of time?  This is the conundrum facing archivists and historians in an era where (as of 2003 – I can only imagine what the figure is now) each year sees new information amounting to 37,000 Libraries of Congress, and where only .01% of information produced is committed to paper.  I’d argue that we should be trying to save every scrap of that information on general principle, but even the relatively paltry amount that we do manage to retain for any length of time has made Google-Fu a stand-in for skill with a katana for all of today’s Hiro Protagonists.

I will for the moment leave aside my concerns about the loss of important historical resources like Geocities and focus on the long term.  Pretty soon we’re going to stop letting such things slip through our fingers.  If Geocities had survived in its entirety historians of the Early Web Era would have the unfortunate task before them of sorting through thousands of web pages that look like this in the hope of telling a story that is worth the effort.  How little of the current world archive sits dusty and unused?  How much more would do so if the contents were printed on NEON PAPER?

There is much to be said for the tools of analysis that digitization makes available to grind through such huge masses of data.  And of course I do feel that the glut of data being digitally preserved is going to be ultimately beneficial.  But the prospect of living in the generation that is tasked to invent the new techniques of historical practice that will be necessary to make the most of the resources at hand is daunting.  Dealing with the past we’ve got is complicated enough, and imagining an infinitely deeper and more comprehensively documented one can be terrifying.


Survivor: Archives

I recently had the good fortune to be in a position to hijack all conversation during a two hour car ride with several other budding public historians. We were returning from a workshop on grantwriting presented by a program officer from the NEH. The circumstances and environment of the event were fertile soil for the germination of tiny idea-sprouts, and I jotted down several. When we commenced our drive home I decided to dragoon my fellow travelers into fleshing one of them out.

Somehow during the proceedings of the day I decided that what the historical profession really needed was a reality TV show. Maybe I felt that the discipline was too classy to survive in the modern world. Maybe it seemed a Trojan Horse to sneak historical thinking past the educational-programming-alarms that come standard on todays model of citizen. Actually, more likely is that the image struck me as something *I* would like to watch, and therefore that I could conceiveably work on for more than the time it took to formulate the thought in the first place. So, here’s the “elevator pitch”:

This project would involve a partnership between historical institutions of various sorts and local high schools, community centers, or otherwise with the lay public. The basic aim would be to connect working historians with interested but unexposed persons, who would have an opportunity to “be an historian for a day.” Historical institutions would be solicited for volunteers who are currently engaged in projects of one sort or another, and who would be willing to plan a kind of hands-on introduction to the kind of work that goes into research, exhibit design, preservation work, or whatnot. Lay participants would work alongside their historian for the day and get their hands dirty (or, more likely, dusty) on the real day-to-day stuff of history. Each encounter would be filmed with an aim toward editing a 15 or 30 minute episode which could be released for public viewing through a Youtube channel or other means of digital distribution.

The overall goals of the project would be two-fold: participants would gain a degree of personal investment in the project that they had helped to bring into being, and the once-around-the-world overview of the work of historians would serve as outreach and educational resource for the public at large. I think that the majority of people don’t really have a clear idea of where that stuff in the textbooks or museums comes from, and learning that it is the product of work and creativity could lead both to an increased appreciation for the material itself, as well as a greater understanding that history is not complete and monolithic, but a process that is constantly in motion, a body of knowledge created and recreated by real people.