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.