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#hist5702x unessays, winter 2014

Shawn Graham, Author

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A History of our Learning: #hist5702x Digital/Public History

Roy Rosenzweig in the early 2000s looked at emerging web technologies and imagined two alternative futures in a provocative essay called ‘Scarcity or Abundance?’. In one scenario, information put on the web proved to be fragile, prone to link-rot, digital decay, and an ephemeral existence. In the other, Moore’s Law and ever more powerful machines made larger and larger volumes of information feasible to record, preserve, replicate, and play with.

With time, we can now see that it was his ‘abundance’ scenario which has -so far- come to pass. ‘Digital History’ as an area of research therefore has two strands. In the first, digital tools are used to deal with the sheer volume of information out there, of making sense of it all, of preserving it, of making it intelligible to both machine and researcher. In the second strand, digital history presents this material to various publics, thinking through what representation in digital media means, and the ways we share authority with the algorithms which underpin our practice.

In this seminar, we explored Digital History from these two perspectives, shuttling back and forth. We looked at the ways it changes the questions we can ask about history, the way digital methods change what it is even feasible to ask, and how we communicate this research to a wider public. Technology is not neutral, and we explored the ramifications of that realisation for public history.

Students had different levels of experience with digital technologies, and different expectations about what the digital is for, but this did not dissuade them from engaging with the concepts and ideas at stake in exploring digital history. Knowledge of programming was not required for this seminar, nor was this seminar meant to teach students how to code.  I did expect a willingness to get their hands dirty. Digital History requires many skills and perspectives. The final project involved working with our partner the Canada Science and Technology Museum to understand how digital technologies (especially augmented reality) could better help them meet their mandate.

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