Dec. 18, 2006

A Very Digital Christmas

For our last Digital History class, we talked about histories of the Future. Last night, my dad suggested that I write a post about what the Christmas story might be like in a digital age. Well, since I don’t often use my dad’s history ideas, and because it’s Christmas, and because it’s amusing to finish the semester on a more up-beat note than my last post, I thought, “Why not?” It might not be history or even good scholarly writing, but perhaps the reader will gain a greater appreciation of the digital ubiquity that we are racing towards, which I referred to in my last post. Here then is how the Christmas story might have played out in a digital context; it’s only a small part of the story, but I think that you will get the idea.

Merry Christmas Dad!

After the angel Gabrielle had left, Joseph pulled out his cell phone and called Mary to let her know that he would indeed still marry her. Now at that time, the Roman emperor sent emails and text messages throughout all the land informing everybody that a census was to be taken. All of the people of Judea were to return to their place of birth immediately. Mary was away at market when the email was sent, but Joseph immediately text-messaged her to inform her that they both must travel to Jerusalem. Mary immediately added items necessary for travel onto the shopping list she had on her cell phone, and the built-in GPS generated a shopping route that would enable her to get these items for the best price in the least amount of time. At home, Joseph searched for a dealer in donkeys. The resulting search generated a map that indicated the closest donkey dealers as well as the prices for a rental. Finding a reputable dealer than was equidistant between himself and Mary, Joseph text-messaged the address to Mary’s cell phone, so that her GPS could again re-adjust to meet him at the dealer.

As he walked out the door, Joseph found a podcast to listen to about successfully bartering with donkey dealers. As Mary whisked through the market, she listened to a podcast on feeding and caring for rented donkeys. At the donkey dealership, Joseph could wave his phone by each donkey’s ear and download information regarding the donkey’s history and medical condition as well as reviews by other people who had rented that particular donkey (stars indicated the overall rating, haystacks indicated how much the donkey ate, shoes indicated speed, and flies indicated how smelly the animal was after a day of travel across a desert). While Mary waited for Joseph to finish bartering, she connected to the dealership’s wireless network to download onto her laptop ebooks, vodcasts, and the latest blog posts regarding birthing. Once the donkey was rented and loaded with everything Mary and Joseph would need for their journey to Jerusalem, Joseph emailed inns in Bethlehem to find out where there were vacancies. Joseph’s email program, noticing that Joseph was writing a message with the words “Bethlehem,” “inns,” “vacancy,” and “next week,” automatically opened another window with relevant news feeds. Mary and Joseph discovered that, for the first time in forty years, Bethlehem had no room at any of the inns. A quick search on eBay uncovered a stable that was available though. Joseph put in a bid, and ten minutes later, Mary and Joseph had a place to lay their heads in Bethlehem. As Joseph grumbled about the empire’s poor logistical planning of holding a census, he and Mary began to make their way towards Bethlehem.

May you all experience great peace this Christmas season!

Ubiquitous Computing

In the last couple weeks of November, our Digital History class discussed the coming of ubiquitous connectivity – the state of continuously being able to access information about anything through your computer or phone while at the same time being constantly accessible by others who are known or unknown to you. The ability to easily access the best, most relevant information seems like an incredible dream; the possibility of always being traceable or at the other end of the line seems, personally, like a terrible nightmare. I am not all that comfortable with the idea of my cell phone being able to tell the people I am connected to on Facebook where I am all the time, but as a historian, it would be incredible to trace the movements of individuals and groups to a very fine level of detail.

I struggle with how to approach a world where even individual items such as razors are traceable since the positive and negative implications both seem almost overwhelming. In this case, I find myself unable to make an argument either for some sort of legislative control or a free-for-all harvesting of individuals’ movements, buying habits, and product use. I cannot even say for myself how I plan to control the amount of information that businesses or other individuals are collecting about me, but it is important that I make an effort to exert some control in this area.

Whew! Big, tricky ideas here!

Hector Helps Don Do History

Helpin’ History Hector: Well, hi there Triple-D Don! How’s that last essay for the semester going?

Doesn’t Do Digital Don: I despise my computer at this moment. Searching through library databases and lists of journal articles is an odious and unrelenting burden. I still have twenty-four more pages to write; but I suppose you are having comparable difficulties H-Cubed?

Hector: Heck no! The time I’ve been spending learning a little more about computer programming and APIs for the last year has paid off!

Don: Computer programming? Gag! And isn’t API a recording label? How did they aid you in researching and composing a historical essay?

Hector: API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” APIs are programs on the web that people can get the code to. You can modify the code for your own specific purposes. It’s awesome! I used Google APIs to get more specific search results and map them on tem out on an eighteenth-century map of France. I not only got more relevant answers for my search terms but was able to look for visual patterns and relationships on the map that was created.

Don: Ugh! That would take forever to learn how to do! Besides, as long as I can check emails, search for an article, and type an essay, I’m satisfied with how my computer does what it does.

Hector: Yeah, but there’s a way to do all that stuff faster!

Don: Humph! Of course there is: pay for a faster computer. I’m living under constrained financial circumstances here Hector.

Hector: No, no! The way I’m talking about is open-source, so it doesn’t cost you a cent!

Don: Whatever “open-source” means… Tell me more.

Hector: All it takes is a little time to lear-

Don: I knew there was a catch! Hector, how am I supposed to write a 25-page paper in 3 days and learn how to become proficient in the art of “Hacking” or whatever it is you are doing?

Hector: Well, you know, if you’re going to be using the computer to do your research, wouldn’t you rather be able to navigate through pages more efficiently? Don’t you think it would better to get all relevant search results instead of two good results for every ten searches you did? If you became a little more comfortable with some of the more technical aspects of your computer, it might save you some research time in the long run. Also, companies like Google are working hard to make create a search experience that is unique for you. If you’re at all concerned about having a say in how much they know about you, it might be a good idea to ask how your computer does the useful things it does!

Don: Hmm… I am still not convinced. There is certainly something to be said for perusing dusty aisles of knowledge after using a library database. I very frequently stumble upon a book that did not appear in the library search! I also always keep up with what those Public History students at Western are doing, and as far as I can tell, they used no AP-whatevers for the website that they made to complement their museum exhibit.

Hector: Really? I thought they were all so technically-savvy! Wait though - I heard that they were thinking about using a Creative Commons design for their website. That’s not making a new program, but it is using somebody else’s HTML design and modifying it for their own purposes!

Dwelling More on Digital Don: Well, it seems that you make some strong points Hector. I don’t know if I’ll be able to use your fancy new digital techniques for this paper, partially because I really don’t have the time to learn more about my computer, but also because there this topic really isn’t that great for research on the computer at all: nineteenth-century Russian postage! What was I thinking?

Hammered His Message Home Again Hector: That you have an unusual interest in the artistic and economic implications of stamps in the Industrial Era? I suppose you’re right though. There are definitely some areas of research that are more conducive to online research than others. Good luck with the rest of your paper Donny Boy! You’ll lick it yet!

The Subtle Museum

As a visitor to a museum, do you expect to be presented with factual information and an up-to-date interpretation of historical evidence? Do you expect that you will be confronted with Truth? When the curator puts together an exhibit regarding the discovery of the New World, she needs to walk a fine line between a European point of view and an indigenous point of view. Two very different truths can be told though the same exhibit. Is it possible to share both truths at the same time?

In our last Public History discussion for the semester, we asked ourselves whether museums were a space where interpretations of truth were presented to the public or a space where visitors learned critical-thinking skills. Anybody who has had the pleasure of reading a historiography essay knows that historical truth has a very precarious position, easily toppled in the light of new evidence or the re-interpretation of old evidence. Although it is possible to keep the museum-goer up-to-date with the latest interpretation on a historical subject, it would be difficult to present Truth to visitors.

On the other hand, the public should be confident that they will learn when they visit a museum; an exhibit should encourage the viewer to think about the material being presented, to weigh the information being presented rather than simply accepting what has been written as truth. In this case, the mission of museums is not to present Truth or even a truth, but instead to challenge visitors to judge for themselves whether the information being presented has an importance transcending its entertainment value.

In our Invention to Innovation exhibit, you may notice that our text attempts to capture a sense of motion and energy. As we tied the text of our exhibit together, we succeeded in becoming more aware of the narrative and categorizations we are presenting to our visitors. In hindsight though, in a desire to force visitors to think critically about our exhibit, could we not have included blank text panels, incorrect information or dates, or placed inventions in the wrong section? I imagine that, without any hints, people would mistake these actions as errors made by inexperienced, sloppy students.

Conversely, if we were able to make subtle changes to the information, perhaps we would succeed in making some visitors take a second, more critical look at the information we had put together. The Museum of Jurassic Technology has succeeded in capturing such subtly. Check out the website for yourself, and while you’re at it, why not look at some of the exhibits that have been created by our own national institutions. What’s your impression of the museums’ virtual exhibits? Are you reading fact, the curator’s truthful interpretation, or a clever, intentional joke meant to stimulate analysis or evoke a different set of feelings? You may have to look a second time to be sure!