Do Artifacts Have Politics?

In this journal article from 1980, Langdon Winner explains different interpretations of the way technologies can have political and social qualities.

For instance, when Moses consciously planned and built the overpasses in New York City at an insufficient height for buses to pass underneath them, thus excluding people, who could not afford a car, from access to certain areas. However, Winner claims that it is normally not the inventor’s intention; that only after the introduction and integration of new technologies into existing systems, do they lose their flexibility and become part of the status quo, which is often authoritarian, centralized and in disregard of social implications. In many cases, it is justified as the practical or most efficient way, but were other possibilities ever considered? In some cases it might even make sense to have one authority in control, such as with nuclear weapons. However, it could be argued that this is an exception to the rule: as a weapon, it is a question of control over its use, and with recycling of old fuel rods, the possibility of misuse as weapon material for acts of war or terror has to be controlled. This is a completely different from introducing mechanical tomato harvesters or building and maintaining railways.

Interestingly, some of Winner’s arguments are still valid after more than 30 years; however, it seems he may have been reading too much into certain situations; solar energy is certainly an example of a technology that benefits from a more democratic and decentralized point of view. But the majority of it stems from the technology itself: the grid is not capable of handling it at the moment and further innovations and upgrades are required to achieve a stable supply of electricity through smart grids. Yet, that does not mean that this technology will not eventually fall in line with the rest of the energy sector and become just another cog in the machinery; maybe being aware of the potential implications will change the course of its development; however, only time will tell.

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Public History on the Web: If You Build It, Will They Come?

In the sixth chapter of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, three essays describe different approaches of crowdsourcing to involve communities in the production of history; some of them more successful than others.

In the first part, Rosales Castañeda told the story of the historical origin of the Chicana/o Movement Project in Seattle, WA, and how it was integrated into the Seattle Civil Rights Project. The main problem he wanted to address was that the Latino communities in the Pacific Northwest were not only isolated from the larger Latino communities in other areas of the US, but also their marginalization in the regional history. This project offered an effective portal for Latinos to connect through their local history and to ‘correct’ the official history as it was taught at the local schools.

The second part by Sikarskie explained the use of social media platforms by what she called Citizen Scholars. For example, she used Facebook to engage with the audience; by posting trivia questions about quilts, she invited people to comment on them; in case of controversy, she researched the issue and updated the records accordingly. Her argument is that nobody is able to know something in its entirety and therefore a collective intelligence is needed to fill the gaps, hence the involvement of the Citizen Scholars.

The last part by Graham, Massie and Feuerherm explored their research of trying to overcome the digital divide in the Upper Ottawa Valley with their HeritageCrowd Project. However, their attempt to entice the population to contribute to the local history was not very successful. They concluded that the experiment failed for a number of reasons: the platform they used was not appropriate for the project; they ignored already existing data, which created an incomplete foundation to start from; and personal communication with the population and clearer instructions of what they were trying to achieve were mostly missing.

Although all three projects tried to achieve different goals with different approaches, they still had number of things in common: they all used some form of digital tool to engage with interested parties of the population in order to fill in the gaps in knowledge that existed between various sources. Comments or contributions by the communities supplied historians with the impetus to dig deeper into certain issues and rectify existing records, not only improving the available information, but also the communication between academics and lay historians. In this case, digital tools were just that: tools to connect people with different levels of knowledge and expertise through a shared interest; although validation was still done by trained historians, it also created an open channel that enabled a fruitful collaboration.

Maybe this is the first step to successfully bridge the chasm between the two camps?

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Pox and the City

The last essay in the fifth chapter of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, describes the challenges four collaborators had to face when they tried to create a history game.

Pox and the City: Edinburgh is a browser-based educational game about the application of Dr. Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine in 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland.

During its early development stages, the four main contributors Laura Zucconi, Ethan Watrall, Hannah Ueno and Lisa Rosner found out that creating a game was not as easy as they thought, since their ideas were not always practical. Although all of them had some background in programming and designing, with some added knowledge as historians and anthropologists, it was not as straightforward to combine all of that into a successful game. Over time, it became clear to the developers that it was impossible to create a history game in a similar manner to the ’traditional’ creation process in history, i.e. by an isolated individual locked away in a study. Only by working together and combining their different expertise, were they able to overcome the challenges. Eventually, they settled on a number of parameters that they wanted to use as the basis for the game which were then integrated into a valid map of Edinburgh of the time. After all, they wanted to create a game that was not only interesting for different levels of users, but was also able to help these users with different approaches to research.

The essay Pox and the City stresses the importance of collaboration as well as the possibilities of digital representation in history. In this case, they were trying to satisfy not only users of the game, but also historians. Granted, it is impossible to create a perfect solution for everyone, but by structuring the game around their basic parameters, they managed to cover all the important factors and create a useful educational tool at the same time.

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Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy

Part of the seventh chapter of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, is an essay by Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett about blogging in the academic world.

Social media, such as WordPress, Wikipedia or Twitter, are all part of the Web 2.0, i.e. the interactive Internet. They are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine our ‘personal’ world without them. But, how well do they mesh with the ‘professional’ world? Cummings and Jarrett explore in ‘Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy’ why and how blogging can be used effectively, even if they disagree on its use in scholarship.

Their main concern is – as mentioned by many of the other contributors to the book as well – credibility. The Internet is all about speed, but that does not apply to the carefully researched and cited articles that are normally published in journals. Should academics be open to the alternative of blogging? The time it takes to get an article peer-reviewed and published could be drastically decreased, if the chain of responsibility can be guaranteed – which may be difficult to prove. Jarrett does not consider blogging having a part in scholarship, even if he concedes it a role of generating or containing scholarship. Whereas Cummings believes that it could complement publications, since it allows a wider audience to engage with a topic.

Personally, I believe we should not abolish journals, just because they are more expensive and take more time to reach a small audience; but I still hope that Cummings idea will be implemented, at least in some form; however, only time will tell, who of them was right.

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Visualizations and Historical Arguments

The fifth part of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, also includes an essay by John Theibault about the role and importance of different types of images for publications.

In ‘Visualizations and Historical Arguments’, Theibault argues that a deeper sense of understanding for a topic can be achieved by adding images of processed data to texts. However, the information used to create a visualization has to be accurate and transparent to minimize misinterpretations (see Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ story about ‘Black Confederates’ in ‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’).

Moreover, he also recognizes, why visualizations may fail to add to the readers’ understanding: either they are unfamiliar with the type of visualization or they do not possess enough background information about the topic. Both issues can be overcome easily, but authors have to be aware of their potential effects on the readers, when creating their visualizations. Additionally, with the advent of computers and the internet, the range of ways to represent data has increased beyond any historian’s imagination: from text books with few expensive colour prints to interactive articles with fully animated data streams. Therefore, it has also become more difficult to select the right visualization: not too basic or too complicated, yet still being able to convey the author’s key messages.

In their latest incarnation, visualizations are interactive and allow readers to manipulate them to their liking, which may lead them astray from the original argument. The challenge for authors in different fields is now to find balanced visualizations, which will support and enhance their arguments without losing their readers in the process.

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The Wisdom of Crowds(ourcing)

In this second part of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, a number of essays dealt with the online publication of historical works.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks argued in ‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’ that historians may have to adapt their role as teachers. The increase in newly digitized primary sources allows more people to access data that was previously out of reach. However, since most non-historians lack the training or knowledge on how to find and deal with a source’s provenance, it is easy for those laymen to misinterpret them. A collaboration between both groups could prevent this. Additionally, getting involved in historical debates could also improve people’s critical thinking, which then could be applied to other subjects, improving their overall understanding.

Other essays – specifically Shawn Graham’s ‘The Wikiblitz’ and Martha Saxton’s ‘Wikipedia and Women’s History’ – dealt with the fast changes in Wikipedia and the struggle to have newly added information or modifications accepted. Although Wikipedia is theoretically editable by everyone, it is not as easy and open as one would expect. Articles can be in a protected or semi-protected status and are watched by reviewers, interested parties or bots for change; both authors found that modifying existing pages proved to be more difficult than adding new data, which could still fall victim to the prevalent mindset of already established reviewers. Also, both authors tracked their projects after their completion, and found that most of the contributions had either been deleted or moved to other articles, illustrating the transitory nature of digital information.

Nevertheless, one thing that all authors agreed upon was that communication between the participants was mostly swift, even if it was not always professional.

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Putting Harlem on the Map


HarlemPart of the fifth chapter of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, includes an essay by Stephen Robertson, in which he describes the development of the Putting Harlem on the Map project.

During the project, Robertson and his colleagues began to use digital tools that were previously unknown to them; while experimenting with them, they found new ways to store and display their data, which led them to a better understanding of the complexity of the data involved. They found that with the help of digital tools such as Google Maps, a linked database and a WordPress Blog, they could create a Digital Harlem, a result which was much more multi-faceted and layered than they had anticipated. It enabled them to realize connections between events and locations, which they would have missed otherwise. However, Robertson also recognized that just releasing their results on the internet did not guarantee that people would find it; he tried to create links that were available to a broader audience, for example by linking the project to the Harlem entry in Wikipedia – which entailed a number of other problems.

He also acknowledged that Digital Harlem provides only an incomplete picture; a digital map can only be as good as the underlying data. Since they were restricted by the type and number of records available, they were unable to add a more personal view to the project. Still, the result is far better than anything they could have created for a printed publication alone.

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