Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ending our Fences

I've been thinking about barriers between disciplines lately - in particular, what happens when we can tear those barriers down.

Last Saturday I only managed to catch a little bit of the Remembrance Day programming on TV, but I was pleased at the one thing I did see for a few reasons. It was part of a documentary about evidence from the Battle of the Somme in general, and the fate of the (Royal) Newfoundland Regiment's 1st Battalion at Beaumont-Hamel in particular. Most of the part that I was able to catch involved trying to identify and evaluate some of the footage allegedly taken during the battle, a particularly important thing to keep in mind considering that even then war footage was staged for propaganda reasons.

To confirm (or disprove) the veracity of the footage, the researchers drew together people from several different disciplines: historians, archaeologists, archivists, surveyors, video experts, forensic scientists, and I'm fairly sure I'm missing a few. The main piece of footage they focused on was the detonation of one of the great explosive mines at the very start of the battle (visible, very prominently, just under one and a half minutes into this compilation of clips from the battle). This one wound up confirmed as accurate; through piecing together footage, accounts of the battle, a large amount of surveying and GPS work around the mine crater, and talking to descendants of the Somme's veterans who were shown the still-scarred battlefield by their parents or grandparents after the war, and other research which turned up the records of the cameraman who had shot the scene. The confirmation was a spectacular success, as the crew found the exact point, to within a couple of feet, where the cameraman had stood that day. Demonstration of this, fading the original footage in and out on top of the new footage, created a fairly eerie effect, blurring the lines between past and present in an interesting way.

The project also confirmed the veracity of a few other sequences, which turned out to have been shot within minutes of that one, from the same spot, as the cameraman panned the camera to one side to capture some footage of the battalion's disasterous advance. I think that was an unintended discovery, but a good one nonetheless, another brick of This Really Happened in the knowledge wall. Alas, I surrendered the TV at that point to the roomies and the sacred tradition of The Game (and just when they were taking those videos a step further by trying to ID the figures in them - nice!), and didn't get to see what happened next.

But what I saw was some neat enough application.

The day before, a few of the other digital history students and I went to a guest lecture at the university given by Dr. John Bonnett of Brock University. Dr. Bonnett, an historian and Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities, was giving a talk with the triple-fisted title of "new challenges, new opportunities for history: collaborative environments, high-performance computing, and the future of the historian's craft." The talk was, to be honest, a little on the disorganized and ill-paced side, and could've gone better in ninety minutes instead of sixty. On the other hand, we had a time slot of an hour, and Bonnet's hundreds of minutes' advance warning would make it difficult to get across fairly simple topics, never mind the highly-technical ones he discussed.

So what did he discuss? I could be a smartass and say that he talked about new challenges and opportunities for history by discussing collaborative environments, high-performance computing, and the future of the historian's craft, but I should probably give at least some detail. Dr. Bonnett's talk outwardly appeared to be something one would expect to see coming from a computer science (or at least information science), but there was a lot of meat in there which has potential uses in either digital history specifically, or the broader field as a whole.

Much of the first half of the talk was focused on the versatility of various sources of information - even original, primary documents - when combined with new tools and techniques which have become available over the course of the last generation. This was explained in the context of a project (description at another site here, for those who tire of the awkward site design) Dr. Bonnett was engaged in, where various primary sources such as photographs, street plans and so on were used to generate three-dimensional recreations of Canadian street scapes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The reconstruction process also involved some judicious use of educated guesses (a notion I also consider sorely underrated) to fill in gaps, e.g., determining what the east side of a building may look like if photos only show the north and west faces.

The buildings were not the only result of the project; the plan was to produce not merely an exhibit, but a research tool in and of itself. To do this, various other sources including the primary materials used in the original reconstruction, modern sources, various other audio/visual records, and so on can be brought into the reconstruction. On top of this, the reconstructions weren't limited by a specific point in time, either; different views of the street at different times could be changed accordingly. The materials were all brought together in terms of a hub-spoke model, where objects were defined as much by their relationships with one another as in isolation. Done properly, this approach results in a detailed, interactive and highly nonlinear narrative, allowing the user to notice unexpected connections or create and explain their own. There's a lot of potential in this kind of arrangement, to say the least.

The remainder of the lecture had a far more technical focus involving two major concepts: the use of dedicated or distributed networks as collaborative research environments, and agent-based modeling as a source for simulation or experimentation in historical research. I want to go into some detail on those, but it would greatly expand an already-large post. If anyone's interested, prod me and I'll talk about those in a subsequent post. Instead, I'm going to go on to Dr. Bonnett's conclusions from all of this, as well as my own.

Dr. Bonnett made a rather bold - and, in my opinion, accurate - statement about the significance of all of these tools. He argues that the development and proliferation of these sorts of research and collaboration environments is at least as significant to the spread of human knowledge as the development of the book itself. Implications of Sturgeon's Law aside, the changes these sorts of things are potentially bringing into history in particular and communication in general really are a difference of kind, not simply degree. A lot of the results of the digital revolution that's been riccocheting around the world in the last few decades, whether research tools like Dr. Bonnett's or exhibitions for the public which make the most use of new tools (something I discussed in a previous post) simply could not exist, at all, in earlier years. Now they're here, and they're not going anywhere.

I'm convinced that tools and methods of these sorts are woefully misunderstood, in both a passive and a very, very active sense, in the field of history. Modern tools such as computing or other sci-tech applications are certainly studied a great deal in universities - a simple Google search can find a veritable cornucopia of examples of this sort of thing - but not nearly enough effort is being put into applying them, or even understanding them at a level beyond theory. This really does need to change; expanding the discipline's knowledge base in these sorts of directions (and others, such as merely interfacing with other disciplines considerably more than we tend to) will gain scholars and students both a great deal in terms of resources, topics and other opportunities. Avoiding this gains little at best.

While it's more or less taken for granted in an academic environment that we'll tend to erect our little picket fences (or trench lines) between departments or concepts or the like, I'm convinced that doing so too actively is a Very Bad Thing for a number of reasons. Rants about active refusal to learn an available topic at a university aside, I think that there are simply too many potential opportunities for most aspects of history - research, teaching, presentation on both the academic and public levels - to discard or mischaracterize as pointless out of hand. While I don't take things quite so far in the generalist direction as, say, Heinlein did, I do believe that these sorts of changes aren't going anywhere, and we should do a better job of recognizing that sort of thing than we currently do.


Rob MacDougall said...

Thanks for this! I definitely wanted to go to this talk but wasn't able.

pstewart said...

I enjoyed it, aside from the problems brought on by the time constraints and pace that imposed. There was a lot of stuff in there; I only really scratched the surface with this, even in the part I focused on.

I probably should write some more on the other aspects of it that I mentioned; two novella posts will probably be easier to slog through than one novel...

Andrea Melvin said...

Hey Pat,
I read your post and I thought your comments on the talk were really interesting and shed some light on the bits that I wasn't exactly clear on. There is definitely something to be said about the educated guesses and piecing together that he demonstrated, something that we historians do not do enough of sometimes. See you in class.