Programming.

In our digital age, backslashes  quotation marks, and other keyboard strokes and commands have become the hidden language powering our daily lives. Everyday, algorithms allow us to search Google, load websites, and play our favourite video games. Yet most people, myself included, are illiterate when it comes to programming.

For the digital historian, the implications of this illiteracy are obvious.

The biggest one is a lack of autonomy. Rather than being able to create a website, or program one on their own, a digital historian that’s unable to code will always have to rely on others to digitally showcase their research.

Methodology aside, there is also a philosophical component. As I’ve mentioned before, history to me is about trying to understand the world.

Our present world is going digital and it’s not going back to analog anytime soon.

Sorry analog…

Coding and programming is part of this new world. For historians to sit on the sidelines, and remain indifferent to this new reality would be a grave mistake. Not only will they be out of touch and lose a deeper understanding of the world they live in, but they will not know how to convey history effectively.

Living in the age of computers, facebook and twitter, we know that sharing things digitally is the best way to communicate. It’s fast, easy, relatively inexpensive, and accessible. If historians choose not to go digital, they’ll be losing this advantage.

But more than that, an historian that understands how these digital tools work, can manipulate them and hopefully make them work in favour of the entire discipline.

Am I that digital historian trail-blazer? If my first encounter with coding in Python is any indication, the answer would be resounding “no.”

Even in a high-level language like Python, programming is hard.

Python, C++ and Java are called languages for a reason. Without instruction, or a basic vocabulary, they are almost completely unintelligible.

Learning to code takes commitment and time. But after toying around with Python, and having a clear set of instructions, I was able to understand and execute some basic programs.

Google, here I come.

Google, here I come.

The program I found most beneficial for historians was Python’s ability to locate keywords on webpages. If automated, this program would allow a historian to search vast amounts of texts without having to search manually for what they’re looking for. However, personally, I’d probably continue to rely on my dependable command+F.

I think my biggest problem with programming is that I find it rather abstract and at times, nonsensical. While I understand some simple programs and their functions, I don’t understand what it means to truly communicate with a computer. For instance, how can it understand some commands, but not others?

All in all, I’ve discovered that it takes an incredibly patient and creative person (yes, I did say creative) to program. I learned that figuring out what you would like the computer to do comes first. Figuring out how to get your computer to perform that task comes afterwards. This solution-process methodology is the hard bit, but also what makes programming exciting.

Precision is also critical to a program’s success. If a single character is in the wrong place, or a command is misspelled, the program will not run. I discovered this time, and time again.

“Invalid Syntax” would definitely be the title of my programming autobiography.

So, should historians learn how to program? Absolutely. Is it the end of the world if they don’t? Well, no. But it’s a skill that’s becoming infinitely more important, and one that can potentially push the discipline of the past into the future.

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