When I first enrolled in History 291, I really had no idea what I was getting into. As I said in my introductory post, the HIST 291 was only described as “Special Topics in History”. When I learned that it would be a course on Digital History, I was intrigued.

“What is Digital History?”

Even a week after the last class, I’m still unsure of exactly how to answer that question. To me, the study of Digital History is a combination of adaptation, assimilation, and speculation.

Emerging technologies, namely Internet and information technologies are fundamentally changing the academic world, and as has been mentioned over the course of the term, Historians have been somewhat slow to realize this. For example, during the development of the Google N-Gram Viewer, a number of Historians were initially consulted, but had their comments dismissed because of their inability to contribute to some of the more technical aspects of the project. Tools such as the Google N-Gram viewer, which can significantly benefit those studying the Humanities, need to be understood before they can be used. The documents that Historians rely on such as government ledgers, diaries, financial records, are being written and stored digitally, and in order for Historians to be able to study them in the future, we need to be equipped with the tools to access and analyze them. We need to adapt to the immense changed that digital technology is bringing to the field.

And how do we equip ourselves to survive these major changes? In many ways, we need to assimilate these tools from fields which are more adept to dealing with digital information. I know my fellow Star Trek fans might get a little edgy at the mention of assimilation, but I truly believe that resistance to the global shift towards a digital paradigm is futile, and in order to survive, we need to learn from non-humanities disciplines and assimilate their knowledge and tools into our collective disciplinary consciousness. Tools like the Programming Historian, the Google N-Gram Viewer and Topic Modeling programs very well might become essential for the History discipline to survive in an increasingly digital world.
And yes, I do realize that this just might have been one of the geekyist paragraphs I’ve ever written for anything school-related.

Lastly, I think Digital History has a lot to do with speculation. Digital technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it is near impossible to predict where it’s going. Like the Industrial Revolution, in this Digital Revolution we are now at a point where technology is in many ways evolving on its own and we are all just along for the ride. We need to look at emerging technologies and try and figure out how we might be able to repurpose them to better approach the changes in the world we will be studying. I think a great example of this is the application of 3D Printers. While this technology was originally developed for engineers to be able to easily construct models of various components they were building, it can now be used to reproduce historical artifacts, making aspects of the past much more real. Similarly, programs like Google Earth can be used to create a sort of digital historical atlas by overlaying old maps, recently digitized, onto the surface of Google Earth.

As Historians, we tend to spend most of our time in the past, which for our discipline is a good thing. However, as the world changes around us, we need to be mindful of what will happen in the future with the rise of digital technology. Our present, our future, will one day be the past which Historians, like ourselves, will need to study. When it comes to equipping ourselves with the tools that we will no-doubt need to study our future-past, there is no better time than the present, and courses like HIST 291 are essential to understanding how the discipline will need to change in order to remain relevant.