Contemporary History in Digital Era: The Concerns of Kiran Klaus Patel

Kiran Klaus Patel, Zeitgeschichte im Digitalen Zeitalter, in: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Heft 3, Juli 2011, Page 331ff.

Review with respect to digital humanities

Who is going to archive the text messages from German Chancellor Angela Merkel? The sources and their availability for the historical research are subject to a profound change. Kiran Klaus Patel, historian at the Maastricht University, calls for a fundamental debate about the foundations of contemporary history. The question arises as to the relevance of his ideas for the digital humanities.

In contrast to Timothy Gordon Ash, Patel feels the amount of documents of the US State Department, published by WikiLeaks, “overhelming” (please see my separate post to that). Who is going to analyze all this, even down to the authenticity, he asks? Patel defends the hypothesis that “technological innovation” and “changing cultural practices” determine for new the source material for contemporary history. For him, the research community doesn’t discuss this in an appropriate way. Contemporary history is expected to “stick to written documents” as ever before. Patel believes, however, that the “status of government records” is called into question. He refers to the freedom of information laws and expects that many documents will be available much faster and easier.

The work in the archives will be “to search for a needle in a haystack” in the future, Patel believes. The archives see immense challenges to deal with all the new sources, such as fax, word processed documents, e-mails, text messaging and video. Because this material is often fragile, data archeology is going to be “a serious issue”, speed a “key requirement”. At the same time, the number of possible gaps – (cell) phone calls, social networks, etc. – is increasing. All this seems to reduce the importance of archive-based work. Digital tools and sources improve the working situation of historians. But they also raise questions: (Retro) digitized records lose information (color, marginal notes), authenticity can hardly be checked and the the gap between easy and difficult available records will grow.

All this has enormous implications for the historical analysis and narration. For instance, the multiplication and distribution of records will hardly allow to find the real relationship between the interest, the motive and the result of particular negotiations, Patel says. More and more decision-making processes are going to be informal and NGO to be involved: the fragmentation and contingency of the tradition is growing massively. Even more important is the question of the “added value” of historical analyses close to (“original”) sources; to give an example: will it be 2050 possible to say more about the coalition negotiations after the 2009 parliamentary elections in Germany than it is already known today?

History in the 21st  century is necessarily based on “precise issues” or it get lost in the amount of the information material. Epistemologically and semantically “we are moving back to the plural of the stories”, Patel finally says and agrees in this with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Wolfgang Schmale (please see my separate posts to this).

Will he be right? Patel asks for more cultural approaches on one side but believes on the other, that more thesis oriented research over longer periods is needed to get a more “productive” contemporary history. In summary: The basic problems of the historical science in searching of “coherent narratives” will hardly change as a whole but the forms in which they manifest themselves. Here Patel believes that it will be necessary “to deal with the interplay of technical innovations, administrative procedures and archiving practices”. This is right – but probably not enough. It seems, that historical resarch and writing will also be organized in other and new structures to survive. It will be interesting to observe whether “the loss of meaning of history” will be accelerated in the media age or if it will be reversed.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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