Deep Map

A deep map as for instance the Swiss Storymap anchors historical objects – letters, photos, reports etc. – in time and space, thus allowing us to obtain layers of views on our cultural heritage. Such a  universal humanities GIS (Trevor Harris) would base on a geospatial Web in which participants are both producers and consumers of data. So, geography would situate us on a physical map, history in time. It is necessary to combine both, structure and activity, to cater the “dense contingency” of all social life, David J. Bodenhamer says (please see my review on his input at the Luxembourg Conference to this). He is an expert on the spatial turn in historical research and links it to the potential of Web 2.0.  So, at the end Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can reduce the distance between observer and observed, let the past appear as dynamic and contingent as the present.

In the time of World War One a well equipped patrol of the Swiss Army is making a break. Do you know where the photo has been taken? Locate it on Swiss Storymap.

Copyright photo: Swiss Federal Archives, E27#1000721#14094#2592.

Guido Koller

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

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Did you ever want to know how historians work?

Anne Kwaschik, Mario Wimmer, Von der Arbeit des Historikers, Ein Wörterbuch zu Theorie und Praxis der Geschichtswissenschaft, Bielefeld, 2010 (Histoire Band 19)

Review

How do historians work? At the desk with paper, French historian Lucien Febvre answered this question laconic. He did no longer believe to get facts by reading texts, turned away from the “bookish history” towards a “science of man”. It should be interdisciplinary and team-oriented, just in line with the intention of the editors of the dictionary to be discussed. Therefore, we find here keywords, which have been worked by geographers, sociologists and philosophers and, naturally, historians. It is the result of an effort that has been taken place in a workshop (Marc Bloch), the modern workplace in historical research. In this “production space” (Richard Sennett) technical skills are being taught. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Everyone’s history?! An inventory on writing contemporary history in the digital age

Frédéric Clavert, Serge Noiret (Editors), L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique, Contemporary History in the Digital Age, Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 381 p.

Review

The humanities are subject to a continuous, but recently accelerated change. In the meantime, this change has a powerful name: Digital Humanities. And this name is program – the humanities are to be made ​​ fit for the digital age. To this, in october 2009, a symposium took place, organized by the Centre virtuel de la connaissance sur l’Europe and the University of Luxembourg. The aim was to take into view the new sources, tools and methods of contemporary history. The contributions are now available in a rich anthology, edited by Frédéric Clavert and Serge Noiret, two protagonists of the Digital Humanities in Europe. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Big Data

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data, A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, London 2013

A short review for the Digital Humanites

The already vast amount of data doubles every two years. In Big Data Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier describe the opportunities that lie in this abundance of hidden digital data that, so far, have been analyzed only to a small extent. Big Data is one of the most important current digital trends. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Digital_Humanities: THE Book!

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanites, Cambridge 2012

A short cut and some remarks

“Two decades ago, working with digital documents was the exception. Today it is the norm” – Anne Burdick and her co-authors write; and: “If the humanities are to thrive and not just exist in niches of privilege, they will have to visibly demonstrate the contributions to knowledge and society they are making in the digital era”. This extremely interesting book from the MIT studies emerging methods and genres, cases as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), new textual corpuses and virtual reconstructions, deals with “the social life of the Digital Humanities”, confronts us with some “provocations” and ends with a short practical guide to the emerging Digital Humanities. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Silent Revolution: The Algorithms and Hyper-modern Knowledge

Mercedes Bunz, Die stille Revolution, Wie Algorithmen Wissen, Arbeit, Öffentlichkeit und Politik verändern, ohne dabei viel Lärm zu machen, Berlin 2012

A short cut and some remarks

Mercedes Bunz, former chief editor of Tagesspiegel online, believes that the digital revolution could have “dramatic consequences” – dramatic as those of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century. In the information society, according to her thesis, algorithms change the professional lives of the middle class today, as the machines changed the lives of workers that time. This “silent revolution” is accentuated through the creation of a new, naturally digital organized, public. Here’s a short cut, and some comments on the general argumentation of Mercedes Bunz. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Empirical turn in the Humanities? The Frankfurter Allgemeine on the results of the Hamburg conference

Digital tools and methods become more and more important in the Humanities. The Frankfurter Allgemeine, a leading journal in Germany, sees “the end of the hermeneutical individual research” coming. The computer based processing of huge data bases allows researchers totaly new approaches to and in their field of studies. But a prerequisite for this is the development and maintenance of – rather expensive – research infrastructures (digitization, data management, data archiving). In Germany, the politicians seem to be ready to take this new situation into account and to draw the (financial) consequences. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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The Big Now

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart, edition suhrkamp, 2010

Review with respect to digital humanities (presumably unexpected for H. U. Gumbrecht; see below)

What does it mean for the writing of history, if documents with a simple click pop up on the screen, thus basically are always present? Wolfgang Schmale and Kiran Klaus Patel have asked this. Another, who deals with this question is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. He writes of himself to be a stubborn man, to have pointed out since 40 years now, that things have a “dimension of presence” in the world. “Presence”, that means physical proximity and substance. Gumbrecht developed this idea in his beautiful book “In 1926”, an attempt to convey the feeling of being in the year 1926 by a network of short, interconnected texts referring to everyday phenomena.

Gumbrecht pursues his idea in the tradition of cultural criticism that regrets the “loss of materiality” in the modern transcendental consciousness. Since 50 years a new “configuration of time” is replacing the “historical thinking” established in the 19thcentury, he says, and describes this (outdated) chronotope in the following perspectives: a) In the “historical time” a person moves on a linear timeline, in which time is the “absolute agent of change”; b) On his way through the time horizons, man constantly leaves past behind him. Thus, the future appears as an open horizon of possibilities; c) Between past and future the present is a moment of transition. This short passage was the “epistemological habitat” of modern man: He acted as he chose from the possibilities of the future based on his experience. By the way: Gumbrecht took this concept of time from Reinhart Kosellek (see below).

So, according to Gumbrecht, this chronotope is passé: The future would no longer be an open horizon of possibilities, the past not pass away (anymore) and the presence with its synchronicities grow ever wider: We live in the Big Now (Frédérique Kaplan). Globalization is one of the basic conditions for this development. In it, the exchange of information is disconnected from real physical sites. Thus, the body as a part of the human self-reference would be “eliminated” [sic!].

Remark / Interjection: In return, movements would arise, which attempt to regain the physical dimension. These include the triumph of sport, the trend towards regionalization (in Europe) and the ecology. I do not deal with these counter-mouvements, here.

Google plans to make accessible “any existing document on the planet”, Gumbrecht says. Collecting and preserving records in a library or an archive will be obsolete in the digital age. They will permanently be available on any computer. Historians will have to make a selection from the abundance of materials – such as a curator, a cultural producer who knows how knowledge and objects must be “staged” to get attention from the public.

* * *

Time-forms determine the conditions under which we make our experiences – to this, see my post on Niklas Luhmann and his system analytic concept of time. By 1800, in what is known as Sattelzeit by Reinhart Kosellek , the chronotope “historical time” has been formed. It has been problematized by Jean-François Lyotard in „La condition postmoderne“. Today, so it seems, according to Gumbrecht,  we have left this chronotope behind us. A new concept of time as a basic condition for the formation of experience seems to come up. Gumbrecht does not go much further into that. He only tells us, that we are  flooded with memoirs and things from the past. In the same time we are moving in more and more everyday worlds and networks. And: We are surrounded by a repertoire of symbols and structures that are derived from the communication technology.

This “hyper-communication” erodes the form in which we have given our everyday life a form. The structure and tension that lived by the existential contradiction between the presence and the absence is dissolved. Gumbrecht denies, with Michael Giesecke but against Charles Leadbeater, that electronic debates create new good ideas. The reason: Only the physical presence allows real argumentative resistance that could turn into mutual inspiration. Gumbrecht therefore rejects blogs quite vehemently (in June 2012 he talked about blogging in an interview with Mareike König).

* * *

Is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s critique of the disappearance of the future simply melancholy? No, not all. The diagnosis of the “widening of the presence” seems plausible: Presence is no longer the knife that cuts off a piece of the future and assigns it to the past. Gumbrecht’s lucid essay refers to issues that arise particularly to historical science. The constant availability of information, the annihilation of time and space, change the “historical thinking” and with it the craft of the historians.

Bluntly, in line with Gumbrecht, the anamnesis of writing history is as follows: Information is no longer conveyed through intermediaries, but communicated directly from the producer to the consumers. Journalists quickly contextualize the information for the politically interested audience, curators later stage it for the culturally interested public. For historical work in the old way is not much space left.

But there are counter-examples: One of them comes from Gumbrecht himself and is the already-mentioned text-experiment “In 1926”. Another comes from Andreas Wirsching, Director of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, who already submits a “standard work on the history of Europe since 1989” [sic!]. Wirsching “doesn’t fear actuality”, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung judges her review and so he won a lot: “A masterpiece of European historiography”, namely. And how did he manage this? Wirsching didn’t wait archival delays to elapse but drew from “seemingly limitless amounts of press archives, public official documents and current scientific analysis”.

So there is hope for the writing of history. But historians will have to adapt their old business model. Insofar the Digital Humanities could be part of the solution of the problem that we have created ourselves.

Guido Koller

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

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Foucault revisited for the Digital Humanities

Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, 1969

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

Also historians have succumbed to the temptations of structuralism. For quite some time now, they have not been working with events anymore, but with developments, including those of longue durée, as Ferdinand Braudel has called them. Michel Foucault speaks of deposits, layers, which are being investigated: For example the history of the cereal or the gold mines, of starvation or growth. In such a history we are no more talking about chains of events, but about series types and periodization. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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WikiLeaks: Documents, Journalism and History

WikiLeaks und die Folgen, Die Hintergründe. Die Konsequenzen, Berlin 2011

Review with respect to Digital Humanities

The scenario could be that of a spy novel: Hackers publish hundreds of thousands of secret and confidential documents of the US and other governments. Who is going to evaluate and interpret all this information? What are the motives for this action? What are the consequences of the affair? Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Manuel Schramm, Digitale Landschaften, Stuttgart 2009

Review with respect to digital humanities

Historians have (re)discovered space as one of their issues. This has been manifested in the great response to the topic “borders” at the Swiss Congress of Historical Sciences 2010 in Basel or to the exhibition The Mastery of Space about the Swiss pioneer for US Surveying and Mapping, Rudolf Ferdinand Hassler, 2007 in Switzerland, for instance. The history of cartography is anything but an issue on the margins of history. This is also witnessed by the historical publication of Manuel Schramm, comparing the cartography in the United States and Germany in the second half of the 20th century (See my separate post to the The place in the Digital Humanities). Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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Wolfgang Schmale: A New Practice in Digital History

Wolfgang Schmale, Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft, Wien, Köln, Weimar, 2010

Review with respect to digital humanities

Wolfgang Schmale, Vienna University, wonders whether “digital media are historically powerful”. It struck him that digitization transforms space and time in “flowing, unbounded categories”. The digital image of a medieval manuscript, for example, is something different than its original. Its code in dots per inch (dpi) produces a “presentification” on the screen. This goes along with a focus on the individual. Millions of “private archives” are established. Does arise from this a new “power in history”, a “digital history”?

Digital media and specifically the Web have a “dimension of depth” that increases with the length of experience. This “media revolution” consists of several components. The focus is on technology. The work in the humanities is now obvious on the computer screen. This forms a part of the “process of networking”. But “digital history” is not a fact yet, for the time being only “a potential”, “a way”. It must be more creative, if it wants to be succesful  in the net.

Another important component of the “media revolution” is the “liquefaction and acceleration of communication”. Not just access to but also the exchange of the (processed) information, that is, ultimately, research as such is accelerating. Its infrastructure will be shifting more and more into the network. For historiography is thereby crucial to set standards for the quality of content against the openness of the network. The network changes the relationships between individual, collective and knowledge: The loss of individual authority in terms of knowledge contrasts with the profit of importance in the collective formation of historical sense. The sum of all these factors then results in “digital history”, Schmale says.

Not knowledge but “networking knowledge and people” is power, Vannevar Bush said in his famous essay of 1945 “As we may think”. An impressive evidence of this is Wikipedia, in which knowledge is no longer bound to a specific socio-professional group. For the construction of an encyclopaedia of “historical cultural studies” old and new content should be descriped in such a way that semantic connections between data sets can be found (descriptors). In the foreground stand thus indexing, classify and tagging, as in pastperfect.at, Schmale says.

First and foremost on the wish list of researchers is the access to digital sources. Here much is done in the archives, but “digitizing all record groups would not be justified by any cost-benefit-analysis”, Schmale believes. Another priority issue are “collaborative digital work tools” as in pastperfect.at, where hypertexts are jointly produced. The opening up of the Web is especially exciting for the development of historical science. How do you recount “historical phenomena that have a network-nature”, Schmale asks. The “fluid” can only be handled by hypertexts as medium – here is the place where “digital history” is being developed, he says (see my post to the The place in the Digital Humanities, to this).

And then Schmale starts heating things up in his essay: The world in which the Web gains significant importance is that of the “civilization of metropolises”; here “social relationships mutate from a structure to a network”, to a hypertext so to say. It is not entirely clear why this is so. But: Here we find “history, which takes place on the Net”. And by that the position from where we operate historiography is changing radical. So: What is “digital history”? A “science of historical coherence” in networks with “fluid and volatile individuals”, the (re-) presentation of stories in hypertext, Schmale says; for him digital history is a part of historical science that, as a whole, is going to be a “hybrid science”.

Remark / interjection: Digital History as a collection of stories in the form of hypertexts strongly refers to the concept of bricolage as we know it from Claude Lévi-Strauss (please see my post to this and the concept of decentration from Jacques Derrida).

Reading Schmale consequently one believes that “the end of historical monograph” has come. But, fortunately, no: In his view the book remains the domain of „grand scientific stories“ (see my separate post on The Book in the Digital Information Age to this). How does this work together with the “civilization of hypertexts”? Schmale believes, contrary to Michel Foucault, in the “eminent personal and individual deed of science”. He therefore primarily seems to advocate a renewal of the communication of research results. So, Schmale recognizes the digital revolution. But, where Charles Leadbeater advocates the Pro-Am-Revolution (see Link for the review), he wants to keep and reinforce the place of the historiography and its experts. He therefore counts on the Semantic Web. Schmale’s ideas form an important contribution for a coherent concept of “digital history”. To this please see also my post on Peter Haber’s Digital History.

Post Scriptum:

(1) One popular visual communication instrument are slides. They often are awful boring. But, not this one: QualitativeVersus Quantitative Research – Visualization in the Humanities. It is simple and effective in the best sense, a good example in order to show that visualization in the humanities must not be directed against the text but can very well go with it.

(2) A very interesting project in order to visualize archival sources is Trading Consequences: A Case Study of Combining Text Mining & Visualisation to Facilitate Document Exploration from the Universities of Edinburgh, Saskatchewan and St. Andrews. It has been presented at the DH Conference 2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Guido Koller

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

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Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences: Digital Humanities and Web 2.0

Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Digital Humanities and Web 2.0, Dossier, in: Bulletin, 1/2012, S. 29ff

Review with respect to digital humanities

The Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAHS) dedicates the first issue of its Bulletin 2012 the Digital Humanities and Web 2.0. The Academy presents its “enterprises” as the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (DDS) for instance and discusses their potential for an innovative science strategy. The Academy believes that users (researchers, students) “nowadays expect digital services of aggregated knowledge”. Therefore, a lack of digital access would mean a loss of significance of the humanities, the Academy says. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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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. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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We think: Charles Leadbeater and the Digital Humanities

Charles Leadbeater, We-think, Mass innovation, not mass production: The Power of Mass Creativity, London, 2009 (Updated Version)

Review with respect to digital humanities

Charles Leadbeater is an authority on creativity in organizations in the English-speaking world. In particular he worked on knowledge-driven innovation strategies. Leadbeater is inter alia Member of the influential London think-tank Demos and the Oxford University’s Said Business School. He is considered an important supporter of the Pro-Am [ateur] revolution. The question arises as to the relevance of his ideas for the digital humanities. Continue reading

Guido Koller

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

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