Digital History: Beyond Linear vs. Non-Linear

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What’s new with “digital history”?  On the surface, it may seem easiest to conclude that we are now in a non-linear mode of knowledge.  After all, a book looks like a linear presentation of knowledge compared with hypertext, where one can jump around, or with graphic representations of knowledge that don’t seem to have a beginning or end point.  Alan Liu begins his essay on digital history by suggesting that we need not lament a decline in linear knowledge because there is value in non-linear knowledge production, despite the fears many express about digital forms.  He then goes on to argue that the notion of a linear past and a non-linear post-modern present is a false dichotomy.  He believes the difference is ideological.  Liu and Richard White attempt to open minds to the possibilities of digital representations of history, exploring the possibilities they provide us and encouraging readers not to get stuck on a potentially false sense of loss.

White describes Stanford’s “Spatial History Project.”  While it may sound scary to seasoned historians in the academy to consider the need of teams to do history in this new way, I personally find the collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach exciting.  The idea of working with teams of students studying history AND with computer programmers and designers means that historians will have to give up old notions of authority.  “But how does one gain employment, tenure, promotions or prestige?” one may ask.  I can’t say I have a solution, but surely one’s role in exciting new projects which stretch human knowledge in new directions ought to be important enough for the academy to find new ways of recognizing its workers. 

Having worked for a human rights advocacy organization on campaigning teams, I have seen the power of collaborative, cross-functional teams.  They have the potential to be larger than the sum of their parts, particularly when they are mission and vision driven and everyone feels equally invested in ambitious goals and outcomes.  Some of the spatial representations of movement that White shows in his essay are very thought-provoking.  How one can map train fares and freight rates in addition to the more obvious distance mapping presents new ways of looking at railroads.  As White states, this world of spatial history (part of digital history) opens our eyes to new insights and questions.  Because this type of effort does not supplant older narrative forms of history, but can complement it, I have a hard time understanding the fears of this new direction.

Liu’s conceptualization of digital history as representing a new ideology of freedom, as opposed to being a matter of breaking with linearity, seems helpful to me in terms of looking more deeply at what is changing with digital freedom beyond what we see on the surface.  The values underneath digital history are causes for optimism as far as I can see.  He describes the difference this way: It is “a critique of an older, modern freedom…filtered…through elective representation, controlled media, and other stepping-downs of direct democracy (updated today to networked, open-source, and crowd-sourced democracy).”  I suppose change that shakes at the pillars of existing, entrenched institutions always stirs some fear and resistance and throwing out older modes altogether is usually unwise.  White and Liu, however, suggest an optimism that seem to have infected this reader.
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