Justifying Digital History

Well folks, we’re nearing the end of our readings for this course. Through the lens of digital history, we’ve read works on Roman archaeology, dinosaurs, Halo: Reach, the rise of the English novel and Thule Inuit whale bone houses. Digital stuff aside, I’ve learned quite a bit from that historical hodge podge. (Bone houses!)

I’ve noticed a tendency in these readings. Even as digital historians raise compelling new historical insights and questions, there seems to be a need to justify the salience of their approach. Stuart Eve’s work on Hadrian’s Wall becomes a justification for the use of Augmented Reality as an aid to archaeological phenomenology. Peter Dawson and Richard Levy’s research on the construction of Thule bone houses transforms into an argument for how 3D modeling can be of practical benefit to archaeologists. This week, Franco Moretti’s arguments about the genre-driven rise of the English novel support a broader argument about the benefit of big data research and graphing. These are not just arguments about history. They are arguments about how we should do history.

To some extent, any historical argument does this. If documentary evidence helps support my argument, the onus is on me to explain why oral accounts are or are not also worth my consideration. But something different seems to be happening in digital history. If I fail to justify my use of documentary evidence my argument may be discredited, but that evidence remains a valid source of potential information. I’m not sure the same can be said in many of the digital projects we’ve looked at. People using digital methodologies must perform two functions at once. They must justify their argument based on their methods, while also demonstrating the validity of those methods.

To some extent, any new methodology or theoretical approach will have to prove its worth before being accepted by the discipline. It may be that digital history is still waiting for wider disciplinary acceptance. It may also be that emerging techniques have continued to push disciplinary boundaries at a rate faster than that of their acceptance. Data mining and photogrammetry may both fall under the digital history umbrella, but they challenge traditional history in very different ways.

I wonder where the field will be in 20 years. Will digital historians still find themselves compelled to prove their mettle at every step, or will digital histories have become an accepted historical method? There are undoubtedly advantages to pushing disciplinary boundaries, but I wonder if we couldn’t use a little digital history right at the centre.

-Jesse / @jesseroberts0n