“Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”
― Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Today I’d like to speculate on history, politics, the internet and the ties that bind these concepts.
Digital Humanities (DH) largely concerns the convergence of history as a discipline with digital tools, particularly the internet as it is broadly understood. Hence, as digital historians, we concern ourselves with how to transfer our knowledge unto this (new) medium in a coherent, constructive and, most importantly, accessible fashion.
A significant amount of discourses coming out of DH focus on how to reconstitute history in the digital world—with emphasis placed on the utility of archiving. This approach presumes that the digital world operates independently from the humanities—specifically history—and that it is the task of digital historians to set the stage where these two worlds will collide. I find this incompatible with the reality of the digital age in which the discipline of history is not only quite pervasive but is also quickly evolving.
Archives, algorithms, data mining and other such digital tools are looked to as methods which historians and other within the field of DH should utilize to re-purpose academic practices. In this scenario, who is the true historian? The individual(s) and academics synthesizing the information gathered from these sources or is it the architects and overseers of these archives, algorithms, etc. who determine what information is collected, how it’s collected and to whom it is made accessible?
In Digital Humanities for What? Elena Razlogova states that “digital archives and search ranking algorithms structure the way we access news and conduct research.” To me, it seems that these are the new historians of the digital age, establishing and dictating what information we gather, how we gather it and how we remember it.
Why is any of this relevant? Well, maybe it’s not. However, given the role historians have played in shaping memory and history, this has large implications for the nature of the morality of these new historians. Machiavelli’s The Prince came to guide and even dictate how monarchies, regimes and individual leaders conducted themselves and wielded their authority within and without their territories. If agents such as Google or Facebook which wield the information and authority once entitled to the old historians, what will that mean for the global political landscape?