DH Reads

DH Read: “Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it?”

It’s always interesting to see what DH work finds its way into mainstream media and how it’s portrayed. This article by Steve Hendrix in the Washington Post highlights various forms of digital historical re-creation, from colorized photos and virtual reality to “voice cloning” JFK. For now at least, projects like these aren’t very representative of most of the digital history and digital humanities work happening in academia (or even in public history). You wouldn’t necessarily get that from the article, though. “From meticulously colorized photographs to immersive virtual-reality battlefields, scholars, artists and entrepreneurs are dragging the old days into the computer age,” it reads, ignoring decades of digital history projects and methods that brought us to this point (nobody is “dragging” history into the digital age; we’ve been working in it for awhile now). I also have to take issue with the idea that “history is becoming less about dates and more about data” for the obvious reason that history was never really about dates. These points aside, the article does address an interesting debate. On one side:

Enthusiasts say technology allows students — and customers — to tap into the feelings behind the facts. A colorized photo of a frightened little girl in Auschwitz makes her less like an archived shadow and more like children we see every day. It is easier to comprehend how Henry V spurred his outnumbered troops into battle by hearing his exhortations rather than just reading them.

On the other:

But not everyone is embracing the magic. For many history purists, creating images and sounds that depend on guesswork, subjective choices and even acting rubs against cherished academic norms. How do you footnote the barking of a medieval dog?

Sometimes the issue is more with execution than norms and ethics. I feel like these kinds of projects have the potential to dip into the uncanny valley. According to the article, “Kennedy scholar Jeff Shesol said he appreciated the interest the synthesized JFK speech was bringing to a little-known bit of presidential rhetoric. But he found the audio rendition to be ‘creepy and unsettling.'”

Every project must be evaluated according to its own merits, of course, but it’s worth considering what it means to creatively manipulate history in this era of “fake news.” At the same time, some of the article’s commenters raise the point that history has always been manipulated (the example of Confederate monuments built during Jim Crow comes to my mind). Maybe digital re-creations can actually help historians challenge the notion of history as a series of facts and draw attention to the interpretive nature of the discipline. Maybe digital re-creations will help, not hurt, students’/the public’s ability to discern fact from fiction and recognize subjectivity. We’re doing a unit on AR/VR in my digital history minor field this fall, so I’m interested to see how my thoughts evolve as I learn more about this aspect of DH.

Read the original article here.

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