The Mobile Historian

The rocketing ascent of mobile technology was one of the fundamental shifts of 2008, and many market analysts predict it will only continue throughout 2009. Its rise seems to be following a two-tracked progression: individuals in developing countries are latching onto increasingly affordable mobile phones as a way to log in to a wider network, while wealthier consumers fascinated by the ability to take their online experience on-the-go are snatching up smartphones at a shocking rate (to the point where the smartphone industry appears to be recession resistant). This environment creates an intriguing medium for historians to refine and improve their craft, and the time is ripe for innovation.

Some historians have been leading the charge in utilizing this technology. Bill Turkel has been a pioneer in applying new methods in place-based computing to the field of history. Meanwhile, the majority of similar efforts fall under the sphere of public history. Some museums have long been experimenting with “electronic curators,” or hand-held audio devices that emit information about an aspect of the exhibit depending on where its carrier is standing. Cultural heritage sites, particularly battlefields and/or national parks, have quickly recognized the potential for GPS-enabled devices that guide visitors through a site. Finally, some history educators are experimenting with ways to engage their students using portable technology, including fieldwork and visitations.

Dave Lester, of George Mason University’s CHNM, presented “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks” in early April at the American Association for History and Computing conference. Dave’s is currently working on a project called HistoryPlot to encourage user participation in exploring and contributing to a knowledge bank of historical places. The idea is that roving bands of history enthusiasts could visit sites, pull out their iPhone, learn about some of its history, and possibly add both information and multimedia to the site by snapping pictures and/or uploading content – creating a kind of Yelp for the historically-minded. Dave’s project draws upon two specific advantages: 1) the participatory culture of crowdsourcing, and 2) the increasing ubiquitousness of mobile technology

Dan Cohen recently explored the advantage of crowdsourcing when he posted a historical puzzle on his blog at the start of a presentation, which asked people to identify the following picture using minimal clues:

He simultaneously sent out the puzzle via Twitter by asking his 1,600 followers to try to solve it in the next hour. The speed with which Dan got answers was impressive, with an initial correct answer coming in 9 minutes. Although he admits he should have made the puzzle a bit more difficult, the process was successful in highlighting the immense advantages of crowdsourcing historical problems using a fluid and mobile platform such as Twitter.

The growth of a mobile culture in which users are constantly connected magnifies the power of crowdsourcing. Dan’s experiment rested on the assumption that a certain number of his followers would be online and checking their tweets, and enough of them would then be able to use the internet to access his blog, read the clue, and search for the answer online. Two or three years ago, the chances of receiving an answer in 9 minutes would be much, much slimmer. A mobile culture removes barriers to accessing information, and simultaneously increases users’ expectations for accessing that information, many of whom no longer tolerate being shackled by outlets, ethernet cords, or wireless signals.

Consequently, mobile technology is redefining our social conception of space and place, and this has corresponding ramifications for historians. It revisits the fundamental relationship between a physical location and what happened in the past within that space, a relationship with which spatial and geographic historians continuously grapple. This shift is opening up a two-way street for historical researchers. On the one hand, a mobile culture allows efforts such as Dave Lester’s to shed light on previously inaccessible areas. Suddenly, a historian researching a far-away site might be able to “travel” there by looking at uploaded pictures and documents, trading emails or tweets with other researchers who have visited the place, or watching the video of a history enthusiast on vacation at the site.

On the other hand, those shifting expectations that accompany a mobile culture can also turn themselves on historical researchers. A mobile society might question the reliability of a solitary historian writing abstractly about a place they have never actually been to. A constantly connected audience will start to expect the kind of intimate access and exploration that can only be gained from hands-on visitation. A readership conditioned to read reviews on Amazon or tourists’ travel blogs will increasingly dismiss the authority of a specialist who has never visited a location they describe, even if they are describing its past. Audiences will continue to tolerate a historian’s inability to time-travel; they will not continue to tolerate an inability to place-travel.

Fortunately, mobile technology can also create a mobile historian. Imagine a historian writing about shifting gender roles on the Oklahoma Chickasaw reservation during the Dust Bowl. Armed with a laptop, digital camera, and smartphone, the historian can travel to Oklahoma and go to the reservation itself. Once there, traditional archival research is greatly enhanced by technology. Instead of lugging around 3×5 index cards, Zotero can speed up and digitize the note-taking process. The digital camera can capture documents for later perusal, allowing them to find more sources in a shorter amount of time. Is the researcher suddenly curious about gender demographics for a particular town near the reservation, or wants to understand the background to a religious ceremony referenced in a court record? They can use their smartphone to look up census data or send out queries to colleagues likely receive a rapid answer to their question.

Leaving the archives, the historian can dip into oral history by interviewing locals and recording their memories on the smartphone or digital recorder. The smartphone’s GPS capabilities allow him or her to not only locate the homes of the interviewees, but to flag and mark locations to look for spatial patterns at a later date – what if all the traditional “male” venues on a reservation were located on a specific street, while “female” venues were spread over a greater area? The GPS ability of a smartphone can capture these on-the-ground patterns. Finally, the mobile historian can quickly send out updates on their progress, receiving feedback and suggestions from a remote crowd of like-minded researchers, students, assistants, or colleagues.

Mobile technology (like all technology) is not a magic pill that will suddenly transform the historical profession. There are certainly drawbacks. First and foremost exists a strong economic barrier to entry. Already struggling for travel stipends and fellowship money, many historians won’t be able to afford a brand-new iPhone or high-quality digital camera. Those who aren’t already comfortable with mobile technology will often feel overwhelmed or at an unfair disadvantage. On a more abstract level, technology and its inherent distractions can sometimes construct blinders to one of the most important advantages to visiting a place in person: the ability to feel the sense of place, to listen to the wind and hear the accents and taste the food, a decidedly fuzzy process that adds crucial depth and richness to the historian’s understanding of their subject.

As technology itself becomes more refined and more sophisticated, the possibilities for innovation and exploration will continue to expand. As with any new methodology, the traditional skills and strengths of a historian will not fade into obsolescence. Instead, they’ll be ever more critical to the process of responsibly incorporating new techniques and approaches into the broader historical fold. If this process is even moderately successful, the future of the mobile historian appears bright.

9 thoughts on “The Mobile Historian

  1. Great stuff. Think you’ll be able to put any of this into practice in your own research? If so, I can’t wait to see what your dissertation looks like….

  2. Hello. I am not a historian, but I wanted to chime in and say that I really enjoyed reading this.

    To me, “Conceptual Visitation” of places seems just as important as physical or virtual visitation. (I think I just invented that term… sorry if this steps on academic toes. I don’t know if there is something in ‘the literature’ that fits better.) What I mean by this is that when a place is visited (either physically, virtually, or even in one’s imagination), the experience is strongly conditioned by both prior expectations and reference points.

    Regarding the latter, one thing that strikes me about many “place descriptions” is that they are, either explicitly or implicitly, relative to other places (especially with respect to tourism). For example, Toronto is sometimes described as “the clean-cut twin of New York” or “NYC’s stunt double” for the role it has often played in films. I recently heard Austin described as “the Bay Area without the bay… and a better music scene”. And, for any given place, these descriptions are both culturally relative and obviously will change over time.

    As to expectations, I think this is fairly obvious, but my assumptions here are mainly based on several anecdotal examples. For example, I now live in a big city and my parents, let’s just say, are “not city people”. When they come here, they have certain expectations (biases) which I struggle to overcome in my presentation of the city to them, but which are almost invariably (and inevitably?) confirmed by their seeing the city through a lens of tension, suspicion, unease, and/or “abnormality”.

    I’m curious how this things (will) play into the practice of mobile historianship (including things like geotagged travel accounts/reviews). For example, when getting and recording the “sense of a place” relative to some other place(s), perhaps technology can help keep descriptions and narratives of disparate places “in synch”, allowing for the contextualization of statements like the above for one place long after the comparisons to the other continue to hold. But perhaps, also, the “recording techniques” (whatever they may be), need to record much more — including (so-called) meta-data about the background, perspectives, reference points, and who-knows-what(!) of the mobile historian, especially if this is done in a “crowd sourced” way (although even if it isn’t).

    Please forgive me if this is a worn out path in discussions of mobile history . (I’m suspicious the above points probably are also tired topics in the area of “normal” history as well, but I also suspect the “technologically-enhanced” emerging practices probably exacerbate things.) And thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

  3. Here via S. Hockema’s twitter – reminds me of the murmur project.

    I’m incorporating some of the technology you describe into my research and I see great potential in these new tools not just for the historian but also for public history. Haven’t figured out how yet but I’d like to be able to geotag historic maps superimposed over current maps since my area of research has undergone geographic changes over time.

    One problem I see with mobile history as a whole is access. A smart phone and data plan are simply outside of my budget. And while I’d love to connect with others to pool info this will most likely occur around subjects that already have a hold as areas of interest. I wonder how it will apply to emerging subjects. Should definitely be interesting.

  4. Jeff:
    I’m certainly going to try to push the envelope as much as I can, maybe publish one of my dissertation chapters as a soundscape or RPG…kidding…kind of…

    Thanks for the feedback! You bring up some important points, and I’d agree that visitation is a critical issues (for historians and non-historians). I love the point about capturing a sense of place both within and outside of existing reference points. There’s also definitely going to be an increasing overlap between virtual and actual visitation, and my hunch is that VR and haptic technology are going to really take off to follow this trend, especially in the realm of public history and museums. Hopefully academia will follow closely, although it tends to lag behind.

    I hadn’t heard of the murmur project before, cool stuff! Spatial history has a strong tradition and big potential for growth as far as utilizing mobile technology goes, so I think you’re in a great position (just look at Google Earth’s use of historic maps in their last release). And access is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges facing mobile history (and digital history as a whole). You can’t expect all (or even most) historians to have the means or ability to utilize all of this technology effectively, and to assume otherwise is a crucial mistake.

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