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.

AAHC Recap (Morning)

Today I attended the American Association for Historical Computing‘s 2009 annual conference, hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For someone interested in the field of digital history, it was a phenomenal opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and explore a variety of topics within the field.

The first session, a presentation by Amanda French of NYU on “Basic Digital History Skills for Historians,” came from her experience in teaching courses in digital history, many geared towards archival and library studies. Of particular interest was a survey she administered to 25 students that measured their comfort and ability in a wide variety of digital skills – everything from using social media to knowledge of metadata systems. She spoke about the fact that there was a gap between the skills being taught to public historians and archivists, and those being taught to traditional historians. Namely, those in the former group usually gain a stronger digital literacy. One of the major action points she drew from the survey was the need to teach students in the following fields: website creation, metadata, and multimedia.

Besides being the first conference presentation that I’ve live-tweeted, it brought up some interesting questions. The biggest one (that recurred throughout the day) was the question of teaching students what I’ll term hard vs. soft skills in gaining digital literacy. Should teachers expect their college students to have a basic skill set (uploading videos onto YouTube, using RSS feed readers, etc.) already? Should you spend the majority of your time teaching the skills and habits that they can then adapt to specific platforms? Is it possible to impart broader concepts of digital history without a concrete base in technical proficiency? My first instinct was to come down on the side of a liberal-artsy instruction of soft skills and underlying “big-picture” principles. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that for many people, the best way of learning these soft skills is by putting on your work gloves and diving into starting a blog, using Zotero, or generating a KML file.

The second session was Dave Lester‘s “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks.” Dave explained his ongoing project (History Plot) to create a means for people to contribute to a geolocated database. He compared it to Yelp, in that he dreams of a centralized platform through which people can look up historical landmarks and their metadata (primarily their location). In order to start seeding History Plot, Dave turned to 80,000 historic sites listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Other resources could include Wikipedia, Flickr, and partnerships with local historical societies.

Dave’s enthusiasm was downright infectious, as he spoke about being able to walk down a city street, use your iPhone to locate a nearby historical building, look up information about it, then take a photograph of it and immediately upload it to the database. Possibly the most exciting aspect, for me, was his idea of leveraging community-based history volunteers (he calls them “street teams”) to crowdsource the project. I think this has tremendous potential. History remains one of the foremost fields for armchair enthusiasts, as legions of geneologists and Civil War re-enactors would provide an incredible resource for this kind of geo-based crowd sourcing. It’s easy to imagine groups of history buffs meeting up on the weekends to explore cities and sites, snapping pictures and contributing research tidbits. I’d love for this to get off the ground, and would jump at the chance to found a local chapter.

Dan Cohen brought up a good point at the end of Dave’s talk: that the issue is finding an incentive structure so that people will actually participate in the project. In particular, there’s a gap between the (usually) younger tech-savvy crowd that lacks a strong interest in local history, and the (usually) older, less tech-savvy crowd that could potentially be the strongest source for knowledge seeding. I think it’s a manageable problem, but one that increases the need for highly accessible mobile technology and platforms that makes the barriers to entry as low as possible, even if it has to come at the cost of losing some technical robustness.

The last session of the morning was “Teaching, History, and Digital Tools: A Roundtable Discussion,” by Jeremy Boggs, Jeff McClurken, and Josh Sternfeld. All of them brought different perspectives to the topic, although each of them came from the similar experience of having taught a digital history course. It was a similar presentation to the one given by Jeremy and Jeff at the AHA convention, and it reinforced a lot of the lessons they had previously given (chief among these is Jeff’s great refrain about trying to make students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”). One point that it made me think about was the issue of how to value historical scholarship. I’ve been thinking a lot more about not only how the historical academy values research in digital history, but how it values teaching in digital history as well. Does listing “Creating History in New Media” on your C.V. as a course you taught carry more weight than listing an American history survey? Would a tenure review board be impressed with your tech-savvy literacy, or put off because they don’t understand it?