The University of Zurich is developing a Digital Society Initiative (DSI) to engage with the impact of digital technology on all societal spheres, including history and other disciplines dealing with the past. The Department of History welcomes the DSI and fully supports it by the establishment of a new Digital History Lab (DHL).
Digital History has a key role to play in the UZH Digital Society Initiative. The emerging promises and problems of contemporary society—Big Data, surveillance, privacy, access rights, the circulation and re-appropriation of cultural artefacts (texts, numbers, pictures and sound), and other new forms of digitally mediated social interaction—demand a deeper historical understanding of their social, political, cultural, economic and epistemic dimensions.
Historizing the digital
The Department of History’s proposed Digital History Lab will tackle the crucial issue of how contemporary society should understand the historical emergence and evolution of digital societies. It will analyse a history of digital data, including its cultural and epistemological dimensions, while focusing also on societal issues (surveillance, privacy, cultural properties, public access, indigenous knowledge, citizen science, and the public understanding of academia) that speak directly to the interests of the UZH Digital Society Initiative. Drawing on existing digital history expertise in the Department of History, especially in Media History, History of Knowledge, E-learning, and digital dissemination, it will be a forum for sharing best practices between UZH historians, so as to offer practical and intellectual support to future projects. In these ways, the Digital History Lab will be a focus for research, teaching and engagement activities, offering scholars a space in which to reflect on and practice history in the digital age.
Digital technologies are profoundly transforming both the research environments and teaching methods of history as a discipline, and the contemporary representations of history in archives and exhibitions, in print and digital media and in school didactics. The ways in which digital technologies shape processes of archiving and curating cultural heritage have impacted on academic and public understandings of history. In analysing and reflecting on the present and future implications of the digital revolution in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way, Digital History speaks to some of the DSI’s central concerns. We urgently need to develop a history and theory of data (small and big) in the past in order to understand data and its infrastructures in the present.
Cultural norms (e.g. property or privacy) and cultural techniques (e.g. modelling, simulating, programming, hacking, image and text interpretation, or writing practices) are fundamentally challenged by binary code, by hypertext, by collaborative working environments or machine learning. Digital technologies are shaping a new ecosystem that challenges traditional norms of knowledge formation and circulation. The discipline of History and especially some of its sub-disciplines (e.g. History of Knowledge and Media History) offer scholars a variety of methods to study the epistemology of data and socio-technological relations in Digital Societies. But even as History offers scholars new ways of understanding the digital revolution, the language of New Media also challenges historians to revise and rethink methods of source analysis and research presentation.
New ways of writing history
Historians are also beginning to focus on what new technologies mean for the very writing of history in a digital age. Already, powerful new ways of structuring the traditional monograph or essay have built on methodologies inspired by the new infrastructures of digital history, e.g. hyperlinking, keyword searching, or plain text. But when one moves from paper to the screen, there are many more possibilities to develop non-traditional historical narratives through interfaces between writers and readers. At the most basic level, the proliferation of websites, learning guides and E-tools under the broad rubric of ‘digital history’ have transformed the teaching and learning landscape of history in higher education.
One area which has received less attention, especially within the environment of history departments in the Germanic world, is the extent to which Digital History enables not only professional historians but also students to develop new ways of presenting their research. The Foucault blog, hosted by the Department of History at UZH, already gives students a forum to publish their semester papers, and we are now beginning to find students who, wishing to develop the full interactive potential of digital technologies, want to create websites in lieu of the traditional Seminararbeit.
Furthermore, the historian’s changing methodological toolkit, combined with the potential for developing new forms of narrative, have brought the discipline of History into much more direct contact with the general public.