Tools, people, history

Benjamin Breen in the inaugural blog post for The Appendix, an upcoming ”journal of narrative and experimental history”:

History is shaped by the tools available for making it: cuneiform tablets tallying sheep or barley are less flexible as texts — they carry more limited forms of information, in smaller quantities, and in harder to reproduce form — than 17th century letters or printed books. By the same token, digital communication can do things that early modern technologies of writing and print can’t (for instance, web packets are at considerably less risk of falling into rivers during winter storms). History changes, and is also changed by, the technologies used to record it.

At the same time, however, history isn’t about those tools — it’s about people.

This thoughtful, well-written piece makes me look forward even more to the debut of the first issue of The Appendix on 21 December. Its very appropriate theme: ”The end?”

Of databases and narratives

These days I might describe myself as a (somewhat) old-school historian trying to better understand the implications of digital technology and social media. As such, I found this piece by Lev Manovich (part 1 of a longer article) on different ”information design patterns” or ”forms of social media” to be analytically helpful. He discusses three such patterns – the database, the timeline and the data stream – and argues that we have now arrived in the age of the latter:

I want to suggest that in social media, as it developed until now (2004–2012), database no longer rules. Instead, social media brings forward a new form: a data stream. Instead of browsing or searching a collection of objects, a user experiences the continuous flow of events. These events are typically presented as a single column. New events appearing on top push the earlier ones from the immediate view. The most important event is always the one that is about to appear next because it heightens the experience of the “data present.” All events below immediately become “old news” – still worth reading, but not in the same category.

In the light of this, a previous point in Manovich’s argument was especially interesting: his contention that the database pattern of 1990s web sites represented a break with the narrative as ”the historically dominant way of organization [sic] information”. While I’m sure one might qualify or challenge this conclusion in various ways, it seems generally valid to me. But if so, what is the data stream if not a merger of these opposing forms, a database-driven narrative or a narrative database? Put differently: ”The Narrative Strikes Back”, anyone?

While Manovich does not explicitly make that connection in this installment of his article, maybe he will get back to it in the next. Whether he does or not, I am looking forward to reading it.