Contingency Plans

toward an intellectual history of digital history @ usih book review.

A man using the imagined “Memex machine,” from Vannevar Bush’s essay “As We May Think,” published in The Atlantic in July 1945.

X-posted from USIH Book Review.

As Abigail De Kosnik points out in her study of what she calls “rogue archives,” the Internet “began as a fantasy of the perfect archive, a technology that would preserve the vast record of human knowledge” (p. 44). Early futurists such as Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider pictured an automated retrieval system, a kind of instant history machine.[1] A set of recent books grapple with whether this has become the case in the contemporary digital age. They draw upon the developing history of digital history itself to do so, and largely agree that digital technologies have turned out to be something very different from what Bush, Licklider, and other computer dreamers imagined. These recent books also diverge from the earliest explorations of digital history, which often took the form of how-to guides or manifestos (some were almost sales pitches for Silicon Valley). Instead, they adopt more reflective, scholarly responses to the transformations wrought by computers.[2] Taking topics such as mass digitization, networking, social media, data, the deeper logics of programming, and the history of digital history itself seriously, they offer a nascent intellectual history of how computers might be altering our contemporary understanding of the past. Joining a spate of scholarship in communications and media studies focused on how today’s digital technologies reinforce, and perhaps even exacerbate, long-running inequities in American culture when it comes to race, gender, and other factors, the books remind us that the time has come to treat digital history not merely as a flashy new method, but instead as a complex intellectual endeavor that demands full-throated theoretical scrutiny and more intensive historicization.[3]

These recent books are by no means the first to begin to address the intellectual implications of digital history, but they do mark a moment in which historicization of the field plays a more prominent role than in earlier assessments. Our very “sense of history,” as literary scholar Alan Liu calls it, is up for grabs as computers continue to alter both how historians access the past and how they communicate their findings. For instance, what even constitutes an archive is changing. What a historical study looks like is too. Repositories digitally leak out the library and even the words of essays and books loosen from the printed page. History now dances across screens, darkens the computing cloud, pulsates quite literally as beams of light along fiber optic networks. How do we make sense of these dramatic changes?

Like a good marketing campaign, the first wave of digital history scholarship often played up the momentous possibilities of digital technologies for the study of the past. Excited early adopters emphasized what digital humanities scholar Bethany Noviskie ultimately criticized as the “eternal September” of new approaches. Historian Cameron Blevins similarly finds fault with the “perpetual future tense” of the field. Everything was about to change, early digital historians claimed, and yet we always only seem to be at the beginning of those changes. The great transformation was coming, and yet still has not arrived. It was as if journal articles, books, and conferences had all become some weird history profession version of the latest Apple launch event. Only figures such as Roy Rosenzweig tended to take a more cautionary, historical perspective. In formative essays such as “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” he proposed that the new challenge for history in the digital age would not be a paucity of sources, but rather a firehose of them. In “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” Rosenzweig was among the first to notice the tensions between grassroots, scholarly, and proprietary modes of digitizing the past. Lara Putnam’s important 2016 essay likewise issued a cautionary tale for the intersection of digital and transnational history: digital technologies allowed for faster cross-regional study through mass digitization, but they also threatened to undercut sustained, deeply contextualized inquiry into the archives; worse yet, they privileged the Global North over the Global South.[4]

New books pick up where these and other critiques left off.[5] In some sense they are all simultaneously studies of digital history and, without always explicitly announcing it, the larger neoliberal order that emerged in full during the 1990s and in which the field of digital history is inevitably enmeshed. With its reordering of the commons and collectivity into privatized, often atomized individuals who entrepreneurially seek out connections within large-scale technologies that render equality tantalizing but also constantly undermined, neoliberalism itself is only coming into view historically.[6] The intellectual history of digital technologies and their effects on historical study might well end up having something more to tell us about neoliberalism—as well as about efforts to resist it or reimagine it.

In an intellectual history framework, these recent books about digital history’s history also point to deeper connections to the past, not just the recent era of neoliberalism. Today’s digital historical practices link to longer-running stories about very big questions: what does it mean to develop a historical consciousness?; how is that consciousness linked to understandings of artifacts, evidence, and methods of access and analysis? So, while digital history may be neoliberal, exhibiting what opponents to digital humanities have described as an ominous “dark side,” they are not only that.[7] Or if they are, their neoliberal dimensions remind us that the neo in neoliberalism itself signals a larger intellectual history that stretches back to the liberal traditions of the Enlightenment and arises within the protracted currents of modernity.

The books under review do not always tackle these larger questions directly. They are instead focused mostly on the possibilities and opportunities historians face in confronting an unprecedented abundance of digitized but unstable and ephemeral sources. Yet even in their focus on the practicalities and challenges of what Ian Milligan calls “history in the age of abundance,” Adam Crymble describes as “transformation in the digital age,” Niels Brügger refers to as the “archived web” (as distinct from the World Wide Web or digitized collections of previously “analog” material), Nanna Bonde Thylstrup refers to as “the politics of mass digitization,” Abigail De Kosnik identifies as “digital cultural memory and media fandom,” and Alan Liu views as an emergent new “sense of history,” they still reveal something of the texture of our times as it increasingly gets constituted not by older forms of artifacts and media, but rather by computational bits and bytes, servers and networks, code and commands.

The key focus for these scholars is the digital archive and how it is not the same as older modes or practices of archiving. In History in the Age of Abundance? How the Web is Transforming Historical Research, Ian Milligan asks, “what does it mean to write histories with born-digital sources?” He wants to know “how can we be ready, from a technological perspective as well as from a social or ethical one, to use the web as a historical source—as an archive?” In short, as the web itself becomes artifactual, not just a representation of older “analog” artifacts but a part of the historical record itself, how can historians best analyze it? The good news is that “historians with the training and resources are about to have far more primary sources, and the ability to process them, at their fingertips.” They will also, Milligan warns, face the problem that “super-abundance brings its own challenges” (pp. 3, 9). Most of all, Milligan is curious how the web as a historical artifact, when archived, will alter our “understanding of the past” (p. 3). How will it change processes of knowledge acquisition? To address this question, he calls for making the “largely implicit methodologies” historians use more explicit (p. 6).

Milligan’s book rejects the most positivist claims advocated by ardent cliometricians and digital humanities. He does not believe quantity trumps quality. More of something does not inevitably mean it is more true. The timeline of the past does not flow along a bell curve. “At the scales we are working with in born-digital data,” he writes, “the mere fact of something existing—or even hundreds of something existing—may not signify something significant.” Instead, “Context is king.” Therefore, while “distant reading is a necessity when working with web archives,” he writes, we must use it adroitly to “get a sense of what was being created and talked about, and what mattered to people, at scale” (p. 57). There is not just vastly more stuff when we examine websites and web pages as historical artifacts; they are also fundamentally different in their qualities as artifacts. Their constitutive elements, their very ontologies, are different; so too, the way we access them is different. Therefore, convincing arguments about them will have to move along different lines of logic, correlation, connection, and causation.

So too for Milligan, the “underlying mechanisms” of digitization and distant reading through computational tactics matter. They are far from neutral, which is precisely why he firmly believes that “transparency is imperative in the digital age” (p. 60). “Historians and other scholars using web archives,” he writes, “need to recognize the inherent subjectivity of the tools they design and use.” For Milligan:

If I designed the algorithm, my subjectivity is embedded in it: the weight given to various categories of analysis, the encoding decisions taken, the process by which unstructured text was turned into the structured data that computers make sense of, etc. And beyond that, the archives themselves are not perfect representations of the underlying reality. None of this is a neutral process: at almost every step it reflects or should reflect the user’s judgment as a researcher. All this comes before the critical process of making sense of the data. And even if the historian arrives at the same ‘answers,’ in sources and results, it does not mean that she will draw the same conclusions. As always, results need that extra step of interpretation (p. 59).

We can see all this most vividly in the case studies Milligan presents, from the vanished world of GeoCities websites to the efforts in 2013 at CERN to display the original world wide web page created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. In fact, by 2013 they could not display it. They had to simulate it since the original page existed through a “line-mode browser” rather than today’s web browsers. Moreover, they could not even locate the very original page, only a copy of it from December 1992. They had to, as Milligan wryly puts it, “fix” modern HTML code in order to make the page look more like it would have in 1991 (p. 65). In short, this “original” artifact was in fact a replica, yet in being a replica it was, oddly, more accurate to the past object, in its moment, than what still existed of the original in its original state.

Such are the paradoxes of digital preservation that historians must consider and with which they must contend. As Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has noticed in his work on the history of word processing and the “forensic imagination,” digital sources aren’t really things, they are processes. At their base, materially speaking, they are scores, notations to activate, but not the music itself.[8] Which is to say, the things we think of when we say “digital artifacts” are not really things at all. They are not set in stone (as it were), but rather, as new media, they exist in stepped commands awaiting execution. They are more like coiled springs in the printing press than manuscripts fresh off the platen. Digital sources are code and protocols and relationships, not objects in the conventional sense. We use our screens to perceive them, but screens are just that: a surface upon which projections appear. What we see on our screens is in fact illusory, a kind of performance of an artifact rather than the real thing. They are but a representational outcome of signals, sequences, commands, and orderings deeper within the machine. All this, according to Milligan, demands methodological reorientation and clarification. The idea of the artifact is changing in the digital era. We better keep up or get lost. Whether he is exploring the nature of web crawlers and robots.txt files or browser wars, Flash, and defunct web hosting services such as GeoCities or effort to preserve the original Tim Berner-Lee’s original webpage at CERN, this is Milligan’s key point.

Adam Crymble would largely agree, but in Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age, he focuses even more explicitly on the recent past of historical study itself. He believes that as historians “increasingly work with computers, computers will increasingly exert their influence on our intellectual agenda.” Therefore, “we must understand both their strengths and the limits they impose on us.” By “putting technology at the center of the field’s own history for the first time,” he hopes to address “our professional blind spot” as historians. His goal is to present “a history of technology’s impact on historical studies” (p. 2). In place of the how-to guides and eternal sunrises of revolutionary methods that predominate, Crymble instead seeks to historicize digital history or, as he puts it, the multiple ways of “doing history in the digital age” that have emerged since the 1990s (p. 14). He investigates the origin myths of digital humanities developed back then from Roberto Busa’s use of computers decades earlier. He looks at the development of mass digitized archival holdings. He enters the classroom to investigate digital historical pedagogy. He recovers the importance of “informal channels” of digital skill acquisition among historians. And he traces the rise and fall of the academic blog over the last twenty years. Crymble’s study has a particularly transatlantic dimension since he has worked in both North America and the United Kingdom. Crymble mostly wants to emphasize the plurality of ways historians are investigating the past digitally. At the very end of his book, he also calls for a more global digital history and digital humanities, arguing that it is already moving from the North Atlantic to a more international framework.

This is most of all a book of splitting, not lumping—of foxes not hedgehogs. For Crymble, digital history consists of multiple different interests, approaches, perspectives, and pursuits. An error has been made in trying to condense it to one method, one shared vantage point on the past and how to harness computers for studying it. Nonetheless, the term digital history does summon forth, if not a unified subfield, is an “imagined community.” It began to take shape in the 1990s, according to Crymble, as a diverse group of historians who “had drunk deeply of the philosophies and culture of the digital era and who had designs on making adjustments to the status quo in the profession and the wider world” (p. 164). Whether they did so or not is still a point of contention. Whether they will so or not in the future remains to be seen.

Like Ian Milligan and Adam Crymble, Niels Brügger is keen to historicize the last twenty to thirty years of digital history. His focus, however, is less on the history of historians than on what is to be done with the massive historical record of websites and other online publications that have appeared since the early 1990s. He wants to better define the parameters of archives that preserve the web and calls for the continued development of an “archived web.” Brügger writes, “the archived web is a reborn digital medium, and as such it comes with a digitality of its own distinct from that of digitized collections and of the online web” (p. 6). “The web of the past itself is worthy of being studied,” Brügger believes (p. 15) but it “does not present itself as a phenomenon with clear and obvious demarcations indicating how a study of it should be focused.” For “unlike written documents, print media, or radio/television, where analytical objects such as ‘page,’ ‘image,’ ‘article,’ and ‘program’ seem the obvious focal points, the web does not lend itself to such straightforward and taken-for granted ways of approaching it analytically” (p. 31).

There is what we see on the web, to be sure, but really what we see is generated from underlying textual code that itself parlays electrical signals into a set of functions and outputs. The web contains layers upon layers. To archive it raises troubling questions, not only in terms of what is being archived, which is an age-old question of power in, for instance, the colonial archive, but also what Brügger calls “the intangible politics of the archiving process itself” (p. 73). For Brügger, the “archived web,” what we should understand as an archival world of born-digital, web-based publications, must always be the “reborn web.” It must be reconstructed, re-represented, even altered so that it can render as it once looked in newer web modes of structure and display (p. 74). The choices made in how we construct the “archived web” embed within the very artifacts themselves their potential for access, interpretation, meaning-making as cultural memory and history.

The mass digitization that has allowed for Brügger’s archived web even to exist at all is the topic of Nanna Bonde Thylstrup book. She probes the implications of mass digitization for “the politics of cultural memory” (p.3). For her, as those who wield digital technologies transform “historical material into ubiquitous ephemeral data” in projects that seek to increase the number of digital artifacts exponentially (think Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Million Books Project, the Digital Public Library of America or the HathiTrust Digital Library), a “new kind of politics” emerges in the “regime of cultural memory” even more than in historical studies. It is, in her view, most of all an “infrapolitical process” that is far from “rationalized and instrumental” but instead consists of “ambivalent spatio-temporal projects of desire and uncertainty” (pp. 5, 7). Indeed, for Thylstrup, “it is exactly uncertainty and desire that organizes the new spatio-temporal infrastructures of cultural memory institutions, where notions such as serendipity and the infrapolitics of platforms have taken precedence over accuracy and sovereign institutional politics” (p. 7). With mass digitization, cultural memory itself becomes part of an “anticipatory regime” in which people increasingly engage in “perpetual calculatory activities, processing affects, and activities in terms of likelihoods and probabilistic outcomes” (p. 135). So too, “new colonial and neoliberal platforms arise from a complex infrastructural apparatus of private and public institutions.” These become “shaped by political, financial, and social struggles over representation, control, and ownership of knowledge” in its new, digital forms (p. 136).

There is, Thylstrup notes excitedly, now “instant access to a wealth of works” for those who can access them. With this, there are, thankfully, new kinds of “cultural freedoms we have been given to roam the archives, collecting and exploring oddities along the way, and making new connections between works that would previously have been held separate by taxonomy, geography, and time in the labyrinthine material and social infrastuctures of cultural memory” (p. 136). At the same time, without naming it as such, a kind of Foucauldian awareness of politics appears in Thylstrup’s analysis. It is not a biopolitics in the capillaries of bodies so much as a mechano-politics in the wires of computational machines. Quoting Saskia Sassen, Thylstrup believes that “mass digitization appears as a preeminent example of how knowledge politics are configured in today’s world of ‘assemblages’ as ‘multisited, transboundary networks’ that connect subnational, national, supranational, and global infrastructures and actors, without, however, necessarily doing so through formal interstate systems.” Instead of a “sovereign decision” shaping mass digitization, it has “emerged through a series of contingencies shaped by late-capitalist and late-sovereign forces” (p. 18). It “stages a fundamental confrontation between state and corporate power, while pointing to the reconfigurations of both as they become increasingly embedded in digital infrastructures” (p. 29). It reveals conflicts “in the meeting between twentieth-century standardization ideals and the playful and flexible network dynamics of the twenty-first century.” And it manifests “at the level of users, as they experience a gain in some powers and the loss of others in their identity transition from national patrons of cultural memory institutions to globalized users of mass digitization assemblages” (p. 29). Sounds like neoliberalism, indeed.

If the politics of mass digitization take place at the level of digital infrastructure, as Thylstrup contends, then, as she writes, “political resistance will have to take the form of infrastructural interventions” (p. 138). This is just the sort of activity that Abigail De Kosnik tracks in her book Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. She combines approaches from media and performance studies to explore how fans appropriate, collect, reorient, reorganize, remix, transfigure, and share with each other and the world mass consumer media forms digitally. In the process, they create new kinds of archiving styles, “rogue” ones according to De Kosnik. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s theories of outlaw “rogue” states and Diana Taylor’s distinction between archive and repertoire, by which Taylor meant the difference between embodied knowledge conveyed through performance and written knowledge fixed in archives, De Kosnik believes that “Rogue archivists explore the potential of digital technologies to democratize cultural memory” (p. 1-2).[9] Although she grants that digital technologies and even rogue cultural memories themselves are not automatically revolutionary, and may even “serve the interests of dominant classes and groups,” hers is a mostly hopeful perspective. Fan-built digital archives, she contends, improve “the positions and fuel the activities of subordinated individuals and collectives” (p. 10).

De Kosnik finds internet fan fiction archives particularly “valuable as objects of study because they are archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (p. 12). Overall, for De Kosnik, the era of digitization and the internet has meant that “memory has fallen into the hands of rogues, and what this explicitly means is: memory has fallen into female hands, into queer hands, into immigrant and diasporic and transnational hands, into nonwhite hands, into the hands of the masses” (p. 10). This has endowed them with more status, she argues, by including their “idiosyncratic repositories” in digital cultural memory as a whole (p. 18). Their labor at assembling “rogue archives” is the key. For De Kosnik, in contrast to Milligan, Brügger, and Thylstrup, the focus should not be on the technology itself, but rather on how “communities must work to conserve their digital artifacts and rituals, or risk losing them to the digital’s proclivity for ephemerality and loss” (p. 30).

Using oral history and data scraper-Python scripts, De Kosnik notices not so much new archives as new “repertoires” of archiving. She categorizes these into “three major digital archival styles” and gives them “the names ‘universal,’ ‘community,’ and ‘alternative’” (p. 73). Universal archivers “seek to replace canonicity and selective archiving” with a broader definition of what material counts as important to preserve and remember. Community archivers expand this work even further, beyond traditional institutions to everyday people. Most fascinating for De Kosnik are alternative archivers, who “propose new canons, canons of new types of objects or objects that are ignored by traditional archives. …content to let their assemblies of odd, strange, controversial, nongeneric, or radically new texts stand alongside those older sets of privileged works” (p. 75). The work of alternative digital archivers create “countercollections, storehouses of culture outside highly visible ‘official’ cultures, from which users can construct their own canons employing curatorial tastes that deviate from the cultural norm” (p. 104).

Fan fiction becomes De Kosnik’s prime example of alternative archiving. In her view, with digital fan fiction, the archive online becomes a stage. The network becomes a place of “virtual enactments; it is the performance space, a ‘global theater,’ in which shows are put on and received by any user who wishes to participate in the ‘perpetual happening’,” and “new stories emerge from new interactions all the time; each new story then gives onto more interactivity between fan authors and fan readers” (p. 246, 254). Free software and digital information preservation also become another example for De Kosnik of the digital archive not as a fixed place but rather as an active zone of making and remaking. They are not “prisons for documents that optimize for stasis and timelessness”; instead, they become “‘dynarchives’ (a term coined by Wolfgang Ernst) that invite interaction and remain (theoretically) forever in flux” (p. 275). Yet while Ernst, in his “media archeology” approach, emphasizes the ways machines can capture aspects of the past that humans did not discern at the time, De Kosnik focuses much more on what the humans themselves are doing.[10] What she calls “archontic production,” by which she means the reinterpretive performance of archiving online through “appropriative creativity,” “reveals that digital popular culture is enacting its own archival turn.” Audiences of popular culture, she contends, are resisting “the notion of ‘archive’ as a place where documents remain untouched and frozen, under ‘house arrest,’ and instead realize their power to seize upon all of culture, especially mass media, as an archive, as an ever-expanding collection of archives that exist for their use, that contain the raw matter for their generation of new narratives, new connections, new significations” (pp. 296, 279). The archive itself is no longer a storage site in the conventional sense of the term; instead it flows, flickers, and flourishes or fades. It has a rhythm rather than remaining silent. Its digital archivists iterate and reiterate as they gesture to their warehouse of goods on display.

In this way, we might note that digitization is not inherently archival, as De Kosnik is keen to point out. If anything, it tends toward what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun calls an “enduring ephemeral” state, a kind of endless present tense.[11] De Kosnik sees many “political potentialities” for cultural memory in this context (p. 298). Borrowing from the traditions of subcultural and cultural studies, she contends that through their unofficial archival efforts “rogues of digital culture do not ‘resist’ culture or law” directly. Instead, “they seep into, disfigure, overtake, and reform (in ‘whimsical,’ ‘sometimes ambiguous’ ways) structures of culture and of law.” One wonders, however, where the line really is between the official and the unofficial in contemporary corporate mass consumer culture. Do not mainstream forces of corporate and even governmental control seek to absorb alternatives to the mainstream in what Thomas Frank famously called a “conquest of cool”?[12] I’m hip, says the Madison Avenue adman, selling commodified rebellion and difference to the mainstream. Mass culture has gone subcultural. It is a veritable rogue’s gallery.

In recent decades, not only companies, but even politicians get in on the action. The president of the United States plays it cool these days, whether playing the saxophone (Clinton), painting (George W. Bush), singing lines from rhythm and blues songs (Obama), undermining everything in his path through mean, trashy comic satire (Trump), or wearing aviator shades and talking about vintage cars (Biden). Of course, those might not be “cool” gestures to everyone, but they are performative attempts to blur the lines between the official and the unofficial, the powerful and the casual. One wants De Kosnik to grapple more thoroughly with the difference between non-normative digital archiving and its acceptance—even encouragement—within the mainstream. Where does the fan fiction end and the company-approved social media fandom begin?

After all, has not Silicon Valley itself sought to define corporate cool at least since the rise of the personal computer industry in the 1970s? Do not Silicon Valley’s elites picture themselves as rebels in the belly of the beast, throwing monkey wrenches (or at least motherboards and mice) into the machines of conformity? Yet with its legions of “tech bros,” and its weird, troubling mix of libertarian and liberal efforts to “do good” and “do well” all at the same time, Silicon Valley speaks to the direction of analysis in which De Kosnik moves: underneath the gestures to subversion lie the achievement of dominating, exploitative power. How does this kind of rogue behavior relate to the rogue archiving that De Kosnik gives such effusive praise? I wish she confronted more directly how the official and unofficial overlap.

If De Kosnik concentrates on “digital cultural memory,” Alan Liu brings our attention back to history. His Friending the Past is perhaps the most profound of these recent books about how digital archives and digital history are changing our sense of historical consciousness. A Wordsworth scholar and longtime investigator of neoliberal trends as well as one of the earliest digital humanities investigators with his project Voice of the Shuttle, a website for humanities research, Liu seeks to understand “the sense of history in the digital age,” as he puts it. He wants to know if “the network effects empowered by today’s new media are capable of sustaining a contemporary equivalent of the sense of history?” Liu asks if “such a ‘sense of the network,’ as it might be called” can “correspond—or at least be accountable—to the older sense of history.” He wonders if it might “even ameliorate that older sense of history—the partner, we remember, of cruel nation- and empire-building projects conducted through the past worldwide web of trade, military, religious, transportation, and other networks?” Liu wonders “what can the sense of history be for us now?” (p. 8).

Liu’s writing can be dense, and he arrives at history from the domain of literary, cultural, and media studies more than intellectual history traditionally practiced, however his book virtually explodes with ideas for intellectual historians to consider. One of his book’s wonderful qualities is to open the valve between contemporary digital technology and Romantic literature. He seeks, as he puts it, “use Wordsworth to hack digital time, and digital time to hack Wordsworth” (p. xi). Throughout the book, Liu not only invokes Wordsworth to make sense of what is happening to our sense of time in the digital era, but also maps contemporary digital terms—network, WAN, data, code, crowdsourcing, algorithm, WARC files, Web 2.0—back on to the past so that we see continuities as much as changes. Sometimes this gets a bit too cute, but it is generally a clever and compelling way to situate his study of the sense of history in the digital now.

While Wordsworth and Romanticism help us think about the digital era, and vice versa, Liu’s book is ultimately more about ruptures than consistencies across time. He believes that in the digital era “the quality of the suspensive now that allows us to share a sense of history grows ever more fragile.” Past and present increasingly collapse into one another. Therefore, he argues, we must confront the new “post-linear” technologies that are replacing older experiences of time’s passing, of temporality itself (p. 4). Today, he writes, “The sense of history we pass on to you is like the ‘flickering signifier’ of the cursor blinking on and off right here and now on our word-processor screen where we are imprinting/pixelating our speaking-in-writing.” Whereas “in the nineteenth century one needed to feel the heft of the tomes of Historismus written by the original ‘historicists’ to sense the weight of ages, so today in the digital age one needs to handle the apparatus and the code to gain a feel for the future of the sense of history” (p. 8). To that technology Liu turns.

In a brilliant reading of the development from older constructions of linear historical timelines to the digital timeline found in the Javascript-based tool Timeline.JS, Liu discerns a key aspect of what he takes to be the shifting sense of history today. While older timelines were static, fixing the relation of one event to the next, this is only how Timeline.JS looks on the surface when it displays on a screen. Deeper in the code the events one assembles to display in the Timeline.JS interface are in fact unconnected “orphan” elements in a dynamic database. Using the now ubiquitous <div> tag, they can be arranged in relation to each other any way one wishes. Time itself, in the conventional linear sense, starts to crack apart into discrete elements: cells in a spreadsheet, blocks in a sequence of code. One can order them any which way.

It is this sense of intensified “contingency” that Liu believes underpins our changing sense of history in the digital age. In particular, it challenges assumptions about cause and effect, which seem to become increasingly severed from each other without any particular set relationship. “Historical ends,” he believes, “become autonomous” in the new sensory worlds produced by networked digital architectures of database and code. Cause and effect as we know them stretch apart, even break and float freely, then conjoin in new configurations. As Liu puts it, “both origins and ends transform into objects/nodes in an overall reimagination of history as networked connectivity” (p. 213).

He goes still further in mapping out the increased nebulous fluidity of this strange new context. “What the objects/nodes making up today’s data transport and structuring systems tell is not time,” Liu boldly contends. Instead, “They tell about timing effects.” For instance, they “coordinate one and all one’s friends and followers in a rebalancing of individual meaning and collective significance creative of an altered sense of history.” This altered sense arises from how, Liu writes, “contingency reprograms the temporal parameters of the sense of history (especially the punctual and durational, and static and dynamic parameters) so that older modes of historical understanding reorient away from the sense of time as time (conceived as an axis) toward the sense of timing (conceived as a network of independently activated yet coordinated events)” (p. 214).

In this new, swarming, murky world of time in motion, discrete elements become untethered from any sort of deep social relationality. They now float, like so many <div> tags, in an ether of computational interactions. Therefore, “the balance of the parameters of the sense of history changes” and, as Liu puts it, “the relation of understanding to sensation, for instance, adjusts in the direction of ‘must see’ viral videos or ‘fake news.’” So too, the orientation “of the individual to the collective adjusts to favor, for instance, power-law imbalances between meme-leaders and followers, as well as the fragmentation of the public sphere into mutually incomprehensible media ‘bubbles’” (p. 214). Gone are the clear power lines (and lines of power) found in past institutional arrangements or the familiar arrangements of liberal civil society. Instead, in the contemporary world of the World Wide Web, “it is all a web,” as Liu puts it (p. 213). For him, there are many ways to understand these transformations: “Expressed geopolitically as globalism, technologically as networking, and artistically as intertextuality, appropriation, sampling, and so on, connectivity is the presentist ‘just-in-time’ end—or loose end—of multiple, reconfigurable terminations” (p. 213).

We, and our senses of history, are potentially more connectable, but in more fragmented ways. We are multiple. We are endlessly reconfigurable. “If all our creations are imagined to be discrete worlds,” Liu writes, “then in the idiom of communications technology they are structurally ‘nodes’.” For Liu, “the end of a node—in the sense that a wire beginning at one node terminates in another—is connectivity.” Therefore, now “we are all nodes sending ‘packets’.” We reach out for “other nodes in a call for instantaneous, transient connectivity” (p. 213). History, in this context, has not short-circuited, It certainly has not ended (take that Francis Fukuyama!). If Liu is correct in his assessment, what has changed dramatically are our ways of accessing past events and rendering them in a compelling, convincing order. It is, he writes, “the parameters that mete out a networked—and no longer simple, regular, measured—sense of history” that we must contend with today.

Always slippery, fragmentary, elusive, the “parameters” of history have become even more provisional, more elastic. As historians reach for them and try to arrange them into stories and meanings through digital techniques and channels, many have gotten wired, in the caffeinated sense. Read any over-enthusiastic digital history blog for that energy. Others long for history to again be more hardwired, set in its ways. They want to constrain the study of the past, returning it to pre-digital methods that, despite the best of intentions, can threaten to produce reassuring myths instead of contingent and complex truths. History sure can feel rent, shattered, broken, fragmented these days, yet also oddly ossified and stodgy too.

Maybe, in the strange context of the digital era, intellectual history has something important to offer. The capacity of intellectual history to examine not just what happened, but also how it came to be ideationally and imaginatively becomes quite valuable. Rather than an embrace of simplified notions of political economy or fated cultural inevitabilities or technological determinisms, we might stick with intellectual history.[13] Maybe it can better ground us precisely because of its dexterity. Able to handle the abstract codes and confused contingencies that shape and undergird historical forces, intellectual history might be one way to maintain navigational balance in the dizzying weather of today’s wireless world.

[1] See Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945), 101–108 and JCR Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” The Transaction of Human Factors in Electronics (March, 1960), 4-11.

[2] See, for instance, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); William G. Thomas, II, “Computing and the Historical Imagination,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 56-68 and “The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Contested Nature of Digital Scholarship,” in A New Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2015), 524-537; Edward Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” History News, 56, 4 (Autumn 2001), 5-9; Various Authors, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History 95, 2 (September 2008): 452–491; and Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[3] There are too many studies of race, gender, and other factors to list completely, however for starters see Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2018); Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019); Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, Data Feminism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

[4] Roy Rosenzweig, “Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” Journal of American History 88, 2 (September 2001): 548–579 and “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” American Historical Review 108, 3 (June 2003): 735-762; and Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121, 2 (April 2016): 377-402.

[5] For additional critiques in digital history, see, for instance, Sharon Leon, “Returning Women to the History of Digital History” Draft 1, [Bracket], 7 March 2016; Jessica Marie Johnson, “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads,” Social Text 36, 4 (2018): 57-79; and Tim Hitchcock, “Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot,” Cultural and Social History: The Journal of the Social History Society 10, 1 (2013): 9-23. Many additional critiques of digital humanities more broadly have been published as well.

[6] See, for instance, Lily Geismer, “Agents of Change: Microenterprise, Welfare Reform, the Clintons, and Liberal Forms of Neoliberalism,” Journal of American History 107, 1 (June 2020): 107–31.

[7] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Richard Grusin, Patrick Jagoda, and Rita Raley, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

[8] See Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); and “Software, It’s a Thing,” Medium (blog), 26 July 2014. See, also, Trevor Owens, et. al., Preserving.exe: A report from the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program of the Library of Congress, October 2013.

[9] Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2003).

[10] Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[11] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35,  1 (2008): 148–71.

[12] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[13] For critiques of the recent turn to political economy and the history of capitalism, see Nan Enstad, “The ‘Sonorous Summons’ of the New History of Capitalism, Or, What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Economy?,” Modern American History 2, 1 (March 2019): 83–95 and Paul A. Kramer, “Embedding Capital: Political-Economic History, the United States, and the World,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 15, 3 (July 2016): 332–3. As examples of the call to return to political economy, Enstad cites Sven Beckert, “History of American Capitalism,” in American History Now, eds. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 314–35; Louis Hyman, “Why Write the History of Capitalism,” Symposium Magazine, 8 July 2013, reprinted as Hyman, “Why Study the History of Capitalism,” in American Capitalism: A Reader, eds. Louis Hyman and Edward E. Baptist (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014) xvii-xxiv; Kenneth Lipartito, “Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism,” American Historical Review 121, 1 (February 2016): 101– 39; and Philip Scranton, “The History of Capitalism and the Eclipse of Optimism,” Modern American History 1, 1 (Mar. 2018): 107–11. For the turn to a rigid use of fated cultural values shaping history, see recent popular works such as Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). For technological determinism, see popular works such as Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) or Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (New York: Hyperion, 2006); more probing essays on the topic can be found in Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds. Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

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