The Danger of Digital History as Scholarly Clickbait

historicizing “the perpetual sunrise of methodology.”

I chimed in over at Cameron Blevins’ website, where he posted his talk from a panel discussion about authoring digital scholarship for history. The panel took place at the 2015 American Historical Association Conference in New York City.

Wonderful post Cameron and great ensuing conversation. Many thanks.

The following does not discount any of what you are exploring here, but isn’t the perpetual emphasis on the future breakthroughs of digital history bound up with the rhetorics of the contemporary tech industry? Silicon Valley thrives on this sort of sensibility in which the triumphant breakthrough to true knowledge, wisdom, happiness is just around the corner, just over the horizon, one click or app purchase or smartphone acquisition away, always about to arrive but never quite delivering. Shoot, that doesn’t just come from Silicon Valley, it’s at the heart of modern consumer capitalism itself, isn’t it!?

The adoption of this kind of language, self-understanding, and professional approach within digital history comes, at least partly, from our own historical moment, in which a certain imagining of entrepreneurial “making” is idealized. It’s not just a love affair with methodology; it’s a love affair with marketing. As if every digital history or humanities project were the launch of the next Apple iPhone, and it will, finally, change your life!!

Not that anyone is adopting this kind of approach on purpose. More that it’s in the air. When the slower sifting through the soil of specialized historical arguments out of the spotlight of that perpetual sunrise you describe is increasingly lambasted, even within the profession, and when the successful tech entrepreneur is increasingly fetishized not only as the American success story economically, but also the ideal model for the American citizen, while at the same we conflate the public with the consumer, it’s no wonder that an emphasis on the promise of a “deliverable” of a “user-driven” methodological process trumps substantive debates over actual interpretive findings.

In the end though, after my little Christopher Laschian outburst here, I wonder this: are you making too strong a distinction between methodology and argument? Has not the best scholarly history always found an astounding way to show us precisely the deep links between methods and findings, between the way we come to know something about the past and what that specific knowledge actually is? And then to root that interplay between method and interpretation in a historiography of prior attempts to make sense of the past. To me, our job as digital historians is to continue in that tradition, and this, from my perspective, is something that you are beginning to do quite strikingly in your work.

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