Digital History’s Long Road

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“You have died of dysentery.” Does this sound familiar? It does if you’ve played Oregon Trail (and hopefully, that is the only reason). Though it may not be the very first, it is certainly one of the earliest examples of Orville Vernon Burton’s definition of digital history: “the process by which historians are able to use computers to do history in ways impossible without the computer.” It is also very much an example of historians’ reluctance to embrace non-traditional, digital approaches to their field.

Introduced in 1971, this simple game, which mixes text and graphics, was created by Don Rawitsch, a student teacher in Minnesota who wanted to develop new ways to teach American history. Anyone who is curious as to how it works can play it for free online.

Oregon Trail was a pioneer of educational technology (no pun intended) and by many measures an enormous success. Not long after the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium hired Rawitsch in 1974, the game became a staple of classrooms. As of 2011, Oregon Trail has sold more than 65 million copies, and it is available on wide variety of platforms (cell phones, Facebook, Wii).

Despite its widespread use as a tool to teach history, Oregon Trail did not start much, if any, dialogue among historians as to what new technologies could add to the field, nor did it radically change the way history was taught. So, where was the revolution?

Part of the issue may lie in the game’s own representation of American history. Mostly, Oregon Trail inculcates the values of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism. What is more, the indigenous peoples of the continent do not always play a prominent role in the story. In this way, it does little as a means of inquiry, and thus does not serve the purpose of real scholarship. In all fairness, Rawitsch’s goal was to spark middle school students’ interest in American history, and he succeeded in this goal. His modest goal could be the very reason that this groundbreaking approach to teaching history did not cause much of a stir in the ivory tower.

But does it have to be this way? Dan Cohen pointed out that other fields— the sciences, law, economics— have actively absorbed digital technology into their evolving practices. Why, then, are historians so slow to embrace new forms of technology, and when they do embrace it, why do they tend to ignore its potential for new modes of inquiry and representation? Much of it, I believe, comes from the democratic, or more accurately, non-historian-centric nature of digital production. Anyone can write a blog. Few historians know how to write code. This situation stirs the terrible fear that historical scholarship will degenerate into what Dan Cohen’s mentor, Frank Turner, described as “playing tennis with the net down.”

Historians’ fear of a “netless tennis game” does not stem from pure snobbery. There are a lot of lousy interpretations of history about which many amateur, and even professional, historians feel deeply adamant. Holocaust deniers are an obvious example, as are the white-washers of Southern history.

I am, therefore, very interested in Dan Cohen’s assertion that “good is good.” It is not a point he elaborates in this class’ reading but he does dedicate an entire chapter to this idea in the book for which this reading is the draft of an introduction. So I can’t really comment on that at the moment, but I do think that digital history can go forward, even with the current biases against it.

It is unfortunate that digital resources are largely viewed as aggregators, disseminators of “information” rather than “knowledge.” But how is aggregation of information not helpful to history? Primary sources are often aggregates of information. The thesis of Devil in the Shape of a Woman did not tumble out of the court records that formed its core research; Carol Karsen put a lot of time and thought into doing something original with them. It is thus not surprising that primary source collections, such as Ayers and Thomas’ “Valley of the Shadow”, comprise some of the most popular forms of digital history.

What’s more, the divide between formally trained producers of history and producers of digital content grows smaller every day. It is much easier to start a blog or build a website than it is today. Also, the difference between “knowledge” and “information” should not be viewed uncritically.

So I am going to advance my own idea for a potential project. How about an aggregator of scholarly texts in the style of Rotten Tomatoes? Imagine, for example, how a Ph.D. candidate studying for comprehensive exams could benefit from this. Or imagine how an experienced scholar could use such a tool to assess and question the assumptions of his or her chosen field. 

Digital history has a long road to haul, but it is moving forward. Hopefully, no one else will get dysentery.

–Will Greer

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