How I’ll Spend My Summer Vacation

OR, why one ought not expect the frequency of posts around here to increase.

I’ve dropped cryptic hints here and there, but I can now announce three happy chunks of news, each one about a fun and challenging project that will be occupying me for the next few months, possibly years, and in one case probably decades.

First: Bill Turkel and I, along with Brock University’s Kevin Kee and some great collaborators, have been awarded a generous grant for a project entitled “History at Play: Augmented Reality Gaming and the Ubiquitous Past.” The grant comes from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) as part of their Image, Text, Sound, and Technology (ITST) initiative. Basically, we will be using games and gaming models to teach some Canadian and American history and to promote public heritage sites. I’d love to say more about the cool stuff we are planning, but I am mindful of Bill’s injunction to at least cut a demo before posing with a guitar. So this summer we’ll be cutting our demo. I’ve sometimes been reluctant to cross the streams of my history day job and my gaming hobby, but I feel like this is a project I was built to do.

Second: In the fall, my family and I will be heading to Salt Lake City, where I’ll be a visiting professor for one semester at the University of Utah. I’m going to be cross-appointed in the History and Communication Departments. (We’ll be back in London come January.) I’ll be teaching one graduate seminar in Media History, but mostly I’ll be there to build on and extend the conversations that began at the terrific Frontiers of New Media Symposium in September 2007. I just got back from another visit there, and every time I am bowled over by the gracious hospitality of the folks at the U and the stunning natural beauty of the place.

But our biggest, best, and scariest news is this: a new baby! And soon, too. The due date is in early to mid May. Lisa is looking and doing great; the Arrival is kicking up a storm; the Ukelele is cautiously pessimistic about becoming a big sister. Cramming all this good news into one post, I feel I should touch wood or throw salt over my shoulder or something. Not because I expect something bad to happen, just so that the universe knows that I know what a lucky guy I am. And I do.

p.s. Speaking of gratitude, Happy Passover.


Technology Grows On Trees

The question should not be, “Had Edison never lived, would we have had an incandescent light bulb?” but rather, “Had the Western world never discovered electricity, would non-Western cultures eventually have developed the incandescent light bulb?” My answer to this question is basically negative. Western knowledge of nature was neither “better” nor “deeper” than the beliefs of the Chinese, Africans, or Aztecs. It just happened to be the kind of knowledge that led to the emergence of light bulbs.
–Joel Mokyr, “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis & the History of Technology”

Like just about everybody else in the humanities wing of the ivory tower, I’m grading papers this month and not exactly loving it. You’d think somebody who can go on at such length about writing pedagogy wouldn’t find the actual doing it such a drag. I did have one assignment this term that was a pleasure to grade: in our course on Science, Technology, and Global History, Bill Turkel and I had the students critique, and suggest alternatives to, the Civilization technology tree.

In Sid Meier’s Civilization and many other simulation games, “tech trees” are used to represent possible pathways of technological change. You may start the game with no knowledge of writing, but once you “invent” writing you can then work towards inventing map-making, or literacy, or a code of laws. The game uses the term technology pretty loosely–communism, meditation, and literature are all “technologies” in the most recent edition–but then so do historians of technology. The branching paths of technological possibility are all represented as a tree. CHNM’s Trevor Owens had a nice post last month, from which I stole this post’s title, about how historians and sociologists of science might profit by playing with these models.

Civ has been a motif in our course: we used images from the game in our posters advertising the class, screen-shots have turned up in our lecture slides, and I’ve turned to the game from time to time in order to abstract examples about the interaction of science, technology, and history. (Here are my thoughts on teaching with Civ from a year or two ago, and on a course about gaming and simulation.) In my first lecture this term, we talked explicitly about the tech tree and its underlying assumptions about determinism, contingency, and technological change. Here are the slides for them that care, with the caveat that they are designed not to substitute for attendance at the lecture. (Keen-eyed geeks: yes, that is Ming-3 from GURPS Alternate Earths, and yes, that is Fu Manchu’s awesome kite-borne army from the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

The Civ tech tree offered a nice way to talk about the “Needham Question“–crudely put, why didn’t China beat England to the industrial revolution? (I thank Jon Dresner for berating Bill & I about the low China content in an early draft of the syllabus. The course is still not quite as global as we want it to be, but the Needham Question and its shortcomings became a really key theme of the modern half.) It’s easy to play a game of Civilization in which China industrializes first. It’s much harder to play a game in which nobody industrializes on the European model, and it’s impossible to play a game in which technological progress veers onto an altogether different path. The Civ tech tree offers a range of choices but is basically linear in the end, and the fact that you really need certain technologies to win the game makes it more linear still.

So after that lecture, we asked the students to come up with alternatives to the tech tree and to explain what their alternate models suggest about history and the process of scientific or technological change. The point wasn’t to come up with the “right” model, as if there is such a thing, but to imagine and explore different ways of thinking about determinism and contingency. Are future scientific discoveries lying around “out there” waiting to be invented, or do we create them only in the process of discovery?

I was happy with the assignments we got back. The students really went to town with multicolored diagrams and the like, and they had some great ideas: tech wheels, tech matrices, tech gumbo, and more. One of my favorite ideas was a riff on Katamari Damancy, that surreal “could it be any more Japanese?” game where you roll around a highly adhesive ball that grows as it picks up the things you roll over. The student’s idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue–navigation, metalworking, what have you–but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I’m not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it’s fun to wrap your head around.

Another great idea, perhaps more workable, gave players the ability to discover not only technologies but also the connections between technologies or areas of knowledge. So instead of the game presuming that electricity always leads to radio or steam power to the railroad, the player could choose what to link electricity too. Maybe electricity is connected to flight: presto, electric airships. Maybe electricity is connected to medicine: build enough links and electrical medicine becomes a physical fact of your alternate game world. Hold on, you might be saying. Is that how scientific progress really works? Well, I don’t know. But you can see how that’s a rich question for a course like ours to tackle.

If the tech tree assignment didn’t grab our students, they also had the option of suggesting an alternative to the current disciplinary structure of the university, and explaining what that model said about the underlying organization of human knowledge. Those were interesting too, but I didn’t do as good a job of setting up expectations, and so I got a lot of suggestions along the lines of “professors should answer student emails more promptly.” True enough, probably, but not quite so much food for thought.


Digital History Hacks

I just sent the following off to Ralph Luker to add to Cliopatria‘s Hall of Fame for important history weblogs:

It seems like just yesterday I was toasting Bill Turkel’s Digital History Hacks for winning Cliopatria‘s Best New Blog Award. Now Bill is moving on from the blog to other things, and I have the sad task of bidding DHH adieu. Let’s see what I said back then:

William J. Turkel’s Digital History Hacks goes beyond new media platitudes and internet hype to demonstrate in word and deed what history in the twenty-first century will be all about. From the nuts and bolts of spidering and scraping to the loftiest questions about what historians do and why, Digital History Hacks points the way to a brave new world with infectious enthusiasm and blazing imagination.

All that proved to be true and more. Years from now, people are going to look back at Digital History Hacks and say “Something started here.” At least, I hope so. For three years, DHH offered a crash course in the history of the future. Bill’s three-year-old posts still seem three years ahead of their time. There’s still nothing else like DHH in the history blogosphere, which is a compliment to Bill but maybe also a bit of a shame. Sure, Bill has fans and followers now. (Not that he was ever interested in fans or followers–have you noticed that DHH has no comment function? how cool is that?) He’s tight with all the digital history illuminati, he’s released dozens of new history bloggers into the world, and it’s he, not I, that anchors the northern end of the UWO-GMU Axis of Digital Evil. But there’s still nobody I can think of that thinks quite as creatively or as provocatively as Bill does about what digital history is and what it might become.

I can’t list all the things I’ve learned or all the ideas I’ve stolen from Digital History Hacks, but one meta-idea which Bill taught me is that the loftiest questions about what we do are not separate from the nuts and bolts of how we do it. As above, so below: lofty philosophical issues are practical technical questions and vice versa. Change the tools available to the humanities and you have the opportunity to rethink what the humanities are. That’s what Bill’s been doing for the past three years and that’s what he continues to do.

I’m sorry to see Bill put DHH to bed, but I’m lucky enough to be privy to some of the cool new stuff he’s doing, and I promise you will see and hear more amazing things from him before too long. In the meantime, explore the archives of DHH or try working through the exercises in The Programming Historian, Bill and Alan Maceachern’s in-progress, open-source textbook on How It Is Done.

Bill sometimes says there’s more to being a musician than posing with a guitar. What he means, I think, is that there is or can be more to being a “digital historian” than having a Blogspot account and an opinion about Wikipedia. When Bill launched The Programming Historian, Mills Kelly (no slouch as a digital historian himself) wrote, “with its release, my excuses [for not learning to program] go poof.” Digital History Hacks made a lot of our excuses go poof. If we want to be part of making our profession’s future, it’s high time to stop talking and roll up our sleeves.