…making history “cool?”

History isn’t cool.

I was reading through sepoy’s Polyglot Manifesto (part 2) and came across the following:

…what if I reimagined the text anew. What if I scanned, annotated, tagged all five manuscripts and the translation into a comprehensible data-structure
and presented the text so that the reader could peel, as it were, the
layers of various recensions; read the translation against the
manuscripts; follow the thread or theme in and out of various chapters?
And coolest of all: What if my reader could annotate and tag and link
my medieval persian text to another medieval persian text and another
still? What if the texts spoke to one another and threads connect the
reader, the text and the historian?

(emphasis mine…)

sepoy’s using two or three meanings to the term "cool," here, although I think they’re almost inextricably linked in today’s web 2.0 world. The most obvious, there’s the sense of the word "cool" as "hip." In another sense, the word can be used to less specifically mean "novel." And then, of course, because it’s impossible to leave the guy behind completely, there’s the Marshall McLuhan sense of the word– as in "hot" and "cool" media:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that
extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state
of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition."
A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information
is provided. the ear is given a meager amount of information. Telephone
is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a
meager amount of information. And speech is a
cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has
to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave
so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore,
low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion
by the audience.  Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has
very different effects on the user from a cool
medium like the telephone.

(From Understanding Media)

I have to briefly digress, and say that the internet, especially in its more recent form as web 2.0, actually completely breaks down McLuhan’s division of hot and cool. Is a hot medium? Well, the computer is actually rather "high-definition," so yes– there’s a very precise relay of information. There’s very little "static." Is it a cool medium? Absolutely– despite the high level of definition, it is more participatory than any electronically-mediated medium McLuhan could have imagined in his lifetime– he passed on in 1980. However, the level of "definition" is illusory, because there is no beginning or end to "the internet," and no singular reading. It’s high-definition from single web page to single web page, "well filled with information," but the "edges" bleed. Hypermedia is almost like frostbite. The internet is so cool it feels hot.

sepoy, and others like him in the Digital Humanities, see the future of our discipline shifting toward a "cooling" of History. Historians like hot media. They like books. They like being able to craft their argument, control the ways their work is interpreted and used. And this is an understandable impulse.

But the argument for the Digital Humanities makes sense to me. By using new media’s ability to increase participation, Historians can raise awareness of History– not as an event or single narrative, or a set of facts in temporal order, but as a process of understanding, as a whole set of methodologies and techniques of interpretation and evaluation, as a form of textual analysis.

There’s a widely circulated quotation from Diane Feinstein during the hearings about the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian back in 1995, "…is it really the role to interpret history, rather than just simply to put forward historical facts…? …I was a history major. In the days when I studied the text… was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis…"*

This is the popular view of History, among a large portion of the population– even, obviously, among the well-educated and powerful in this country.

Interactivity and new media give us a chance to help rectify this situation, to show that "doing history" is always, and inherently, a process of making choices, of highlighting and omission, of reconstructing the past in relevant ways, and ultimately, is a manner of understanding not the past, but the present.


* This quote can be found in multiple articles, it was a bit of a flashpoint. I found it in an article by James Gardner from The Public Historian (Vol. 26, No. 4) however, the citation for the quote in this article is mis-attributed, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy.

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