Battles are Easy, or Feelings and Facts

Verisimilitude.

Now that a fun word, right? To say that something  has verisimilitude is to say that it has the appearance of reality- that it feels true, in other words.

Note that distinction. The something feels right does not mean that it is right. As any physicist can tell you, common sense notions are often the most wrong.  Verisimilitude simply giving something the impression of being real. It can be convincing, but it doesn’t have to be true.

My favourite example of this sort of think come from the world of set design.

Greebles, despite sounding like a particularly unfortunate children’s breakfast cereal is the technical term for all those little bits and pieces that model designers put on their spacecraft a la Star Wars

02_thumb

All those cubes and boxes and pipes and doohickies that cover the spacecraft’s hull don’t do anything- but they look like they might. The purpose of all this is to convince the viewer- that is, us- that this is a great big complicated machine, and nothing says complex like a very busy mechanical landscape. A perfectly smooth surface would probably look even more futuristic, but that’s best left to those super advanced evil aliens who show up around Act 3. This is verisimilitude- it’s the act of seeming. You can’t help but say “Wow, that looks real!”.

For everyone who isn’t into fictional spacecraft, I present another example: Forced Perspective. Theme Parks use this all the time. By changing the scale of building or structures as they move further away from you, Disney can make their themed environments larger than life.

Main

Look carefully at these buildings (From Main Street U.S.A., Disneyland). It appears to be a three story shop, though only the ground floor is tall enough to admit adult humans. The rest is an (increasingly) underscaled mockup, designed to make you, the visitor, feel smaller, and hence more child like. World of Magic, Eh?

It works in the reverse as well.

Epcot

This two story building is actually more than five stories tall.

Exped

And only Disney can make an Everest easily traversable by train.

The point is that we can given someone an experience- one which they can indeed enjoy vividly and undergo what seems to be real- which leaves a lasting impression on them, without it being necessarily real.

This is where the digital portion comes in, folks.

Historical Computer games are not perhaps the best way to learn history. There’s been a lot of arguing back and forth over the relative merits of games as teaching devices- can they aid? Do they affect people at all? Is there value in their messages at all?

I’m not really worried about that. A video game is more or less an interactive movie. You not only get to watch unrealistic people do impossible actions, but you get to control them as well! Perhaps this isn’t the best medium for a deep reading into, say, the economic effects of the Crimean War.

It is, however, a great medium for getting the feel of an age. I am thinking specifically of the newly released (as of this writing) Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game which takes place in Paris during the French Revolution. Are the characters real? Nope. Is the plot a historical narrative? Nope. Is the backdrop real? Oh yes.

The only games that can really pull off guiding the player through a historical event are war games, where, for example, you could play both sides at Waterloo, or mess around with tanks in North Africa. At least battles have fairly simple objectives that can be quite historically accurate. You play as Napoleon- your object is to re-play and win all these battles that he won- very straight forward.

But how does one model situations that don’t involve guns? How do you make a game that simulates the life of a British farmer, circa 1750? Or life on the home front of WWII? Or just surviving during the Great Depression? Storylines that would make sense in these settings would probably not involve a lot of gunplay or car chases and thus don’t exactly appeal to most folks who are buying games.

Games can, however, have very accurate backdrops to their unrealistic gameplay. Unity may be about a fictional assassin, but it’s about a fictional assassin running about and exploring a very real city during a very real period. Players can, while they kill, pick up something of how that period felt. The crowded streets, the strange, medieval layout of the city, the anger of the people, the uncertainty of the times can all be easily expressed. Actual names, dates, and facts are unlikely to be espoused by the game (or remembered by the players), but the sights and sounds of Paris will stick.

The game does do this- we see dirty streets and maze-like alleyways, foppish nobles hiding from angry crowds, impromptu trials and sudden executions and the player’s character is involved in all of it.

It’s all about seeming. The best way to understand historic clothing is to wear it. The best way to understand old cars is to drive them. Since we cannot go back in time, the best way to experience an earlier period is to simulate it. What could be better than a simulation where you can interact with your surroundings? Unless a museum is willing to shill out truly enormous funding, the best simulations are going to come from video game engines.

Just like Expedition Everest impacts the size of Everest while being much smaller, or Main Street USA invokes nostalgia for a childhood may people did not have, well done video games set in historical periods will probably not replace textbooks, but they will help players visualize what the past looked like.

Now to find a game about 19th Century Lumberjacks,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

 

New Ways of Thinking?

Paradigm Shifts and Technological Alarmists

In Nicholas Carr’s  Is Google Making Us Stupid? the author worries over something which has certainly made the rounds over the years:

“Is this [Insert New Technology of Your Choice] making [Our Youth Disrespectful/Milk go Bad/Destroying Western Civilization/ Incouraging Immorality]?”

Admittedly, Carr’s article is not exactly current, but it’s a fear that we’ve all heard many times from many sources: Is the Internet making us less intelligent?

As a misanthrope, I’m obligated to point out the vast majority of our species isn’t exactly the brightest bunch of primates around, given the number of absurdities which I’m sure my readership can name. I digress. I’m not here to insult the human species- to do that, simply turn on the major News outlet of your choice- but to talk about this fear of the Internet. It’s really just the fear of the new.

To those that know me well, they’re probably pointing out that I’m not the most forward looking guy. I actively resist using my cell phone. I prefer to remain unconnected and wire-free. Where others use an Ipod, I whistle. Where others check bus times with their tablets, I pull out a book and wait for the bus.

Saying all this makes me sound like a hipster, trying to be contrary simply because it makes me unique. Not true. I’m contrary because I’m  as mean as a snake, not because it makes me different. I do appreciate modern technology- heck, I’m online right now, aren’t I? I require the Internet to both do my job and to talk to friends, have fun, connect with others and all else that we do online. I simply feel that when I’m not in front of my computer, I should be interacting with the real world without any distractions whatsoever.

But enough about me. New technologies, indeed, new ideas, new ways of doing things, new tools, new concepts- have changed how we think. This is nothing new.

The advent of agriculture, way back in the dawn of history, altered far more than the Internet has. Permanent homes, a class system, financial inequality (and the concept of money- abstract representations of wealth), writing, reading, precise calenders and many other things- are all the children of the rather straightforward concept of ‘grow enough surplus food to get us until the harvest next fall”.  When we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers, suddenly we had new things to think about- how to plant, harvest and store, how to build, how to protect what they had made, and most importantly, how to plan, and who should do the planning. Every complex society has been a settled one for a reason. There’s no need for a king when you’re a wandering tribe.

My point here is that new tools and ideas begat more tools and more ideas as well as a thousand new civilizations. It was an end to one way of life, and the beginning of another.

We see this repeated with many technologies. Faster travel creates new understandings of far off places- it also necessitates new developments in navigation, time-keeping and construction, while altering markets and remaking economic patterns. This is not always a good thing.

Certainly Google is not the first innovation to alter how we think. The clock altered how we thought about time- For a very long time, the seasons were how most people  watched the calender for. When you are a farmer, knowing that it is Tuesday isn’t very important. Knowing that next week is usually when the frosts come, so you’d better harvest your wheat now, is vital. Clocks sliced up days into hours (at first- most early clocks were not reliable enough for a minute hand to make sense, let along something as precise as a second hand) and suddenly, you could be late for an appointment! Hard to be rushing across town to your 2 o’clock when there is no clock. Hours and minutes are human-created divisions, and yet they seem to control us.

The same with the auto mobile, the typewriter, the telephone, the computer and a thousand other devices. This is what annoys me about Carr’s article. Our lives have been shaped and moulded since the moment we were born, by our culture, our language, our tools. People who speak other languages, who are part of other cultures, who lived in different eras, who, indeed, lived very different lives, did not and do not think like 21st Century North Americans do.

So Google may be changing how we think. So what?  Everything else already has. We are, however, luckier that those hunter gatherers. Thanks to our experiences and our history with our tools, we understand (perhaps better than most) that actions have consequences, that new tools can change things unexpectedly. We have let the genie out of the bottle- I doubt Google is going to shut down any time soon- but we can moderate how it affects us.

Besides, it is not as if this will eradicate long-form thought like Carr worries it does. As long as being able to think deeply is useful to us, we will retain it. After all, we learned how to read once, didn’t we?

Film did not kill the book.

Books did not kill story telling.

Writing did not destroy the art of memory.

But they did give us more options.

What was I talking about again?

Scott W. E. Dickinson

 

 

 

Digital Cartography

The re-enactment of history is something that I love to watch- and participate in! Recreating the folkways of yesteryear, the costumes of our forebears and the events that defined their lives are all worthwhile activities, but re-enactment can happen on a greater scale.

Digital Mapping – creating three dimensional, explorable maps for the computer- has been put to great use by historians. The applications are obvious- we can recreate the landscapes of earlier eras, and travel through, for example, 19th Century New York, or 16th Century London. By overlaying these earlier views with more modern versions of these cities, one can track changes, notice similarities and study the history of the city- not the history of mayors and people, but the history of the urban space itself.

Another use is mapping nationwide- and worldwide- trends, putting history into its geographic context. We speak of the early women’s rights movement in America. That sounds fine, until we realize that America is a vast and varied place. When we study Suffragist marches, do we understand where they are happening? While woman protest in New York City, what are they doing in New York State? What are they doing in Colorado? Can the women’s rights movement be called an American phenomenon, or a New England occurrence?  Obviously the idea spread enough to gain acceptance, but how did it spread? What routes did it take, under what speeds did it travel? Are there still pockets of inequality?

Historians have always used maps to chart history, but their uses were often limited. I think it was the maps themselves that limited their thinking. When one uses a map, one is attempting to find one’s way, to select a route. These are uses we have for maps, but they are not the only things that maps can be used for. Historians who did not realize this use maps to track pioneers and military movements. It makes sense, does it not? Maps are used to go places. Clearly, we can use them to show where people went. Nothing else seemed to present itself.

We cannot blame these historians, of course. Until recently, it was much easier to follow settlers and generals than societal trends or diseases. The former tend to have diaries. Tracing the concrete route of a Civil War Officer from A to B is not too difficult. Tracing the spread of a cultural norm- which may start in the North-east, spread to the Northwest, find itself in some parts of California, slowly make inroads into Middle America, fill up the Eastern Seaboard, double back to the rest of California and then make its way to the South- is much more difficult. Then you discover it hasn’t gained currency with the middle class yet, which will surely alter the future of the trend’s trajectory.

The point here is that the routes of things more ephemeral and difficult to measures than a man’s footsteps are harder to trace when all you have is a pencil, With enough census records, newspaper articles and processing power, it becomes easier to map out what is happening across a nation. Or, indeed, a single city.

The uses of this are almost endless. Frankly, the hard part is getting decent numbers to put on the maps. Measuring First World War casualties by county is not difficult. Measuring non-monetary effects (happiness, contentment) of the Great Depression in rural Saskatchewan is more difficult. Mind you, the great thing about digital mapping is that it can be multi-media in form and multi-disciplinary in action.Instead of numbers, have hard-hit towns appear on your Saskatchewan map. Create a 3-d rendition of this place, circa 1935, for users to explore. Place links throughout the town- on interesting buildings, perhaps- to interviews with survivors.

In this way we can have users understand the scope of the Great Depression- as move move around this map of the Prairies, they can see the desolation of the farms. They can move in closer, and tour a dust-blown town, and understand the deprivation of its inhabitants. They can get even closer and listen to residents, realizing what their lives had been like. It is this ability to ‘zoom in’- to go instantly from seeing the big picture (“Two Million out of work!”), to a single town, to a single factory, to a single employee- and then back out again, to another place in Canada, to people in different circumstances. A digital map gives us the ability to see both big picture and little picture details- the broad numbers, the nation trends, and then the individual lives, the local stories. By seeing both we can learn to connect them.

This does not have to be limited to more modern history, although the plethora of data and the still-living survivors certainly help. Using Digital Maps we can create 1st Century AD Rome, the size, the scale, the traffic. Rome was, first and foremost, a city. A big, loud, dirty city. A well done reconstruction, with dingy buildings, cook fire smoke, traffic and (simulated with actors) noise could bring the heart of the Empire back to life. Rome stops being an unchanging image and becomes- well, a mess. But a living, realistic mess much closer to the truth.

Nevertheless, the strength of the Digital Map lies in our ability to change it’s scope at a moment’s notice. Whether an event with worldwide significance or a local car crash, the Digital Map can focus on it- and provide us with the information we need.

Stuck on Street View,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

 

 

Seeing is believing

Not exactly the most original title, but remarkably apropos to what I’ve been reading.

Images are powerful mediums. As the tired axiom goes, they are worth a thousand words. This maybe be an overused sentiment, but it is quite true.  Images define events. They shape our thinking about the past by controlling what we see- and what we don’t.

Take Victorian England (or American, or Canada, etc, etc). In every one of those old family photographs, we see grim, stiff men and prim, proper ladies imprisoned in corsetry  and impractical hats. We certainly get the impression that this was an unhappy time, bounded by complex and overbearing rules of etiquette, controlled by a Dowager Empress with absolutely no sense of humour.

Like most things we believe, of course, it just isn’t that simple. Queen Victoria was not a staid sepia-toned  old toad, and people were, in fact, quite capable of enjoying themselves. Maybe not the aristocracy, but somewhere, someone was having fun.

The reason that we don’t see photographs of these folks is the same reason that we don’t see a lot of action scenes from that period.  Exposure times. Glass plate cameras, like those that portrait artists would have been using, relied on chemicals whose sensitivity to light was not as strong as modern film. The result is that a single photograph required an exposure could take several minutes, or even longer. You ever try to hold a smile for that long?

The end result is a mistaken impression of the era, or at least a superficial and shallow one. The Victorian were excessively prone to stiff suits and heavy moralizing, but that isn’t all that they were. Indeed, most folks were nothing like that.

In a Series of articles for the New York Times http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/  Errol Morris discusses the possibility that Roger Fenton, photographer of the Crimean War, falsified some of his images (the lower one) by adding cannonballs to the road, in an attempt to make things appear more dangerous, some claim, to himself and his crew.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Mr. Morris writes much better than I can, so I will not rehash his article. However, I will ask this question:  Is an image supposed to be a recording, totally and completely identical to the moment during which it was taken, or is it meant to be a recording of the feel of the moment?

In the above image, Fenton had not touched any of the cannonballs, which had rolled into the ditch on either side of the track. Certainly it does give us some indication of what was happening here. The valley of the shadow of the death represented a weak point in the Russian defences, especially since it was a blind spot for them. As a result, the Russian artillery regularly shelled the valley in order to keep any force sneaking up it from feeling too safe.

The photograph does not really illustrate that point. The cannonballs have had time to bounce and roll off the road, suggesting that there’s been a bit of lull. It could be ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, ten years since that last bombardment, and given the quality of 1850s photography, how would we know?

The lower photograph, not matter how “doctored’, is still more alive. Fenton did not bring these Cannonballs from elsewhere. They are actual Russian munitions, aimed and fired at the location he captured. Fenton was simply attempting to make the location evocative of what war looked like. Given the limitations of his equipment, he could not capture an image of an active artillery battery. He could, however, give us some idea of what the valley would look like half way through a bombardment.

The Crimean War is best remembered for the heroic bungling that was the charge of the Light Brigade, wherein a squad of cavalry faced down the Russian artillery. They lost. Badly.

We can better image those British horsemen charging into certain death when we can understand the sheer power those Russian cannons possessed. A power Fenton captures better in his second photograph.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

As a side note, one does not need Photoshop to fake a photograph. Perhaps one of the greatest fakes of all time was the Cottingley Fairies, a famous hoax perpetrated by two British girls who managed to, among other things, fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes himself.

How did they manage this great feat? With Cardboard and Pins.

Elementary, my Dear Watson?

 

Scott W. E. Dickinson

The truth is out there, but the lies are in your head

Is Digital always Enough?

There’s a lot of talk, amongst historians, of digital history. I’ll certainly be writing quite a bit on the subject.  Mostly the discussion seems to be centred on how to teach history in an electronic medium. I, however, am struck by a different question. Is making something digital always necessary? Is Digital always better?

This is very much an opinion piece.

Something can be said for digital preservation. Aging and damaged documents, scanned and saved into a computer’s hard drive can be copied, disseminated and altered at will, without any harm coming to the original. Ancient, faded documents can be restored through the electronic manipulation of ink traces too faint for human eyes. There is, however, a cost. Those electronic ‘saves’ are, in reality, far more fragile than the paper they were copied from. medieval manuscripts, placed in online galleries can be seen, studied and admired by millions, but a power surge at a server farm will destroy that electronic copy completely. Meanwhile, the original, written on parchment and stored in a monastery, will survive forever. The Book of Kells, as an example, is more that twelve hundred years old, and has survived (among other things) Vikings, Revolutions and Reformations. Despite all that, its beauty remains with us.

Even modern, printed books will last for decades, though their cheap paper and glue bindings will betray them eventually (I happen to own a number of new books made with sewn bindings and acid-free paper. They come with guarantees for very long periods of time, although of course they were not cheap!). Most electronic files will not last that long, if only due to technological change. The digitization of files has gone one for quite some time. What happens when one wants to look at something digitized in the 1980s? You better have a computer with a floppy drive, and some emulators prepared to run long forgotten word processors. Electronic files degrade, and do so with surprising speed. Interestingly, the older a storage medium is, the longer it stores information usefully.

The impermanence of digital data is bad enough. What’s worse is a little more ephemeral in nature.

We go to museums to see things. For many, that’s what history is- the remains of the past (the dedicated history may attempt to explain that everything is indeed the remains of the past- but you get alot of funny looks trying to explain how Western culture came about). I believe that digital repositories lose something in the transference. Now, it’s true that digital exhibits and galleries have many good points- no crowds, no waiting, no hours of operation, and often I can stare at the artefact from many angles and in better lighting conditions than can usually hope for. All of these are good things, and I am glad for them. The Internet has made me aware of many things that I would never have none otherwise, and I think myself the better for it. Still, visiting an actual museum- making a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian or the British Museum are far grander experiences than simply touring their collections on line.

Digital facsimiles will never- and should never- replace the real artefact. Digital galleries and exhibits exist to draw people in, to excite them and inspire them to see the real exhibits. Art is better in person and so is history.

Switching to Acid-Free paper,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

The Future of History

Or, rather, the future of public history. What is public history, you ask? Public History is the decades-old-yet-somehow-still-considered-new-discipline of history. It is, as the name suggests, applied history, as in, ‘study of history applied to the real world, and how it relates to real people- i.e., the contemporary public”. It is a sad, though often unacknowledged fact that the history which academics study and the history that the public knows are quite different things. Public Historians work to bridge- and close!- that gap.

You will find Public Historians anywhere you encounter history. Museums obviously come to mind, along with governmental archives, historical sites and historical societies. Less obvious places include corporate archives,  television stations, movie studios, classrooms and everywhere online. Remember, the Public is just as important as the History!

The focus of this blog ( and indeed, this inaugural post) is on how the Digital Age- what we’re living in now- has changed the practice of Public History and why these adaptations had to happen.

The greatest change has been wrought by none other than the medium by which we communicate: The Internet. Although it is certainly true that much of what we see on the Internet is perhaps less trustworthy than we would hope, there are nevertheless thousands of reliable and useful databases, sites and collections- both free and pay-to-access- available.  Researching is no longer confined to the academic, who can access libraries and archives with more ease than the average person. Of course, there are valuable resources that are not online, but there is enough to satisfy the interested amateur. No  longer does history need to be an expensive hobby. Now, the academic and the amateur have something to talk about- if their interests collide. Amateur historians seem to be either genealogists or collectors, concerned with their great-grandmothers and their stash of eighteenth century buttons. Academic historians usually are not. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of history they are researching, the public are at least interested, which is really the point.

History is far more than the written word, of course. Many find that the material remains of the past- the artefacts and objects one finds in a museum, for example- are the most inspiring. One may read an account of Eighteenth Century Clothing and perhaps imagine what it was like, but to view a display is to visualize the past. With collections from galleries, archives and museums, it seems actually visiting a museum is unnecessary. Although certainly it is possible, artefacts do see to lose something when you view them through a screen. Visiting every museum that you wish is often not practical or possible, but perhaps it is still preferable.

Naturally, Public Historians are concerned with more than museum visits and family history, but they still indicate what we are about. That public connection- the interested every man, the enthusiastic adolescent, the grandmother-cum-researcher- is what we are interested in. The Internet is the ultimate disseminator of knowledge, for through it we can learn anything. Suddenly, we, as the connectors between the masses and masters sound unnecessary.

It’s unlikely that Public History will be gone any time soon.  As indicated, the history that people wish to know, and the history that they should know suffered a serious disconnect.  We serve to spark interest, to make information available, to make academic findings accessible. It seems that the best way to do this will involve that which many are already involved in- The Internet.

Until next,

Scott W. E. Dickinson,

Digital Bridge Builder