The Scale of Digital

The question of scale is one which all historians must consider in their work. Is the project a microhistory that explains larger movements with representative (or unique) examples? Does it explain the grand movements of history across time and space from a distant perspective instead? All of the projects in this week’s readings engage in the question of scale by allowing users to freely navigate between near and distant readings of their subject. Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit explain how digital history projects can make the leap between the micro and the macro with their work on Visualizing Emancipation.

Ayers and Nesbit successfully move from the overarching legal and political complexities influencing abolition on a national scale to how this played out among individual slaves in the Shenandoah Valley. I felt their article was very clear and powerful in unpacking the web project. The map was also interesting, though less powerful in its explanation of space and time. There were so many individual events occurring during the time lapse- movements of the Union Army without associated emancipation events, that it was difficult to follow the argument so successfully made in their article. It did allow searching of the metadata of events which was interesting in viewing material related to towns or particular people.

The other projects, ORBIS and Digital Harlem, successfully displayed the power of scale. ORBIS was essentially an argument for scale by literally discussing the time with which information or goods moved around the Roman Empire. By including the farthest cities when analyzing a network, the scale of the empire is clearly stated. Yet beyond the empire’s scale, few other insights are available. It could be useful for a scholar of military history to know the exact time it took for a letter between London and Rome if they were examining decisions in a military campaign. Or to compare the “networks” of different cities in the hinterlands of the Empire. But I suspect the accuracy a scholar would require isn’t served by the best guesses of the creators of ORBIS. I do admit that the map functions look really attractive and would be very useful in education contexts with students from a variety of levels.

I thought Digital Harlem also navigated the issues of scale with elegance. By showing clusters of interaction, users can see both larger historical patterns in Harlem along with the individual intereactions themselves. By including the other uses of each address certain aspects of the neighborhood were pretty successfully recreated. Both the individual scale and larger time scales can be explored.

The question of scale has also been in the forefront of my mind as David Armitrage and Jo Guldi advocate for longer timescales and deeper narratives in order for historians to reclaim their place in public intellectual discussion. They are correct that historians no longer have the ear of policy makers as we once did. Columnists for major papers include economists like Paul Krugman and others, but few to no historians. In The History Manifesto they see longer time and space scales as a way to influence policy discussions. By examining long terms, we can avoid “short termism” (nice Google ngram usage in the introduction). Armitrage and Guldi’s argument links well to the strengths of digital history by allowing the shifting between large timescales, but not obscuring the individual as economists are prone to do.

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