by Dan Cohen
The Vienna Museum has just put online 47,000 objects and 75,000 images, with the vast majority of them available to freely download and reuse. Kudos to Evi Scheller, Head of the Online Collection at the museum, and her team, for this release.
(Wilhelm Bernatzik, Die Flamme, 1902, Foto: Birgit und Peter Kainz, Wien Museum, CC BY 3.0 AT.)
The collection is filled with great art and artifacts, but as a Victorianist and a historian of science, I was especially attracted to over 1,500 rare photographs of the 1873 World's Fair. So many new technologies in the process of rapidly changing the world, for better and for worse.
(Weltausstellung 1873: Maschinenhalle, Deutsches Reich (Nr. 819), Foto: Joseph Lowy, Wien Museum, CCO.)
If you stare at this beautiful cabinet of telegraph tech long enough, or maybe squint a little, you can see a through line to later signal panels, in early computing, Star Trek, and perhaps even the iPhone:
(Weltausstellung 1873: Telegraphen-Apparate von C. A. Mayrhofer, Wien (Nr. 219), photographed by Michael Frankenstein (yes, that's his name), Wien Museum, CC0.)
Related: The Living with Machines project is transcribing uses of the relatively new (and still somewhat ambiguous) word "machine" in nineteenth-century newspapers. The goal is to understand how "the mechanisation of work in 19th century Britain changed ordinary lives." This was the newspaper ad given to me for my initial transcription test:
If only you could so easily escape disappointment with your machines.
Decades to come, when we look back at the horrible, stressful year of 2020, what will we see? Or to be more precise, what documentary evidence will we have of this year from which to write its histories? In a year-end post over on my blog, I argue that this year is the first major historical event in which the primary evidence will be big data—not just enormous numbers of digital files, but metadata and medical data and tracking data and data we have not yet uncovered or that may remain dark.
Our year of 2020—somehow simultaneously overstuffed but also stretched thin, a year of Covid and protests against racism and a momentus election—will thus have a commensurately unwieldy digital historical record, densely packed with every need, opinion, and stress that our devices and sensors have captured and transmitted. That the September 11 Digital Archive collected 150,000 born-digital objects will strike future historians as confusingly slight, a desaturated daguerreotype compared to today’s hi-def canvas of data, teeming with vivid pixels. This year we will have generated billions of photographs, messages, and posts. Our movement through time and space has been etched as trillions of bytes about where we went and ate and shopped, or how much we hunkered down at home instead. But even if we hid from the virus, none of us will have been truly hidden. It’s all there in the data.
And it is not just the glowing rectangles we carry with us, through which we see and are seen, that will have produced and received an almost incalculable mass of data. In the testing and treatment of Covid, and the quest for a cure, scientists and doctors will have produced a detailed medical almanac from tens of millions of people, storing biological samples of blood and mucus and DNA for analysis, not just in the present, but also in decades to come. “For life scientists, the freezer is the archive,” Joanna Radin, a historian of medicine at Yale, recently noted on a panel on “Data Histories of Health” at the Northeastern University Humanities Center.
Databases in the cloud and on ice: this is the record of 2020.
And, of course:
Data was also the lens through which we experienced 2020. Every day we encountered numbers of all shapes and sizes, gazed obsessively at charts of rising cases and grim projections of future deaths, or read polls and forecasts of voting patterns. Like supplicants at Delphi, we strained to understand what these numbers were telling us. We quickly learned new statistical concepts, like R0 — and then just as quickly ignored them.
More on this first take on the history of 2020 over on my blog.
Speaking of blogs, it's hard to believe that Play the Past, a collaborative blog on the intersection of gaming and cultural heritage, is 10 years old. They have a list of some of their best posts up, and it's worth perusing.
I was glad to see on the list an early post by Emily Bembeneck, "Spatial Storytelling," which I think about a lot, as it articulated well an aspect of computer games from Zork through early video games to today, and related that insight to history, archaeology, and psychology.
She writes that in many games
Time is marked partly by how quickly you move through a space, but more importantly, by the different spaces themselves...
Games then are a) static structures of code that are represented differently in order to give an illusion of temporal movement, and b) a medium that tells narrative often through spatial progression rather than temporal progression.
How does this compare to how we view the past? Much of our understanding of the past comes from archaeology, a discipline centered on particular spaces, and through them, particular times. A couple of years ago, I was at a site just south of Rome. The story of that location was told through the space we discovered. In this village site, it was the different spaces we walked through and uncovered that told the story of the inhabitants. Time was somewhat murky and difficult to mark with precision. The space however was clear...
So why is this important? What does it matter if space tells story? For one, I think it is important to realize that our minds may value space more importantly than they do time. For designing games, this means particular spaces and the progression of those spaces will be able to carry meaning without text and without temporal markers. Change itself, whether change in one location or the change that comes from progressing to one location from another, is enough to tell story. For teaching history, it may mean that understanding events as changes in particular places or as a progression of locations is more useful than understanding events as markers on a timeline. One is a story; the other is just a series of events.
(Gustav Klimt, Pallas Athene, 1898, Foto: Birgit und Peter Kainz, Wien Museum, CC BY 3.0 AT)