Cities, Design, History, Podcasts, Transportation

Activism, Community Input, and the Evolution of Cities: My Interview with Ted Landsmark

I’ve had a dozen great guests on the What’s New podcast, but this week’s episode features a true legend: Ted Landsmark. He is probably best known as the subject of a shocking Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph showing a gang of white teens at a rally against school desegregation attacking him with an American flag. The image became a symbol of tense race relations in the 1970s, not only in Boston but nationwide.

ted_landsmark

(photo credits: Stanley Forman/Brian Fluharty)

He should be better known, however, for his decades of work shaping the city of Boston and the greater Boston area, and for his leadership in education, transportation planning, architecture, and other critical aspects of the fabric of the city. The assault on him on City Hall Plaza in Boston only intensified his activism, and set him on a path to be at the center of how the city would be developed over the last 40 years. It’s a remarkable story.

On the podcast Ted Landsmark recounts not only this personal history, but the history of a Boston in general, and he provides a 360-degree view of how cities are designed, managed, and are responsive (or unresponsive) to community needs and desires. His sense of how urban feedback systems work, from local politics to technology like the 311 phone number many cities have implemented to hear from their citizens, is especially smart and helpful.

I hope you’ll tune in.

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Archives, History, Twitter

The Significance of the Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress

It started with some techies casually joking around, and ended with the President of the United States being its most avid user. In between, it became the site of comedy and protest, several hundred million human users and countless bots, the occasional exchange of ideas and a constant stream of outrage.

All along, the Library of Congress was preserving it all. Billions of tweets, saved over 12 years, now rub shoulders with books, manuscripts, recordings, and film among the Library’s extensive holdings.

On December 31, however, this archiving will end. The day after Christmas, the Library announced that it would no longer save all tweets after that date, but instead will choose tweets to preserve “on a very selective basis,” for major events, elections, and political import. The rest of Twitter’s giant stream will flow by, untapped and ephemeral.

The Twitter archive may not be the record of our humanity that we wanted, but it’s the record we have. Due to Twitter’s original terms of service and the public availability of most tweets, which stand in contrast to many other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat, we are unlikely to preserve anything else like it from our digital age.

Undoubtedly many would consider that a good thing, and that the Twitter archive deserves the kind of mockery that flourishes on the platform itself. What can we possibly learn from the unchecked ramblings and ravings of so many, condensed to so few characters?

Yet it’s precisely this offhandedness and enforced brevity that makes the Twitter archive intriguing. Researchers have precious few sources for the plain-spoken language and everyday activities and thought of a large swath of society.

Most of what is archived is indeed done so on a very selective basis, assessed for historical significance at the time of preservation. Until the rise of digital documents and communications, the idea of “saving it all” seemed ridiculous, and even now it seems like a poor strategy given limited resources. Archives have always had to make tough choices about what to preserve and what to discard.

However, it is also true that we cannot always anticipate what future historians will want to see and read from our era. Much of what is now studied from the past are materials that somehow, fortunately, escaped the trash bin. Cookbooks give us a sense of what our ancestors ate and celebrated. Pamphlets and more recently zines document ideas and cultures outside the mainstream.

Historians have also used records in unanticipated ways. Researchers have come to realize that the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, transcriptions from London’s central criminal court, are the only record we have of the spoken words of many people who lived centuries ago but were not in the educated or elite classes. That we have them talking about the theft of a pig rather than the thought of Aristotle only gives us greater insight into the lived experience of their time.

The Twitter archive will have similar uses for researchers of the future, especially given its tremendous scale and the unique properties of the platform behind the short messages we see on it. Preserved with each tweet, but hidden from view, is additional information about tweeters and their followers. Using sophisticated computational methods, it is possible to visualize large-scale connections within the mass of users that will provide a good sense of our social interactions, communities, and divisions.

Since Twitter launched a year before the release of the iPhone, and flourished along with the smartphone, the archive is also a record of what happened when computers evolved from desktop to laptop to the much more personal embrace of our hands.

Since so many of us now worry about the impact of these devices and social media on our lives and mental health, this story and its lessons may ultimately be depressing. As we are all aware, of course, history and human expression are not always sweetness and light.

We should feel satisfied rather than dismissive that we will have a dozen years of our collective human expression to look back on, the amusing and the ugly, the trivial and, perhaps buried deep within the archive, the profound.

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Archives, Crowdsourcing, Digital Public Library of America, History, Open Access

Roy’s World

In one of his characteristically humorous and self-effacing autobiographical stories, Roy Rosenzweig recounted the uneasy feeling he had when he was working on an interactive CD-ROM about American history in the 1990s. The medium was brand new, and to many in academia, superficial and cartoonish compared to a serious scholarly monograph.

Roy worried about how his colleagues and others in the profession would view the shiny disc on the social history of the U.S., and his role in creating it. After a hard day at work on this earliest of digital histories, he went to the gym, and above his treadmill was a television tuned to Entertainment Tonight. Mary Hart was interviewing Fabio, fresh off the great success of his “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” ad campaign. “What’s next for Fabio?” Hart asked him. He replied: “Well, Mary, I’m working on an interactive CD-ROM.”

Roy Rosenzweig

Ten years ago today Roy Rosenzweig passed away. Somehow it has now been longer since he died than the period of time I was fortunate enough to know him. It feels like the opposite, given the way the mind sustains so powerfully the memory of those who have had a big impact on you.

The field that Roy founded, digital history, has also aged. So many more historians now use digital media and technology to advance their discipline that it no longer seems new or odd like an interactive CD-ROM.

But what hasn’t changed is Roy’s more profound vision for digital history. If anything, more than ever we live in Roy’s imagined world. Roy’s passion for open access to historical documents has come to fruition in countless online archives and the Digital Public Library of America. His drive to democratize not only access to history but also the historical record itself—especially its inclusion of marginalized voices—can been seen in the recent emphasis on community archive-building. His belief that history should be a broad-based shared enterprise, rather than the province of the ivory tower, can be found in crowdsourcing efforts and tools that allow for widespread community curation, digital preservation, and self-documentation.

It still hurts that Roy is no longer with us. Thankfully his mission and ideas and sensibilities are as vibrant as ever.

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History, Mathematics

George Boole at 200: The Emotion Behind the Logic

Today is the 200th anniversary of George Boole’s birth, and he certainly merits a big celebration at University College Cork, where he was the first professor of mathematics, and even that rare honor: a Google Doodle. The focus has been on his technical breakthroughs, since his brilliant advances in mathematics and logic formed the foundation of modern computing.

But on this bicentennial it’s also worth looking at the emotional motivation behind Boole’s supposedly dispassionate technical work—and at ourselves in the mirror. As I wrote in my book Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith, Boole lived in a time of painful polarization, unfortunately not so dissimilar to ours. While his attention was on religion rather than politics (although those were intertwined, as they are in our day), Boole found the divisiveness unrelenting and sorely lacking in compassion.

My thesis, documented in his notebooks and letters home, and in his published articles and books—his Laws of Thought includes as much about social and philosophical concerns as it does mathematics—is that Boole saw his logic as a way to transcend the overwrought differences of his time to find an ecumenical way to work together toward divine truth. Boole hated that it had become so hard for opposing sides to talk to each other about many issues, and that even minor distinctions were amplified by the modes of discourse and by everyone’s quick jumps to strong opinion and judgment.

Boole’s contemporary and fellow mathematical logician Augustus De Morgan summarized the problem when he wrote that if you asked someone if the craters were larger on the dark side of the moon than on the side we can see, “The odds are, that though he has never thought of the question, he has a pretty stiff opinion in three seconds.” To counter this dogmatism, Boole and De Morgan not only created symbolic logic, but also through their generous interactions with those of many sects and faiths, tried to be true to the spirit of their work.

So today let us honor George Boole the mathematician, but also George Boole the human being. His entreaties to respect all sides, to be charitable with those with whom you disagree, to not jump to conclusions but instead to pause and think carefully first, to try to find a way bridge divides—these are all too rare qualities in our age as well as his.

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Blogs, History, Social Media

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.

 

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Conferences and Workshops, History

Digital History at the 2013 AHA Meeting

It’s time for my annual list of digital history sessions at the American Historical Association meeting, this year in New Orleans, January 3-6, 2013. This year’s program extends last year’s surging interest in the effect digital media and technology are having on research and the profession. In addition, a special track for the 2013 meeting is entitled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age.” Looks like a good and varied program, including digital research methods (such as GIS, text mining, and network analysis), the construction and use of digital archives, the history of new media and its impact on social movements, scholarly communication, public history and writing for a general audience on the web, and practical concerns (e.g., getting grants for digital work).

Hope to see some of you there, and to interact with the rest of you about the meeting via other means. (Speaking of which, I hereby declare the hashtag to be #aha13. I know we care about exact dates, fellow historians, but we really don’t need that “20” in our hashtags.)

Thursday, January 3

9am-5pm

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) AHA

1-3pm

Henry Morton Stanley, New Orleans, and the Contested Origins of an African Explorer: Public History and Teaching Perspectives

3:30-5:30pm

Spatial Narratives of the Holocaust: GIS, Geo-Visualization, and the Possibilities for Digital Humanities

Presidential Panel: H-Net and the Discipline: Changes and Challenges

8-10pm

Plenary Session: The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age

Friday, January 4

8:30-10am

Roundtable on Place in Time: What History and Geography Can Teach Each Other

Public History Meets Digital History in Post-Katrina New Orleans

“To See”: Visualizing Humanistic Data and Discovering Historical Patterns in a Digital Age

Viewfinding: A Discussion of Photography, Landscape, and Historical Memory

Scholarly Societies and Networking through H-Net

H-Net in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean: Building New Online Audiences

Applying to NEH Grant Programs

10:30am-noon

Self Defense, Civil Rights, and Scholarship: Panels in Honor of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall , Part 1: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana Twenty Years Later

Online Reviewing: Before and After It Was de Rigueur

Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity: Household Space and Lived Experience in Colonial and Early National Mexico

The United States and Its Informants: The Cold War and the War on Terror

2:30-4:30pm

Front Lines: Early-Career Scholars Doing Digital History

From the March on Washington to Tahir Square and Beyond: Tactics, Technology, and Social Movements

Are There Costs to “Internationalizing” History?, Part 2: The Domestic Politics of Teaching and Outreach

Saturday, January 5

9-11am

H-Net in Africa: Building New Online Audiences

Scholarly Communications and Copyright

Oral History and Intellectual History in Conversation: Methodological Innovation in Modern South Asia

Research Support Services for History Scholars: A Study of Evolving Research Methods in History

Comparative Reflections on the History Major Capstone Experience: A Roundtable

The Power of Cartography: Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS

11:30am-1:30pm

Mapping the Past: Historical Geographic Information Science (GIS)

Beyond “Plan B” for Renaissance Studies: A Roundtable

11:30am-2 – Poster Session 1

Hell Towns, Butternuts, and Spotted Cows: Bringing the History of a Small Town in the Hudson Valley into the Digital Age

2:30-4:30pm

Peer Review, History Journals, and the Future of Scholarly Research

Space, Place, and Time: GIS Technology in Ancient and Medieval European History

Factionalism and Violence across Time and Space: An Exploration of Digital Sources and Methodologies

Connecting Classroom and Community: H-Net Networks and Public History

The Deep History of Africa: New Narrative Approaches

First Steps: Getting Started as a History Professional

Renegotiating Identity: The Process of Democratization in Postauthoritarian Spain and Portugal

2:30-5pm – Poster Session 2

Digital History: Tools and Tricks to Learn the New Trade

Building the Dissertation Digitally

The Global Shipwreck

Picturing a Transnational Pulp Archive

Sunday, January 6

8:30-10:30am

Building a Swiss Army Knife: A Panel on DocTracker, a Multi-Tool for Digital Documentary Editions

11am-1pm

Teaching Digital Methods for History Graduate Students

Public History in the Federal Government: Continuing Trends and New Innovations

Using Oral History for Social Justice Activism

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History, Open Access, Publishing, Scholarly Communication

Treading Water on Open Access

A statement from the governing council of the American Historical Association, September 2012:

The American Historical Association voices concerns about recent developments in the debates over “open access” to research published in scholarly journals. The conversation has been framed by the particular characteristics and economics of science publishing, a landscape considerably different from the terrain of scholarship in the humanities. The governing Council of the AHA has unanimously approved the following statement. We welcome further discussion…

In today’s digital world, many people inside and outside of academia maintain that information, including scholarly research, wants to be, and should be, free. Where people subsidized by taxpayers have created that information, the logic of free information is difficult to resist…

The concerns motivating these recommendations are valid, but the proposed solution raises serious questions for scholarly publishing, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

A statement from Roy Rosenzweig, the Vice President of Research of the American Historical Association, in May 2005:

Historical research also benefits directly (albeit considerably less generously [than science]) through grants from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities; even more of us are on the payroll of state universities, where research support makes it possible for us to write our books and articles. If we extend the notion of “public funding” to private universities and foundations (who are, of course, major beneficiaries of the federal tax codes), it can be argued that public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship.

Do the fruits of this publicly supported scholarship belong to the public? Should the public have free access to it? These questions pose a particular challenge for the AHA, which has conflicting roles as a publisher of history scholarship, a professional association for the authors of history scholarship, and an organization with a congressional mandate to support the dissemination of history. The AHA’s Research Division is currently considering the question of open—or at least enhanced—access to historical scholarship and we seek the views of members.

Two requests for comment from the AHA on open access, seven years apart. In 2005, the precipitating event for the AHA’s statement was the NIH report on “Enhancing Public Access to Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research”; yesterday it was the Finch report on “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications” [pdf]. History has repeated itself.

We historians have been treading water on open access for the better part of a decade. This is not a particular failure of our professional organization, the AHA; it’s a collective failure by historians who believe—contrary to the lessons of our own research—that today will be like yesterday, and tomorrow like today. Article-centric academic journals, a relatively recent development in the history of publishing, apparently have existed, and will exist, forever, in largely the same form and with largely the same business model.

We can wring our hands about open access every seven years when something notable happens in science publishing, but there’s much to be said for actually doing something rather than sitting on the sidelines. The fact is that the scientists have been thinking and discussing but also doing for a long, long time. They’ve had a free preprint service for articles since the beginning of the web in 1991. In 2012, our field has almost no experience with how alternate online models might function.

If we’re solely concerned with the business model of the American Historical Review (more on that focus in a moment), the AHA had on the table possible economic solutions that married open access with sustainability over seven years ago, when Roy wrote his piece. Since then other creative solutions have been proposed. I happen to prefer the library consortium model, in which large research libraries who are already paying millions of dollars for science journals are browbeaten into ponying up a tiny fraction of the science journal budget to continue to pay for open humanities journals. As a strong believer in the power of narcissism and shame, I could imagine a system in which libraries that pay would get exalted patron status on the home page for the journal, while free riders would face the ignominy of a red bar across the top of the browser when viewed on a campus that dropped support once the AHR went open access. (“You are welcome to read this open scholarship, but you should know that your university is skirting its obligation to the field.” The Shame Bar could be left off in places that cannot afford to pay.)

Regardless of the method and the model, the point is simply that we haven’t tried very hard. Too many of my colleagues, in the preferred professorial mode of focusing on the negative, have highlighted perceived problems with open access without actually engaging it. Yet somehow over 8,000 open access journals have flourished in the last decade. If the AHA’s response is that those journals aren’t flagship journals, well, I’m not sure that’s the one-percenter rhetoric they want to be associated with as representatives of the entire profession.

Furthermore, if our primary concern is indeed the economics of the AHR, wouldn’t it be fair game to look at the full economics of it—not just the direct costs on AHA’s side (“$460,000 to support the editorial processes”), but the other side, where much of the work gets done: the time professional historians take to write and vet articles? I would wager those in-kind costs are far larger than $460,000 a year. That’s partly what Roy was getting at in his appeal to the underlying funding of most historical scholarship. Any such larger economic accounting would trigger more difficult questions, such as Hugh Gusterson’s pointed query about why he’s being asked to give his peer-review labor for free but publishers are gating the final product in return—thanks for your gift labor, now pay up. That the AHA is a small non-profit publisher rather than a commercial giant doesn’t make this question go away.

There is no doubt that professional societies outside of the sciences are in a horrible bind between the drive toward open access and the need for sustainability. But history tells us that no institution has the privilege of remaining static. The American Historical Association can tinker with payments for the AHR as much as it likes under the assumption that the future will be like the past, just with a different spreadsheet. I’d like to see the AHA be bolder—supportive not only of its flagship but of the entire fleet, which now includes fledgling open access journals, blogs, and other nascent online genres.

Mostly, I’d like to see a statement that doesn’t read like this one does: anxious and reactive. I’d like to see a statement that says: “We stand ready to nurture and support historical scholarship whenever and wherever it might arise.”

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