At the heart of the classical Socratic tradition of inquiry is the question “what is ____?”  Socrates gained fame two-and-a-half millennia ago by confronting high-prestige individuals before an audience and making them display their wisdom or lack of wisdom.  To a magistrate, he might ask “what is justice?” or to a military officer, “what is bravery?”  He was not satisfied with simplistic answers, and would continue to interrogate the responses until the subject’s true level of understanding became evident.

The question “what is digital history” is interesting from a socratic perspective because the terms “digital” and “history” have multiple levels of meaning.  “Digital” as discussed in a recent class meeting means at the most basic level that information is stored and manipulated by technology that operates on the basis of ones and zeroes that can be manipulated to produce potentially infinitely malleable variations of image and sound.  The Greek presocratics who gave us the concept that “all is numbers” and those who described the universe as comprised of indivisibly small bits of substance called “atoms” would probably marvel at our present situation: we are using tools that will record sensory data (mostly light and sound waves) and allow us to recreate and refashion this data in ways that to previous eras could only be understood as magic.

I think that this power to recreate and refashion sensory experience requires a commensurate level of humility.  The most important part of the Greek classical tradition took very seriously the phrase “what is?” as described above, and believed that genuine answers existed, even if those answers weren’t at all obvious.  In philosopher-talk this is known as “ontology” and it means simply that there exists, somewhere down below the appearances (or up above, in Plato’s case), some sort of stable reality that lends shape and meaning to the atoms of experience.  Humility is necessary because this reality, though conceived of in different ways, was believed to be elusive.  Simple rhetoric did not reveal its true meaning, thus Socrates’ ongoing battle with the sophists, and his ongoing habit of embarrassing high-prestige individuals with public displays of their ignorance.  It’s not that Socrates was proud.  He was humble enough to admit, first, that he did not know, and second, that he must bow before genuine knowledge, where it revealed itself though rational dialectical process.

Why discuss philosophy in discussing digital history?  Because today’s digital tools give us unprecedented power to recreate and refashion the past, and that power should be used carefully and wisely.  Plato asked his readers in _The Republic_ to imagine a cave whose inhabitants were bound psychologically to images cast up on the wall by a class of image-makers in service of a ruling caste.  The story of the cave has stood ever since as a metaphor for bondage to false images and false ideals.  It has also spoken to the immense social power of propaganda.  The tools used in the cave–fire and smoke and shadow puppetry–were primitive compared to the most basic of 20th and 21st century tools.

I will return to a direct discussion of the potential philosophical and moral implications of our technology in a later post.  For now, I want to answer another question posed in the first session of our digital history class: “What is your favorite documentary or movie?”  My immediate answer was _Asoka_, a Bollywood movie imagining the life, love and warfare of the Mauryan emperor who violently united much of the Indian continent in the second century B.C., and later adopted nonviolence and devoted his rule to spreading Buddhism.  That movie, I noted, had numerous lively and colorful intervals of song-and-dance, typical of the Bollywood genre.  The movie was never intended as a strictly historical account.  And yet it is, to my knowledge, the only feature-length film about this immensely important historical figure.  It deals successfully, I think, with the question of why this man of violence became a man of peace.  It is a relatively low-budget production.  It relies on quite a few low-tech visual gimmicks where a high-budget Hollywood production would use far more sophisticated, higher-tech methods.  And it works.

Further pondering the question of my favorite documentary or movie, I recalled one I came across by accident nearly 25 years ago, entitled “The Amish: Not to Be Modern.”  This 54-minute film consists almost entirely of scenes of Amish people and activities, paired with their own narration.  I recall vividly showing this video to an American history class.  I wondered how the film’s very slow pace and seemingly dry narration would go with these twenty or so high school juniors.  To my amazement, they seemed spellbound.  They made many positive comments on it.  So I showed the film again the next few years, and when I began teaching college sociology, I repeated it nearly every year for twelve years.  Students seemed to really like it, and it produced fodder for conversation for weeks after viewing it.

Why the appeal of such a simple film?  I think it used methods very well suited to its subject matter.  It was low tech, and as I said, slow moving.  Like the Amish themselves.  Perhaps more than any documentary or movie that I can think of, it conveyed the “what is” of Amish life in an understandable, understated way.

I will give a preliminary answer to the question I set out to address in this essay, “what is digital history?” by saying that, if it is genuine–if it succeeds to some degree in getting to the stable essence of its subject matter–then it qualifies as “history.”  The amazing variety of digital tools and techniques we now possess could potentially lead us astray, lead us to portray or imagine a subject more according to the demands of those tools and less according to the underlying nature of the subject itself.  On the other hand, having the ability to use a wide variety of tools, and use them flexibly and creatively, might actually help us (and more importantly, our audience) to understand a subject accurately and honestly.

Ken Smith

August 30 2015


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