Digital World History: An Agenda
The late twentieth century brought an extraordinary expansion in knowledge about
the past. In addition to the deepening of many localized studies of history, this expansion
of knowledge brought about a dramatic transformation of World History. The field that
had previously centered on speculative attempts to identify large-scale and long-term
patterns turned to assessment and coordination of the many new types of knowledge
about the past. National history, civilizational history, area-studies history, imperial
history, and prehistory now overlapped as aspects of human history. New data, new
theories, and cross-disciplinary cooperation generated knowledge in the natural sciences
of the distant past and the world of today. The new knowledge, exciting but always
incomplete, fueled a search for still more knowledge. We have now the beginnings of a
narrative of the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and of the
spread, divergence, and convergence of our ancestors throughout the planet. We can
document today's global interactions in culture, politics, and economics. And we are
learning about the past human impact on the natural environment as well as the certainty
that accelerating environmental change will bring us as many disasters as comforts. The
work of world historians is to assemble and interpret this multidimensional knowledge.
But history at the world scale is unfamiliar. Neither researchers nor readers are yet comfortable with interpreting the global past, so the analysis lags far beyond the accumulation of new information. This is arguably the biggest problem in the study of world history: how are we to encourage historical research at scales beyond the national? Such research and interpretation is advancing spontaneously, along with the broader range of historical data and the posing of global problems today. But the spontaneous advance is very slow, since the institutions for preparing historians focus overwhelmingly on training in national and area-studies history and center on one or two centuries out of the whole human past. As I argue, the best hope of advance in our methods and understanding lies in collaborative study and major research projects.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution began. The emergence of digital computers brought the discovery, retrieval, and creation of new information in every field of human activity. In history, early digital work brought quantitative analysis of political, social, and economic processes—at this stage, the computers digitized numbers and sorted them. Then came electronic text, hypertext, and the beginnings of e-mail in the 1980s—at this stage, the computers digitized texts and linked them. Then came the internet in the 1990s—when computers digitized images and manipulated visual data.
For the small but expanding field of world history, digital analysis and display were ultimately to have great implications, but it took a while before the implications became widely evident. The path linking digital history to world history is neither short nor straight. From the 1960s through the 1980s, world history was dominated by civilizational narratives, relying on traditional analysis of texts. Later on, the internet opened world-wide connections that enabled its users to view texts and images from all over the world, and to recognize multiple perspectives through the interactivity of digital media. But the interplay of world history and digital history has remained complex. While much of the digital approach to history clarifies and advances world history, some digital navigation focuses on isolated specifics in a fashion that does not fit well with world history. Similarly, while world history—especially in its multilayered approach to the past—fits well with the multiple layers of electronic media, the grand narrative approach to world history does not fit well with digital history.
I am part of the faction of world historians that relies heavily on digital approaches. My own agenda for research, teaching, and institutional development in world history provides the story I know best, and I use it here to convey my belief that there exists a co-evolution of world history and digital history with an immense potential. My initial research projects were on Africa in world economic history and on African population in the global system of slavery. In each case the focus was on linking African developments to those of the rest of the world. From 1990 I became involved in institutional development of world history. For just over a decade my emphasis was especially on building centers of specialization in world history, and to a lesser degree on creating links among world historians. I focused principally on graduate training in world history and on creating a comprehensive World History Center. The link of research and teaching was ever-present: a major grant from Annenberg-CPB brought the creation (especially by graduate students) of Migration in Modern World History, 1500-2000, a CD-ROM that made a major statement on the benefits of digital technology for the teaching of world history. But I also emphasized cross-institutional work by serving as an editor of H-WORLD from its foundation in 1994 until 2002. Meanwhile, research on the slave trade and African population retained its interest as an issue in world history, and I placed an initial version of my slave-trade simulation online.
From about 2000 my priorities shifted. Having encountered the limits of building a comprehensive center in world history at a single institution, I gave increasing emphasis to cross-institutional collaborations. The World History Center (at Northeastern University) was replaced in 2004 by the World History Network (an independent entity emphasizing worldwide links). The website of the Network (created as the final project of the World History Center) facilitates collaboration among researchers and teachers of world history; it has sponsored two major, international conferences on world history, both relying significantly on internet communication. World historians are now founding an International Network of World History Associations, so that the vision of global collaboration of world historians appears to be within reach. I marked this transition in priorities by publishing an overview of the field of world history, as a book. Meanwhile, my research on slave trade and migration in world history led me to consider migration over steadily longer periods of time. In a new research project, Christopher Ehret and I will conduct a multidisciplinary analysis of early human history. The research will definitely involve digital methods; the presentation is also sure to involve digital techniques. In sum, the digital dimensions of research, publication, teaching, and scholarly communications have been ever-present in the implementation of this agenda for world history.
Overall, I believe that world history and digital history have the potential of bringing out the best in each other. To advance this argument, I interpret the interplay of digital history and world history in the four sections to follow. First, I offer my research on the demographic impact of slave trade as an example of digital world history by introducing some practical summaries of the research design and results on that topic, with some suggestions on its world-historical implications. Second, I describe some contending approaches to world history and try to identify the ones that fit best with digital history. Third, I consider some general characteristics of the digital revolution and of digital history. Fourth, I develop the notion of "digital world history" by juxtaposing certain key factors in world history with others in digital history, and show how they reinforce each other.
I. The African slave demography project.
My long-term project on the demographic impact of slave trade in Africa relies at several levels on digital technology. This project—linking African regions with each other and with the Americas (and with other regions of the Old World)—is not only digital but world historical in that it links regions often treated in isolation and proposes patterns in migration that have implications for other situations. It is more than a project of empirical data-gathering: it also relies on demographic and other social-science theory, and it depends fundamentally on a computer simulation to link the many data, variables, and assumptions and yield coherent results. The known data—the empirical base of the study—include the size and structure of New World populations of African ancestry and the number of captives carried across the Atlantic, with details on their age, sex, mortality, and region of embarkation. Unknown are the volume, mortality, age and sex composition of the enslaved in Africa, plus the size and composition of African slave and free populations. The objective of the analysis is to estimate the size, composition, and growth rate of African populations that were undergoing loss to enslavement. My initial analysis of this problem (published in 1990) concluded that populations declined in West and Central Africa from 1730 to 1850, and in East Africa from 1820 to 1890, each as a result of the losses to slave trade.
The digital-history dimension of this study appeared especially in analysis but also in presentation. The demographic simulation of slave trade provided a digital way of handling the interplay of numerous demographic factors; also a way of mixing available historical data with variables for which we must make assumptions for lack of data. Then I developed a digital form of presenting the results, with graphics created by digital analysis, in order to show users the range of possibilities. To be more precise, here is an enumeration of digital aspects of this study:
- Programming the simulation model
- Digital version of graphic display of population pyramids
- Simulation calculations
- Display of simulation results
- Display of systemic relationships between populations of home and destination.
- Opportunities for readers to test and vary results (they have to keep the assumed relationships, but can change the data).
- Opportunities to reveal parallel of slave trade to European migration.
- Access to digital representations of documents.
The world-historical dimension of the project lies especially in its revelation of the systemic linkages in the demography of different continents. For instance, the movement of male captives to the Americas meant that New World populations were dominantly male while African populations became dominantly female. These interconnections draw attention to the roles of small players in this history, and the range of possible outcomes for any individual or group. The demographic simulation, in its online form, enables readers to set parameters of historical analysis, and get quantitative and visual (graphical) results. The reader is able to sense the dynamics of the past.
II. Approaches to world history.
Conceptualizing world history forces one back to the basics of interpretive choice. World history is the totality of the past, yet there is no way for us to document or comprehend that totality. So we must abstract from world history in general and select the simplification of the past that best suits our purposes. The alternative simplifications may be reduced to three. World history can be seen as chronicling the totality of local events and processes, without great attention to the larger patterns of the events—this is world history as chronology, an approach that was influential in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. World history can be seen as assessing the dominant patterns in human development, without great attention to small-scale processes—this is the master narrative, an approach influential in the civilizational narratives of the twentieth century, and which can be extended with the expansion of scientific knowledge on early times. Third, world history can be addressed through tracing the interactions of processes at a large scale, at local levels, and in between, with alternation among these levels—this is the study of historical interactions, connections, and parallels which has been gaining influence in recent years.
Each approach has its strengths and all will surely stay with us, but my own interest has been consistently in the third—the interactive approach to the human past. I assume a basic similarity in human motivations and patterns of action, and assume that they are connected from one place to another, but conclude that the results of these motivations and actions appear different in varying situations, because of different environments and connections. I'm a social scientist by training and inclination, so much of my work has involved quantitative studies, but I believe the same approach is relevant for cultural issues and for human interactions with the natural environment. This approach leads—in research, analysis, and presentation—to a world history of complexity. It is an approach quite different from the world history of the master narrative—the history of one great, dominant trend—and different again from chronicles of the past.
How should world history be narrated, in order to become comprehensible to audiences? Three concepts of world history lead to delivery of contrasting narratives. Chronicles of world history, rich in data, shift from topic to topic and event to event, providing a dense texture but little sense of direction or process in the past. Assessments of dominant patterns abstracted from these details present linear narratives of world history. These focus on a few key factors that are taken to explain a great deal of the past: they highlight the great powers, dominance, diffusion of influences from centers of power to other regions, central tendencies rather than dispersions, unity and purity within leading historical trends, uniqueness, and have a tendency to conduct analyses on the most readily available data. Studies of interactions among processes lead to multidimensional narratives of world history, focusing on complex rather than simplified patterns: multidirectional interaction rather than one-way diffusion, mixes, dispersion rather than central tendency, and parallels in historical situations. These tend to seek out or develop new data rather than to limit themselves to work with existing data. The focused narratives of W. H. McNeill's civilizational history and Jared Diamond's tale of the long-term epidemiological effects of the rise of agriculture balance the multidimensional narratives of Lauren Benton's analysis of evolving legal systems and David Christian's narratives of shifting scales in the history of the cosmos.
Here is a related dilemma, phrased in terms of the design of world-historical research. Researchers face a choice between giving top priority to available data or to historical questions. When researchers focus on available data, they are likely to produce a world history that emphasizes written sources, state action, and those areas of the world where written sources are most numerous. In this case, the data tend to set and limit the historical questions that are investigated. When researchers focus on identifying and answering historical questions deemed to be important, they may find themselves short of data on key aspects of the question. They respond by developing devices that compensate for the shortage of available data, using theory, transformation, simulation, and even creation of data to analyze.
A third way of posing the choices of world-historical researchers phrases the dilemma in terms of philosophy. In the nineteenth century, a time of big ideas but limited technology, analysts found a way to maximize the advance in their knowledge: positivistic thinking. That is, they took complex realities and simplified them into small numbers of variables and simple relationships, separating each issue from others. The twentieth century, a time of more advanced technology but also a time in which people encountered the limits of simple determinism, brought postmodern thinking. Analysts included more variables and showed more interest in connections among them and in varying frames of analysis. The debate between these two philosophies is turning out to be indecisive: they are complementary or at least supplementary ways of thinking, and neither is able to gain access to general truth. Even the episodic or empiricist approach to knowledge has its value, as there are issues in which our knowledge is simply insufficient to identify the patterns and processes, so that empirical description is the best we can do. World historians, like all analysts, are divided into positivists and post-modernists. Some world historians accept the emphasis of post-modern theorists on complexity and indeterminacy in history. But world historians will not join post- modernists in rejecting the possibility of a narrative—instead they will try to draw a clear if complex narrative out of the history they study. To return to narrative, we may distinguish linear narratives of world history (which owe their approach to 19th-century thought) from complex narratives of world history (which draw on newer models of interpretation).
In the present time, I believe, the most knowledge is to be gained by exploiting models of complexity. In world history, the approach of identifying interactions among processes (at various scales), the historian focuses on perceiving and portraying a history of complexity. This brings a dual dilemma: locating complexity and managing complexity. One must seek out the complexities in the past, then analyze them to obtain a sophisticated yet simplified interpretation. The task has its inherent difficulties, and it is all the more difficult for those schooled in positivistic simplifications. Here are four main types of conceptual and analytical problems that recur in studies of world history. First is the need for flexibility of scale: world historians must balance local with global spaces, short with long spans of times, and must consider a wide range of topics. Second is the need to account for a multiplicity of perspectives—differing perspectives of historical actors but also the varying disciplines and theories of analysts. Third is the centrality of the analysis of connections and interactions in the past, and the need for a coherent approach to them. Fourth is the need to balance the complexity of the interactions within historical systems against the need to identify the dominant patterns and trajectories of these same systems.
III. Digital technology and digital history
What is digital history? The editors of this volume have provided a general statement on the nature and implications of digital history. In this section I supplement their statement with a few additional words, to help identify the links of digital history and world history. I begin with a reminder of the difference between analog and digital technology in information technology: analog information is in the continuous form of waves of sound and light; digital information consists of discontinuous data or events. Digitization is a transformation of the audio or video wave signal that breaks it into electronic pulses, which are represented through a binary code. In one sense the analog world of light and sound is the real world we live in, while the digital world is abstract and artificial. On the other hand, digital—that is, discontinuous—dimensions of reality have been with us forever. That is, the quantum behavior of atoms and the DNA code of genetics can be seen as the discontinuous, digital basis of matter and life, so that the world we live in relies naturally on a balance of analog and digital phenomena.1 In our own day, however, the long-standing balance of analog and digital dimensions of reality has been shifted sharply by the development of digital technology in computers. So it is helpful to think of analog and digital forms of data each as both real and abstract. The terms "analog" and "digital" both refer to representations of reality, in waves or in bits. The representations can become reality itself, as in music and painting. In our attempt to understand reality, in past and present, techniques of correlation and simulation are essential in enabling us to interrelate digital and analog data and to answer historical questions.
The creation and use of digital data in our basically analog world can be broken down to a number of steps, most of which can be shown to have implications for our understanding of historical analysis:
- Select original data, assumed to be in analog form.
- Digitize—transform and encode the analog data according to set procedures.
- Copy the digital data (hopefully without changes).
- Transmit the digital data.
- Store the digital data; digital storage allows different types of searching and browsing.
- Browse and retrieve the digital data.
- Sort the data; there are many different sets of rules for sorting. Among quantitative data, there are different rules for nominal and ordinal data (which are discrete) and interval data (which are continuous). These are different from data for texts (which include grammars) and for images.
- Analyze the data via correlating and comparing, using various statistical and textual procedures; rules for analysis are parallel to those for sorting.
- Manipulate the data, as by adding new data or editing it.
- Transform it to simulate the original analog data.
- Observe the data in analog form, and interpret it.
If the above list identifies the steps necessary for digital transformation and analysis, which of these steps provide benefits to users of accessing digital data (really, digitally mediated data) that are not available by turning pages or looking at chalk boards? Here is an initial list:
- Copying (and enhancing) analog originals
- Storing data
- Sorting data and analyzing relationships within the data
- Retrieving data selectively
- Presenting data, especially by combining data not initially linked
- Using layers of data or processes (e.g., Photoshop as a metaphor for types of historical analysis)
- Using data in simulations, translations and approximations
- Using data in animations to help convey dynamics of the past
Digital history has the potential to be complex, nuanced, interactive, systemic, and balanced. These characteristics do not necessarily add up to historical truth, but they provide hypotheses to test, and may draw out evidence in support of (or in contradiction to) this vision of world history. The most interesting benefits of digital history to me are that it encourages translation and simulation, it encourages the creation (not just the transformation) of data, it emphasizes parallels in the past and it foregrounds the study of mixes in history. For authors, digital history has major implications in the design and conduct of research, in the nature of analysis and interpretation, and in the presentation of results through narrative and documentation. For others, digital history opens up new techniques for reading and assessing historical works, including new encouragement to explore the details. The reader is urged to carry out critique and independent analysis of the work and the issue at hand.
IV. Digital history and world history.
The sharp expansion in global perspectives in history arrived at almost the same instant as digital technology. Are the two connected? Does one really help the other? There are clear differences between the two, in that the world and its large-scale phenomena have always been there. What is new is not global patterns but the expanded human perception of them. And even in perception, notions of the world—the cosmos, the universe, the earth, and humanity—have existed for very long times; it is only that they can be applied with far greater specificity because of our expanding scientific knowledge. Digital technology, in contrast, is quite new.
World history arose in apparent isolation from quantitative history or digital history. Writings in world history from the 1960s well into the 1990s pursued a strategy of linear analysis and linear narrative, dominated by analysis of civilizations and interactions of continents. This approach was sufficient to establish world history as a rapidly expanding teaching field. Linear analysis, in history as in other social sciences, can be interactive, but emphasizes interactions among a small number of variables. The approach is relatively deterministic, with attention to cause-and-effect relationships. It's the big picture in history, with the main trends.
Then, in the 1990s, world history courses went online. The approaches of linear narrative and also the chronicles of civilizations each led to the posting of documents and lectures that enabled rapid expansion of world history courses at secondary and college levels. With the use of these materials inevitably came arguments for greater interactivity—in the form of the online documentation and in the underlying interpretation. To summarize this phase, here is a list of some advantages of digital history for world history in general:
- An expanded audience—One can reach a global audience with digital means.
There is a need to write for an audience beyond national frontiers and to develop a language of history that avoids reliance on national symbols.
- Interactivity—This aspect of digital media links with the interactive logic of world history.
- Selection—One chooses a path in digital navigation, much as one must choose in world history.
- Shifting perspectives—One can look at an issue through varying sets of assumptions or through varying tools.
- System—The logic of systems is important in world history. Is it necessarily entailed in digital media? Interaction of multiple elements in operation of an overall system.
Digital media have been extraordinarily helpful in spreading the word on all approaches to world history—episodic chronicles, linear interpretations, and multidimensional analyses—especially by providing online documents and interpretive statements on a wide range of topics. I would label the sum total of this development as "digitally assisted world history."
For a more conceptually thoroughgoing "digital world history," one needs to see the advantages of digital technology suffused throughout the processes of research, publication, and teaching. One must ask what digital history can do to facilitate the construction of complex and multidimensional narratives. To respond, one may argue that digital analysis is excellent for handling all the complexities of multiple levels of aggregation, multiple topics, and multiple time frames (including long time frames). Digital technology is useful for dealing with interactions; it can trace multidirectional interaction as well as one- way diffusion. Digital technology can be used to develop a better understanding of the various types of social mixing in the past. It can trace dispersion in data as well as central tendency, and can account for parallels in historical situations. With proper conceptualization, digital analysis can address the need for balance (regional, topical, and other) in the study of world history. There's a tendency for digital media to focus on the most easily located icons, but with human input that can be overcome. For instance, online files of music are amazingly complete in creating access to every kind of recorded music. Digital media are also excellent in aggregating data of various sources so that, after accounting for the relevant subsystems and their interaction, it is possible in the same analysis to provide an overall historical synthesis that identifies the main large-scale patterns.
Finally, returning to the specifics of the work on understanding the social impact of the slave trade, one may note that digital techniques make it possible to develop and use new data in addition to working with existing data, and to use them in simulations of the past. Simulation is integral to digital work. Similarly, world history (or really any history) puts us in the position of simulating the past. With world history, one is even further from the conception that one is actually revisiting the past. And, to address the practicalities of actually completing the analysis of the demography of African slavery, digital history requires teamwork—technicians and colleagues of various sorts—and the resulting exchange of ideas leads to improved world-historical interpretations.
1 Freeman Dyson (Princeton) on digital and analog life. Human genetics is digital, given the 4-AA basis of the genome. (But the molecules themselves have an analog existence—though of course they include discrete quantum energy levels.) The question of whether life is digital or analog. Whether variation is discrete or continuous.