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History apps and innovation

Are history apps living up to their promise? Historian Ralph Harrington examines some primary evidence.

‘Apps beat books’: such is the verdict of Dan Snow, a presenter of television history shows who, as it happens, has an app of his own to sell. Apps offer possibilities that books, or for that matter television shows, cannot match, argues Snow: ‘Apps on a tablet device quite simply give you all the combined benefits of books, television, the web and radio, with few of the disadvantages’. The flexibility and interactivity of apps give the reader an immersive, dynamic experience of history that is unavailable both from the passive, one-dimensional printed page or the constrained and scripted confines of the television programme. The argument is clear: apps are going to transform the way we engage with history.

The app that provoked this zealotry and passion (his words) in Snow is Timeline World War 2, which he fronts and for which he did a great deal of the behind-the-scenes work, right down to the tagging. This app for iPad is sold as ‘a definitive history of the Second World War’ which will ‘give the viewer an insight into the events of WW2 in a way never before possible’. A look at this particular app, however, suggests that perhaps apps are not going to change the world of history quite so dramatically after all. It is not that this is a bad product, or that it does the job it sets out to do badly; in fact it does it rather well. The problem lies in whether historical analysis and exposition is best served by this format and, more generally, whether in choosing to do history on apps in this way we are making the best use of what the technology has to offer.

At the heart of Timeline World War 2 lies what its publishers describe as ‘an amazing interactive timeline that revolutionizes the way that history can be viewed and understood’. The timeline structures the experience of moving through the events of the war: it enables the viewer to visualize the unfolding of events, zoom in and out, and filtering themes and topics to focus upon what interests them. The timeline is linked to a dynamic map which presents animated displays of the progress of the war. All this is built around 2000 selected facts (apparently that is enough to cover the entire war); the app contains 1500 written entries on events, personalities and other aspects of the war, 600 still pictures and 100 contemporary newsreels.

The newsreels are clearly a novel element: only new digital technology allows this kind of integration of animated audiovisual material with still images and textual content (although it could be done just as well on a webpage as via an app, of course). But otherwise, both in the quantities of written and visual material incorporated and the conception that underlies its use, Timeline World War 2 is a thoroughly conservative project, essentially mimicking a traditional paper encyclopaedia – bite-sized chunks of text, cross-referenced, supported by visual material, fundamentally unanalytical, never going beyond a certain generalized superficiality of approach. The conception of history that drives the app is also very traditional in feel: for all the claims of innovation and radical transformation, this is essentially old-style narrative history of great events in the Whig tradition.

Why should ambitious attempts to serve history through new technology take this path? There is no inherent reason why history should be ill-served by digital forms: indeed, rather the reverse. In 1999 Professor Edward L. Ayres of the University of Virginia, a pioneer in the digital humanities, observed in an article on ‘The Pasts and Futures of Digital History’ that ‘history may be better suited to digital technology than any other humanistic discipline’. History draws on evidence of many kinds, and benefits from technologies that allow the seamless integration of different forms of evidence into means of research, discussion and presentation. The many voices of historical experience and the complexities of historical exposition and narrative likewise find new and powerful modes of expression through digital media. History is often fragmentary, incomplete, partial, which finds a reflection in the accretionary, layered, dispersive yet integrated world of social networking.  Digital history flows through a range of media, some echoing or extending roles already performed by traditional media, some extending into new areas to make possible things that simply could not be done before.

Consider the way in which apps, with their flexibility, mobility and multivalency can empower the creation of new histories, histories which do not seek to imitate the old patterns of books or television programmes. The app you take with you into the streets of your town and which brings the events those streets have witnessed to life around you through a dynamic web of source material and voices from past and present (including the voices of academic and museum experts) seems to me far more illuminating and exciting, and to be a far more effective use of the potential of the new technologies, than heavy-duty electronic recreations of old-style historical encyclopaedias. Of course there is a place for these great worthy tomes in electronic as well as in physical form, but do they really represent the best we can do?

More of Ralph’s work.

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