But the founding and sustaining and continual renewal of a DH center is itself an active form of hope for the future. And some of this future-orientation is not, itself, new. It stems from a long interest in History and other disciplines in counter-factualism, alternate imaginings, in retro-futurism, and even in the kind of creative teaching through fictions and hoaxes that, oh, I don’t know, might get your whole university banned from Wikipedia. But there’s new energy driving us, too, to take the long view: toward (as Latour suggests) “loving our monsters,” or nurturing and not—in Frankensteinian mode—abandoning our technological creations. It’s an energy that drives us to perform what Kari Kraus calls conjectural criticism, and (along similar lines) to fashion “hopeful monsters.” Now is in fact the moment, Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue, for historians and digital scholars to assert influence over future by helping us to appreciate and build upon the increasingly data-minable depths of our past. The assistive analytical technology is here, our digitized archives and born-digital corpora have reached critical mass, and most importantly, the complexity of our social and economic and environmental problems—the problems of the Anthropocene (as I discussed at length in a melancholy way at the DH conference this summer)—present digital historians with nothing less than a moral imperative to look forward as much as back.
Maybe this will prompt us to enter a new era of speculative computing in our DH centers. I hope in our discussion today, that we can pay attention to the specific conditions that might best foster a future orientation. How can our centers become more progressive in a big-data world, while still helping us to conserve our small points of data, our close-read little stories, and the quirky intellectual and institutional structures that are most important to us? How can digital history centers, particularly, foster the most respect for past context and promote historical understanding, while having a care for the futures (the multiple, possible, speculative futures) of the people involved in them, the people who labor in centers like these?
Now the future of digital history also requires that we do some things that we have not done or only partially achieved. For the future of digital history what do we need more of?
1. Review more–There is little review of digital history, it is limiting the field. We are relying on peer review in the grant application process, and to a lesser extent in tenure and promotion, but the future of digital history will require critical engagement of interpretative procedures used or deployed in digital history.
2. Interpret more–Digital history projects are generally one off, silo-ed, and internally collaborative. We have built deep thematic archives and sophisticated examples of digital projects, but these often go un-cited and unincorporated into the scholarly record. They need to be cited, integrated, mixed into, and associated with other works of historical scholarship. We in digital history have not done this very well in some respects, because we have been concentrating on building our own digital projects. The future of digital history will need to feature works that associate and interrelate digital objects.
3. Reciprocate more–Community-based, shared digital history project should characterize the future of digital history. Here, we should meet our audience where they are. It will require us to be less directive, less authoritative, and more dialogic in the history we produce. One area of especially fruitful reciprocal engagement would come from family history. Genealogy-based history could allow us to connect with the broader community in a more intentional and productive way. Of all of the communities interested in history, genealogy remains one that digital history has bypassed. We should close this gap.