You May Not Be Interested In Digital Humanities, But The Digital Humanities Are Interested In You.

September 9, 2013, 2:53 pm

(Guest post! Michael Doidge is a historian at the Combat Studies Institute where he created the U.S. Army’s first digitally interactive military history. Here he tells us about how he went about it. With bonus Russian Reversal title!)

VanguardvalorDuring the first days of my MA, my professor asked the incoming classes to go around the room and say something about ourselves. The student sitting next to me casually stated, “I can read and speak several languages.” It was my turn next. I had nothing to follow that act, so I offered a meek and self-deprecating riposte.

“I am also fluent in several languages.”

As expected, the professor asked which ones.

“C, C++, Visual Basic, Java, Pascal…”

The class got a laugh, the nerd in me smiled, and the digital historian working ten years later thinks “And that ain’t bad.”

In March of 2013 the Combat Studies Institute (CSI) released the iBook Vanguard of Valor: Enhanced Edition, which is available for free for the iPad tablet equipped with the (also free) iBooks application. Wired and Army Times featured the work, and I had the pleasure of presenting it at the 2013 Society for Military History Conference exactly one week after release. VoV: Enhanced Edition seamlessly interweaves narrative and multimedia elements. The user activates these elements through touch. Touch to flip the page, touch to hear the soldier talk, touch to fly over CSI’s virtually simulated terrain and hear the professor of military history educate you about unit movements and the battlefield.

Creating the iBook posed a myriad of challenges, foremost among them was how to use interactivity to deepen historical understanding. Communicating history through words on a page alone is a creative and challenging endeavor. iBooks added to that process visual, tactile, and audio elements which required careful multimedia crafting, augmentation, and placement throughout the narrative, all the while accounting for aesthetics, file size, compression, and image/audio quality. Each element needed to fit into the slice of narrative with which it was paired so that it maximized the multimedia’s effect, enhanced the reading experience, and improved historical education. Loud and distracting noises, objects without historical relevance or educational purpose, and jingoistic images or video clips of U.S. forces kicking butt and taking names would distract, insult, or bludgeon the reader’s senses; this would reduce the work’s efficacy and demean its intent.

I had an idea on how to reconcile these challenges, but I was new to Apple, and uncertain of its capabilities and limitations. CSI is a small government agency, with plenty of limitations of its own. The agency lacked in-house funding and personnel resources, and employed no one well-versed in creating the types of media used by the iBook. There is simply no rote guide to creating a work like this, so I did what I believe any historian would do in my circumstance: I read.

I read a lot.

I read books on iBooks and digital publishing, I read articles and blogs on digital humanities to get up to date on the state of the field, and finally, I read cognitive theory to educate myself as to how humans learn and process information. I settled on the concept of “multimodal interaction” for our iBook, where the user would stimulate multiple senses to absorb information. The narrative would fire the analytic side of the brain, while the media would ignite the creative. The media element would also contain a degree of redundancy, that way the user would tap to build upon and deepen preexisting knowledge by associating narrative and media together. For example, if the narrative described a battlefield, a well embedded interactive image of that same battlefield built upon an understanding already in place, and the user who interacts with both text and image associates the two and deepens their understanding.

I hope that this is impressive, but I do not want to oversell it. I did not create a digital work that changed the way people thought about military history. I tried to create a military history that matched the way the digital age changed the way we thought. I hope that I succeeded.

Months from now, were you inclined to search for this specific blog entry, how would you find it? You might work through the problem analytically and come to the latest blog post, click on “archives”, and begin the sifting process. On the other hand, perhaps you pull up a search engine because you remember reading something about an “iBook” on your favorite blog “The Edge of the American West.” By process of association, you type: “The Edge of the American West” and “iBook” and press enter.

And there is your link, one of the first to appear.

You just associated the blog’s narrative with a virtual space you visually recall visiting.

Now you are thinking with the power of digital.

The books:

Vanguard of Valor: Enhanced Edition

Thunder Run: A Case Study in Mission Command, Baghdad, 2003

CSI will release its third iBook in September 2013.

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