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Technology and ‘the death of Art History’


Stephen Boyd Davis
Time machines

The proposed paper is concerned with the use of computers to represent historical time visually (here called ‘chronographics’), typically as ‘timelines’. A contrast is made between the sophisticated practice and theory of early modern paper timelines in the eighteenth century and the naïve, simplistic offerings generally available digitally, especially on the Web. This is treated as a case of more general issues arising from the mechanisation of knowledge. It is argued that while digital technology threatens to fatally oversimplify historiography, this is because the potential of such technologies to be subtle, sophisticated, reflexive and interrogative has hardly been explored.

A vision of mechanising knowledge lies behind key eighteenth century timelines by early pioneers of visualisation. This includes Priestley’s use of explicitly mechanical procedures to lay out the four gospels in a synchronous pattern; Barbeu-Dubourg’s notion of effortless machine-like mental access to knowledge; the growth in the placing of unadorned, ‘neutral’ historical event-objects into a uniform graphical time-space; and Barbeu-Dubourg’s literal construction of an actual machine to represent history. At that time, mechanisation proved a productive metaphor, but in our own time the mechanistic properties of computers have tended to encourage an approach to visualising history that excludes all but the crudest aspects of historiography. Timelines are hardly considered suitable for adults, let alone historians. (In case the whole idea of dates as a significant part of history appears questionable, it should be borne in mind that we benefit from the extraordinary achievements of Renaissance and other chronologers who provided the essential scaffolding of historical time which is taken for granted and thus almost invisible).

The paper argues that the sensitive application of digital technologies to chronographics can and should support a sophisticated representation of history, suitable for use not only by public audiences but even as valuable tools for researchers. Solutions are needed which use computing in ways that do justice to doubt, ambiguity and conflict as essential components of any serious historiography.

The paper connects historical research in chronographics to an assessment of current practice, and makes recommendations for development and additional research in this area. The analysis of early chronographics builds on the work of Twyman (1986, 1987, 1990), Grafton (1975, 1983, 1993, 2010), Rosenberg (2004, 2007, 2010), Feeney (2007) and others. Examples of contemporary practice include MIT’s Simile timeline, Continuum at Southampton University, and a prototype timeline of museum objects developed under the author’s direction at Middlesex University.


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