The digitalisation of historical information often leaves researchers with ‘fuzzy’ and complex, data and . Besides being difficult to read, they are at times too copious for traditional research methods to process. The Amsterdam Time Machine attempts to tackle a new kind of methodological problem: using computational techniques to process meaningful information from the past, including information stored in visual, linguistic, cartographic material. As these methods process and combine more information, they also allow us to pose more complex questions about the original context information came from.
Big data of the past
Big Data of the Past are expected to lead to data-driven historical simulations, making the past de facto as easily accessible as the present. New families of historical search engines, as well as immersive and augmented reality interfaces and other tools, could generate what one could describe as time capsules to seamlessly navigate 2000 years of European history. Thousands of time travellers are already ready to engage in the project, for curating the data, design algorithms and ultimately, to a certain extent, writing a common history of Europe. That approach in turn could apply to other cities, communities and regions of the world.
We study cities, in our case Amsterdam, in the broadest possible sense of the word. The city as it is documented, experienced, planned and imagined, in historical textual and visual sources, but also in the minds of people as represented in literature and films.
The city as research lab
The Time Machine, like a macroscope, allows for scalable humanities research. We can zoom in and out, observe everyday life and micro-stories, but also identify long-term patterns. The city is our lab – or as Charles Tilly put it, the city is a “privileged site for study of the interaction between large social processes and routines of local life”. We hope to facilitate different methods and approaches to history and heritage, but like many digital history resources, we favor space as means to organise and present information. We’re influenced by the spatial turn, when it comes to analysing the role of space and place in historical change and continuity. By the way: in this explanation of the spatial turn in history, Jo Guldi challenges the city as privileged unity of analysis for social-historical research.
Guldi, J. (Unknown a) ‘The Spatial Turn in History’, Spatial Humanities. Available at: http://spatial.scholarslab.org/spatial-turn/the-spatial-turn-in-history/index.html (Accessed: 29 October 2018).
A public urban history
How can we bridge the study of urban history and popular presentation of the urban past? How can be urban history be relevant beyond academia? And how does it relate to the challenging topic of heritage? The Amsterdam Time Machine aims to help bridge the fields and datasets of history and heritage, but also to provide a place where the potential and problems in collaborations can be openly discussed. Perhaps we can, for now, call it, borrowing here from Bob Shoemaker, a public facing research resource. This also means we seek collaboration with broader audiences, collectively negotiating history and heritage.
Borsay, P. (1991) ‘History or heritage: perceptions of the urban past: A review essay’, Urban History, 18, pp. 32–40. doi: 10.1017/S0963926800015972.
Digital methods are increasingly common in undergraduate and graduate humanities classrooms, and we think the Time Machine can be used as a social and pedagogical tool. We develop the Amsterdam Time Machine together with students, this way stimulating students to engage with new technology, collaborate with peers, graduate students, and faculty, and produce tangible scholarship that is publicly visible.