Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hemlines and History Appliances

[Crossposted to Cliopatria & Digital History Hacks]

The Stock Market Skirt is a robot of sorts. Created a number of years ago by Toronto-based media artist Nancy Patterson, it consists of a party dress on a dressmaker's mannequin and a number of monitors displaying stock tickers. As prices fluctuate, "these values are sent to a program which determines whether to raise or lower the hemline via a stepper motor and a system of cables, weights and pulleys attached to the underside of the skirt. When the stock price rises, the hemline is raised; when the stock price falls, the hemline is lowered." I can only assume that the edge of the dress is rumpled up on the floor these days, and that the motors are somewhat the worse for wear.

The exhibit, of course, is a playful reinterpretation of George Taylor's hemline index. In the 1920s, Taylor, an economist at the Wharton school, observed that skirt lengths were correlated with the state of the economy. Since then, the observation has continued to be relatively robust, and these days has been extended into many other domains, like music and movie preferences, the water content in foods, and even the shapes of Playboy playmates.

I think the stock market skirt is a great example of what I call a "history appliance." The idea is supposed to be whimsical: what if a device could dispense historical consciousness the way a tap dispenses water? I've found that academic historians have a much harder time entertaining this question than public historians do. After all, the latter have a long tradition of trying to build events, exhibits and situations that communicate interpretations of the past in ways that supplement the written word. A diorama, for example, represents the past faithfully along some dimensions, but not all. You can do scientific tests on an artifact--if it isn't a fake, its material substance can be informative about past events. (Ditto if it is a fake.) You can't necessarily do scientific tests on a diorama, and yet it is possible for it to communicate information about the past veridically.

For a historian, the correlation between stock prices and hemlines raises questions of agency, and we feel comfortable exploring those on paper. Nothing foregrounds agency like a robot, however, and historians shouldn't shy away from building them into their historical interpretations.

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