Saturday, June 09, 2007

History Appliances: The Soundscape

I recently had a chance to visit my friends at the Center for History and New Media and give a brown bag talk about history appliances. I outlined my optimistic version of the idea and Rob MacDougall's more pessimistic (and probably more realistic) version. For people who want to get started building their own history appliances, I discussed some of the wetware, software and hardware that might be useful. While I was there, I also chatted with Dan, Mills and Tom for an episode in their excellent Digital Campus podcast series. Unfortunately I had a bad cold, so even their audio tech expert couldn't make me sound more like Barry White than Barry Gibb.

The best part of the brown bag talk was that I was able to break in the middle for a brainstorming session with the CHNM audience, where they came up with a bunch of great new ideas. Paula, for example, suggested that it might be possible to create a tunable soundscape. Set the dial for 1873 and you might hear the sounds of horse hooves and wagon wheels on cobblestones, church bells or the cries of street vendors. Such an appliance would be truly ambient, and could be based on the kinds of work being done by historians like Emily Thompson or Richard Cullen Rath.

Our discussion of the tunable soundscape quickly veered into questions of uncertainty (would we really know what the component sounds were?), veracity (how would we know if we got it right?) and lived experience (what did it sound like to the people of the time?) In the limit we would be faced with the problem raised by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his famous essay "What is it like to be a bat?" Sure, we might make a machine that could convey exactly what it is like for one of us to be a bat, but it still wouldn't tell us what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

For me that raises one of the key benefits of the history appliance idea. We should approach the building of history appliances as a form of critical, reflective practice ... we make things, we design interactions, to give us new routes into the questions that historians have always struggled with.

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