ChronoZoom: Do Technology and the Natural Sciences Make History Easier?

Scholars of history and of the humanities in general take umbrage when scientists lay claim to what they think of as their own territory. ChronoZoom, a project conceived of by a former student at UC Berkeley, Roland Saekow, is the latest attempt by scientists to fit human history inside the natural history of the earth and the cosmos. Funded by Microsoft Research Connections, the project involves a giant digital timeline that allows the user to “zoom” in on particular events (e.g. the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence) without losing sight of the broader chronological context. In Mr. Saekow’s own words,

rather than just a list of dates that you have to memorize and stories that you read about in a book, you can actually see them in time and see [for example] what happened when Newton was making his discovery in other parts of the world, what made it possible for Newton to even come up with those theories, the people that came before him, and how the world changed after Newton. . . . We really hope that we can revolutionize the teaching of history — make it a more exciting subject.

Leaving aside for a moment the caricature of the discipline as consisting of “memorizing dates” and “reading stories in books,” the historian should consider what such a project like ChronoZoom has to offer. Indeed, Mr. Saekow has invited experts to contribute content wherever they see fit. In that spirit, I offer one historian’s suggestions:

  1. For the period from the beginning of human civilization through the early centuries of the Common Era, make the timeline loop back on itself infinitely: people then understood and experienced time as a mythic cycle of eternal recurrence.
  2. Once you reach the point at which time was freed by Christianity to progress on a linear path, be sure to include at the far left of the timeline Genesis and at the far right the Apocalypse. The whole thing should be about 7,000 years long, give or take.
  3. It must be a relief to bring your timeline into the 18th and 19th centuries! There you can finally get rid of the beginning and the end and expand infinitely in both directions. Well, at least until the Big Bang on one end and the death of the universe on the other.
  4. Beside your standard dates in BCE and CE (which already should include a footnote explaining why we don’t use “BC” and “AD” anymore), be sure to insert the corresponding years on the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, etc. calendars. And don’t forget that the fiscal year starts in October, at least in the United States.
  5. When you zoom into each individual and event, be sure to add the multiple futures and pasts that did not happen. Surely things wouldn’t have happened the way they did without some appeal to mythic pasts and counterfactual futures.
  6. For each individual person, be sure to lengthen the years of childhood and of old age. Time moves slower when you’re young and when you’re old.
  7. Also in the individual life, be sure to block all other events in the cosmos except for the paltry few that the person was able to experience directly or hear about from friends, books, newspapers, and the Internet.
  8. Your zoom might not function properly for right-wing Republicans. For them, history stopped in the 1950s.
  9. Ah, and computers aren’t invented until the mid to late 20th century, so really the rest of ChronoZoom should be blank before then.
  10. Come to think of it, all of these alternate temporalities coexist in one form or another. They overlap and contradict each other, always competing for legitimacy. Your “zoom” ought to look more like a trippy kaleidoscope. That might suit Berkeleyans better anyhow.

 

All that is to say that history — or, if you insist, “human” history — is not about chronological progress. Species may evolve over millennia and rocks may change predictably over geological time, but historical time is fickle and doesn’t fit so neatly into standardized segments. Nor does time map so easily onto space.

Not everyone likes taking history courses. Mr. Saekow seems like a bright young man, and I suspect that he received a good grade in the history courses that he nevertheless didn’t enjoy. His mentor Professor Walter Alvarez is a learned geologist whose courses on “big history” have had a salutary influence on generations of students in the sciences. ChronoZoom, furthermore, seems like a fun and potentially useful tool for improving our understanding of history. But one should hesitate and ask what kind of “history” such digital technologies lead us to understand. It is a mono-directional kind of history that privileges the longue durée over the detail, the necessary over the contingent, facts over meanings, being over consciousness, the dominating spectatorial subject over the abject other, positivist analysis over dialectical synthesis, and disembodied time over lived experience. If ChronoZoom opens up new ways to “revolutionize the teaching of history,” it can only be through a critique of the tool’s limitations. Chief among them is that timelines explain nothing — and that’s why history isn’t about memorizing dates or visualizing chronological conjunctures. Indeed, that’s why history isn’t easy.

 

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