The 9th Tensions of Europe conference
Decoding Europe: Technological Pasts in the Digital Age
When investigating the ‘technological pasts in the digital age’ — the sub-title of the 2019 conference — it is obvious that the histories of Europe that we will be writing in the years to come must rely heavily on digital source material. Parts of this material may be digitised versions of analog material, while other parts are born digital since they exist in digital form only, such as the online web which has played a pivotal role in our communicative infrastructure for the last 25 years. And yet other parts may be what I term reborn digital, that is born digital material that has been collected and preserved and that has changed fundamentaly in this process; this is the case with the archived web.
Based on the distinction between digitised, born digital and reborn digital this keynote starts by mapping some of the tensions that are inherent in Europe’s reborn digital source material, namely the archived web. Throughout Europe (and beyond) the online web has been collected, preserved and made available in so many different ways that future historians in the European countries will have access to source material of an uneven quality: some countries have preserved entire national web domains, others have preserved parts of these (based on a variety of criteria), and yet others have not preserved anything at all. After having mapped the major trends and tensions related to the creation of national web collections it is discussed how these different forms of available archival web records can affect the national histories to be written, not to mention how these tensions will affect the writing of trans-national European histories.
In 1821, Scottish flower painter Patrick Syme published a sensitive and delicately-rendered update to mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner’s taxonomic Nomenclature of Colors. Syme’s book contains the precisely defined hues and color names that natural historians, explorers, and other agents of empire used throughout the 19th century to create lasting records of a now-vanished world. This book shaped, for instance, Charles Darwin’s formal chromatic vocabulary on the voyage of the Beagle, and it influenced not only the colors that were cataloged in the past, but perhaps even what it became possible for Europeans to see — both then and now. The Smithsonian Institution has recently digitized, color-corrected, and re-printed Symes’ edition — and designer and self-professed “data geek” Nicholas Rougeaux has likewise remediated an Internet Archive-digitized copy of the book into an interactive, browsable website, featuring examples of the the Syme-Werner pigments in modern-day photographs of animals, vegetables, and minerals. At a conference on “decoding Europe,” at which historians convene to investigate our shared “technological pasts in the digital age,” this keynote will speculate outward from the historical Nomenclature of Colors to its place in networked digital libraries, biodiversity data repositories, and artificial intelligence approaches to the historical record. How might we use machine learning to identify references to these standardized colors in images and texts throughout Western library collections, and place them into humble conversation with indigenous perspectives on creatures living and lost? And how might the work of archivists, librarians, environmental humanities scholars, and historians of technology — done in the ethical context of indigenous data sovereignty and in deep partnership with communities — influence our future ability to study the shades of the past?