In his opening talk of the Herrenhausen conference on the Digital Humanities (#dighum1213), Jeffrey Schnapp proposed that the future of the world as a hot spot might be one that is punctuated by increasingly sought after cold spots, places where we are not connected by the digital transfer of data, where we as humans can trust our own senses to make decisions about what it is we see, hear, smell, feel, and express verbally. Rejecting the curation of nature as one that might involve pinning QR codes to trees, Schnapp instead called for another way to make data matter in the human weaving together of narrative to make places meaningful. Digital ecologies, as he termed them, might consist not of us experiencing nature mediated by the digital (sorry, no Google Glass on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail!) but rather by the human observer using the digital device to collect and record data that later is uploaded in what he termed a crowdsourcing of the environment. Citizen science produces knowledge, much as for Luis von Ahn, human computation digitizes millions of books through the use of that annoying Captcha.I was reminded of this vision of a societal relevance of the digital while at a meeting yesterday at Wilkes University with Dr. Holly Frederick, an environmental engineer who is very interested in getting her students involved with the Stories of the Susquehanna project. Alf Siewers and I drove up river to Wilkes to meet with her, Dave Buck, and Dr. Simona Perry (who was present via Skype) to brainstorm about the possibility of bringing in other institutions along the river in what Simona termed this “huge public history project.” Thinking about the kinds of geo-stories students might produce, it became clear that we need a series of institutional anchor points along the river from which students and faculty can go out into the environment and record, collect, collate information. And we also need to build a platform on which this information is shared, some sort of MediaWiki.
The non-profit organization with which Alf and I have been working for quite a few years now, the Chesapeake Conservancy, has several websites for its various river corridor projects (Envision the Susquehanna, Envision the James, for example). On the latter, we find many geo-stories about special places that have been crowd sourced by members of the public, community organizations, and students at universities along the James River. This is what we would like to effect up here on the Susquehanna; send our students out into the environment with iPads, take photos, record notes, record interviews with local people whose memories of the place might soon be lost and come back to our institutions and put them together to publish on the web. Get the local schools involved in the making and curating of history, in taking care of the cultural present and past of their community.
Next Spring (2015) Alf and I will be teaching “Susquehanna Country” again. We certainly want to implement the digital in the curation of the environment. But we also want to educate our students to make their own decisions about the meaningfulness of the place in which they find themselves.