The city as research lab

We study cities, in our case Amsterdam, in the broadest possible sense of the word. The city as it is documented, experienced, planned and imagined, in historical textual and visual sources, but also in the minds of people as  represented in literature and films. The Time Machine, like a macroscope, allows for scalable humanities research.

We can zoom in and out, observe everyday life and micro-stories, but also identify long-term patterns. The historical city is our lab. Or as Charles Tilly put it, the city is a “privileged site for study of the interaction between large social processes and routines of local life”, and the ATM hopes to help unpack this site. Systematic linkage of datasets from heterogeneous sources allows users to ask questions about, for instance, cultural events, everyday life, social relations, or the use of public space in the city of Amsterdam.

A public urban history

How can we bridge the  study of urban history and popular presentation of the urban past? How can be urban history  be relevant beyond academia?  And how does it relate to the challenging topic of heritage? The Amsterdam Time Machine aims to help bridge the fields and datasets of history and heritage, but also to provide a place where the potential and problems in collaborations can be openly discussed. Perhaps we can, for now, call it, borrowing here from Bob Shoemaker, a public facing research resource. This also means we seek collaboration with broader audiences, collectively negotiating history and heritage.

Like many digital history resources, we see space as a means to organise and present information. Systematic linkage of datasets from heterogeneous sources allows users to ask questions about, for instance, cultural events, everyday life, social relations, or the use of public space in the city of Amsterdam. And admittedly, we’re influenced by the spatial turn, when it comes to analysing the role of space and place in historical change and continuity. By the way: in this explanation of the spatial turn in history, Jo Guldi challenges the city as privileged unity of analysis for social-historical research.

 The digital humanities and ‘big’ data of the past

Digital  methods are increasingly common in undergraduate and graduate humanities classrooms, and we think the Time Machine can be used as a social and pedagogical tool. We  develop the Amsterdam Time Machine together with students, this way stimulating students to engage with new technology, collaborate with peers, graduate students, and faculty, and produce tangible scholarship that is publicly visible.

The digitalisation of historical information often leaves researchers with ‘fuzzy’ data. Besides being difficult to read, they are at times too copious for traditional research methods to process. The Amsterdam Time Machine, like other Digital Humanities initiatives, uses computational techniques to process information from the past in a meaningful way, including information stored in visual, linguistic, cartographic material. As these methods process and combine more information, they also allow us to pose more complex questions about the original context the information came from.

Big Data of the Past are expected to lead to data-driven historical simulations, making the past (almost…) as easily accessible as the present. New families of historical search engines, as well as immersive and augmented reality interfaces and other tools, could generate what one could describe as time capsules to seamlessly navigate 2000 years of European history. Thousands of time travellers are already ready to engage in the project, for curating the data, design algorithms and ultimately, to a certain extent, writing a common history of Europe. That approach in turn could apply to other cities, communities and regions of the world.