Jon Voss: History and Historypin

            Jon Voss's talk for the Sawyer was something of an outlier among the others so far. Voss isn't an academic and Historypin is not a university-based research project. He started his presentation by playing "Everything in its Right Place" by Radiohead and interspersed with images and video clips, including one from V for Vendetta. The contrast between Voss's background and the audience's made for the most productive part of the discussion.

            The main debate was regarding the essential objective of Historypin. Voss repeatedly made clear that the developers sought a social good over any kind of academic value. Voss and the others on his team have stated that their platform doesn't work well for substantial research questions and they don't want to dedicate resources to this functionality at the expense of their central purpose of building and strengthening communities through technology. Historypin, as admitted by Voss, creates an ephemeral experience and results in mostly trivial historical information. Professors generally would like to utilize Historypin as a new tool for research. It has the potential to offer a new way for researchers to access oral histories in an organized way.  Right now, however, a historian can't approach Historypin with a question and hope to find the answers easily, if at all. To the Historypin team, professors want something fundamentally different out of the platform than what they offer. That the work resulting from a Historypin project is frivolous doesn't really matter, so long as communities come together to produce it.

            I don't think the attitudes represented at Voss's talk are necessarily mutually exclusive and I believe strongly that the work of academics can produce a social good.  Just look at the wave of arguments toward social justice made in the last year made by writers for publications like The Atlantic or The New York Times. All of (the good ones at least) cite historical research, for instance, on redlining or incarceration. Of course, Voss wasn't arguing against this, but he was saying that this tool is not for that purpose. Some might see in this an implicit disregard for the work done by academic historians, but I prefer to think of it differently. Historypin does serve a public good, and while we can debate the extent to which it's making a far-reaching or long-lasting impact, without a doubt, it offers a space for community interaction and is reaching the goals set out by the creators. It's unproductive at this point for a professor to say what Historypin should be, no matter how right they might be about the possibilies it offers. I would suggest that Historypin previews an innovative technological approach toward historical research but it will most likely take a dedicated academic team to realize this potential. As we have seen from Voss's presentation, the relationship between those inside and outside the academy can be both symbiotic and antagonistic, and, especially in realms of technology, I think we should expect to see continual deliberations about the role of both sides in the foreseeable future.