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I am a computer science undergrad with a great interest in history. Lately I have been asking myself if there are general aspects or specialties of computer science which lend themselves to the study of history. Given that I would likely find any such combination of great interest and others here would too, I thought this would be a good topic to ask here. Not only are there potentially other technically mind people, but also history professionals who may already be working with specific computer technology, methods, and algorithms.

  • Brownie points for those who provide specific references of potentially applicable technology (such as algorithms, programs, methodology, etc.)
  • Super OMG points for those who provide specific avenues of research which combine the study of history with approaches from computational disciplines.

I have some specific examples which I will provide in the answer section if there is some confusion over the general question or if answers are not necessarily forthcoming.

P.S. - I understand that this is a question that may be better suited to another forum (or to two forums?). I understand if the community feels that this question needs to be migrated.

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As someone with a degree in history, and a degree in computer science I would say that the only way the two are combined is by computer science serving history. As @sbi stated anything surrounding the manipulation of databases would be the most beneficial tools from computer science. The study of history is inherently subjective because you are trying to determine cause and effect from a wide variety of inputs. Ultimately, the decision on what inputs are important, and their relative importance, is subjective. So you could have a huge database of inputs, but they might be irrelevant. –  ihtkwot Mar 27 '12 at 13:44
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Agreed, as someone with a degree in history and working in software I find the two disciplines complimentary at most. History is more subjective with cause and effect under analysis and interpretation while computer science is mathematically precise and looking for solutions to problems. While computers can help to find patterns in historical records they are not as good at interpreting those patterns, which may all be individually interpreted. CompSci can help manage the data but interpreting it is going to be subjective. –  MichaelF Mar 28 '12 at 17:07
    
This question really doesn't fit the SE criteria, but considering the amount of discussion I am going to move it to the community wiki. –  Steven Drennon Apr 27 '12 at 16:35
    
Actually, in some of the PhD in History programs I considered applying to in the early 1980s candidates were expected to graduate with two additional "tools." One of them had to be a foreign language, but the second tool could be either a second foreign language, or statistical/computer programming proficiency. –  Tom Au Jun 2 '13 at 18:48
    
@BrotherJack-I do not understand this question at all: Every human endeavor has the potential for historical examination - our activities and developments do not spontaneously arise out of nowhere. What do you mean by "general aspects or specialties of computer science which lend themselves to the study of history?" The list is as long as an enumeration of all computer technologies would be: Development of C;Development of Cobol;Development of relational database theory;Development of networking;Development of GUI based OS's (I have now run out space and my list is just getting started...) –  Vector Jul 20 '13 at 10:36
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9 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The first thing that came to my mind reading your question certainly is data storage and retrieval. History often is a lot of documents. Databases can be immensely helpful for storing, accessing, and cross-referencing large piles of (historical) data, and complex algorithms can be used to analyze such data. Computer analysis can also be very helpful in decoding forgotten writing systems and languages.

Another common application is algorithms helping archaeologists to do their work. For example, algorithms are used to analyze satellite images to identify likely spots to find artifacts (the remainings of old settlements are often small hills), or create 3D models of settlements, palaces, and temples. (Contrary to popular believe, archeology doesn't only deal with prehistory, but is also concerned with finding proof of what can be found in old texts.)

Quite a daring application is the extrapolation of the future from the history. Meadows/Meadows/Randers/Behrens did that in the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth study in the early 70s (and in the 90s with the sequel Beyond the Limits):

  1. Find an set of algorithms which, given a specific starting point in history, model the development of the earth/humanity/industry/whatever correctly up to the present.
  2. Let the algorithm continue into the future.

The results are, basically, a prediction of the future, based on which mankind could perform corrective actions.

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I'm not sure I understood the question, but this does look like a nice answer... –  Lohoris Mar 27 '12 at 7:49
    
This is a good answer, however, the trick is asking the right questions, and inputting the right data. Since what is, or isn't the right data, is a matter of subjective interpretation any sort of predictor will simply not work. –  ihtkwot Mar 27 '12 at 13:38
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@ihtkwot: If that was true, all weather forecasting would be in vain. Fortunately, you're wrong. –  sbi Mar 27 '12 at 13:47
    
@sbi objectively observable weather phenomena are not the same as the various inputs that cause a revolution. It seems a little silly to even have to type that. –  ihtkwot Mar 27 '12 at 13:51
    
@ihtkwot: Ah, we had a misunderstanding then. Just as the weather forecast only talks about rain probability, and often cannot say with much certainty whether it will rain in a specific town, extrapolating the future from the past according to a specific model can only tell you about general trends and probabilities (think "wars for water"), but cannot predict a specific revolution. (What these scientists do is to create a mathematical model that, given the relevant data for, say, 1800, predicts a 2010 scenario that matches the 2010 reality. And then they just let it run a bit further.) –  sbi Mar 27 '12 at 19:15
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Although I'm not an expert in the field, it is my understanding that we would not be able to reach much of the Dead Sea Scrolls without modern image processing. (And in the absence of digitization the documents would be available to a far smaller group of scholars).

And only recent image processing has revealed the secret of the subject smear, which is a kind of neat insight into Jefferson's thoughts while drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Of course we wouldn't know that we had found Richard III without computer facilitated DNA comparision.

Computers were used in Bayseian analysis of the Federalist papers to determine authorship. Second source with more details. This was an early effort, so the effort was combined digital/manual; subsequent efforts have used far more digital techniques. This may fit your "super OMG" category.

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As sbi noted, relational databases can be used for analyzing historical data. A specific example comes from the scholarly work The First Crusaders, 1095-1131 by renowned crusade scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith. This book focuses on studying the first generation of crusaders. In the introduction Riley-Smith explains how he used an Oracle database to store basic information about men and women associated with crusading, pilgrimage, and settlement in the Holy Land during this period. The system provided a way to produce family trees, identify points of contact between groups of people, and identify trends in the data.

Aside from relational databases, history and computer science can intersect in entertainment, such as historical video games. Many games take place in a historical setting, and historical knowledge would be useful for producing such games. Some games, such as The Falklands War 1982, clearly attempt to make historical accuracy one of their selling points.

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It's a fascinating question. One of the greatest contributions of computer science to the study of history is the fact that people created computer science, which is based on logic. There is quite a long process between the invention of logic, and it's encoding into the physical realm through machine logic. This fact sheds a bright light on your search for an algorithm.

I suppose you would expect to find something meaningful from such an endeavor? Perhaps you think that if you succeeded at finding these algorithms that "mankind could perform corrective actions" as it says in your accepted answer. These 'corrective actions' could have profound effects on history. Might that be the purpose of your search?

But the thing you search for negates and obviates the very purpose of your search.

There is a logical error in the purpose of your search, because the computer algorithms you search for would not be able to account for the fact that man's actions are purposive. In fact such purpose would 'break' your algorithm.

Imagine your algorithm trying to account for the fact that you thought you could find an algorithm of history, thought you had found it, and then performed "corrective action". Then imagine that there are millions of other people, with millions of other even wilder ideas also trying to perform corrective actions using their own computer or other types of algorithms.

For further analysis of this fascinating problem you should probably read "Theory and History" by Ludwig von Mises: http://mises.org/th.asp. It is a theory of history which includes the fact that when we act we act with purpose, which would be why you are asking the question in the first place.

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Your argument is consistent, but it should be mentioned that this is an controversional point of view that a lot of people (including me) do not share. A less strict argument in a similar vein is the Lucas critique. –  Jørgen Aug 2 '12 at 9:34
    
It would be illuminating if you could shed some light on which point you do not agree on. And what do you mean that the argument is "strict"? –  Mark Stouffer Aug 5 '12 at 6:23
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Attempts to produce quantitative history, ie cliometrics within Economic history; may make more computationally intensive demands than traditional text interpretation. This kind of economic history is not viewed as a core element of the discipline. The computational requirements are probably computationally boring from a theoretical perspective; and, replication from an applied perspective.

Regarding history par history, historians regularly require the service of information professionals:

  • Librarians
  • Curators
  • Archivists
  • Records officers

we can probably add a couple here,

  • Database architects
  • Data structure analysts
  • OCR theorists
  • Semantic analysts
  • GIS coding and analysis designers

But this is very much a service relationship, with the profession of semantically oriented computer scientists serving the needs of historians, much like archivists serve the needs of historians but are a profession unto themselves.

Obviously solving AI will solve history—if the AI is cheaper than training historians. But that isn't really a "problem" specific to history; it is the specific implementation of a general problem.

We can reverse this—historians could well serve computer science through an analysis of the conduct and engagement of the discipline. I've read a decent monograph on scale and funding waves and the development of multiple distinct types of computing company. It suggests that old models retain their utility in domains where old funding structures and old systems-of-problems remain.

There's no real transdisciplinary space; but maybe there is room for project level interdisciplinary cooperation. From what I've generally seen of the concept of "Digital Humanities" it appears to be an ark to save literary criticism from institutional execution; and the few historians who participate participate more as information professionals than as historians.

ymmv.

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I'll separate my answer into two: ancient history and modern history.

Ancient history

Personally, I think the most interesting and very "new" field is the use of DNA analysis to study ancient human migrations. See for example the Wikipedia article Models of migration to the New World and Mitochondrial Eve. This field uses information that has survived up until today (sort of like archaeology) but that is too complex and numerous to understand simply by "looking at it" (there is also some applications in archeology more directly, as discussed in a different answer here) and where there are no written sources. I am no biologist but if I was 19 again this field is something I would have seriously considered aiming for. Think about it: for most of the history of humans we have no written or sources - no names of empires, wars, kings or anything - only what we can dig up, what we can infer from language relationship (another possible field! See computational linguistics though I don't know if that article has any historical applications) and from genetics.

No idea about how the actual practical research works but I imagine it has to have a lot of algorithms and computation... some references to research papers are in the Wikipedia article and in other articles linked from those.

Modern (and "early modern") history

For more modern periods, there is a lot of data that is complex and needs algorithms to be made sense of. This is not only the case for the last decades; rich census data is available for some countries from at least the mid-1800s and has to a large extent already been digitized. See for example the data sets at http://www.ipums.org/. For more recent periods, most aspects of economic history can involve some sort of computation, in particular if there is a lot of data. Google "cliometrics", "econometrics" and look into economic history in general. A lot of this might be more statistics than computer science, though.

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I don't consider any of DNA analysis, computational linguistics, cliometrics, or econometrics to be computer science. –  Charles Aug 2 '12 at 19:34
    
Arguing that archaeological anthropology is "history" is dubious too. –  Samuel Russell Jun 3 '13 at 22:44
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I have degrees in Informatics and Cognitive Sciences (which is a mixture of sciences but traditionally not yet the "history faculty"). I had this discussion 15 years ago with persons from the history faculty and the first thing I think of is ofcourse Asimov and Harry Seldon)

I read this as "can we pull the history faculty in cognitive science"

I think this is because just "pure history + it" will result in answers as above "finding algorithms in data", which will be of less use. So what is missing is the human itself as indicated above.

Luckily we have a thirds batch of sciences: the social behavioural sciences along with neurophysics which more and more conclude that the behind the complexity of humans there is actually a system and possibly only a system and no "strange undetermined something attached".

So i suspect now that "social network sciences" are becoming more mature (e.g. how does communication flow in a network, how do humans networks work) and if we can analyze human networks and how information and memes flow between humans based on data archives like e.g. http://kranten.kb.nl/ (all newspapers since 1616)(*) where we correlate human behaviour and group behaviour (the latter which simpler than 1 human) to flow of information between humans within a certain cultural context we will make some nice steps.

I also agree that it will not be a science that will influence since these group behaviours are difficult to steer. However analyzing and predicting human groups behaviour based on historical material and finding new social history patterns seems a pretty logical next step.

(so summary: especially include the behavioural science faculties including cognitive science and the new social network sciences to create this new science).

Where somewhere at the end of this discussion the "free will" discussion takes place (but probably that is key to every behavioural science department) (and yes cliche)

(*) I suspect we need sentences and words by people used of different kinds of groups that lead to group behaviour as found in newspaper interviews and reports. I think data archives with pure statistical data are of less use. (but obviously including cultural context, dna, mathematics, it algorithms, and lots of other sciences combined though humans are key) or as Asimov / Harry Seldon has put: Psychohistory.

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sorry for my poor english. I've been searching for computer applications in history in particular too. I read a lot of papers and some books about. Recently to sitematize that material, under a historic criterium (i.e.), organize the material in a way to document the computting applications in history trough the tiem. The first work that I collect about was the work authored by Edward Porter "The Computer and Historian"(1971). Porter describes some tips (obviously outdated) to apply in the treatment of historical sources. Later he describes some applications. In 70's, a journal called "Historical Methods", gathered applications of computer softwares and quantitative techniques. In mid 90's, the Association for History and Computing published a newsletter and a series of parpar in the same spirit. The papers are still on line. Recently, the computing applications are encompassed under the umbrella term "Digital Humanities", embracing applications far beyond database development. In 2013, Universidade de São Paulo USP sponsored a international seminar about the Digital Humanities. Hope that help you. PS. Actually I working in a digitaion project of historical sources in Brazil.

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I have been a software architect and developer by trade for 20 years, and frankly, I do not understand this question: Every human endeavor has the potential for historical examination - our activities and developments do not spontaneously arise out of nowhere. All our experiences and activities become manifest gradually (incrementally?) within the framework of time and can therefore be examined 'historically'.

"General aspects or specialties of computer science which lend themselves to the study of history?" The list is as long as an enumeration of all computer technologies would be: Development of Assembler; Development of Cobol; Development of Fortran; Development of C; Development of relational database theory ; Development of networking technology; Development of GUI based OS's; Development of magnetic storage devices; development of laser based storage devices; Development of high density processors; Development of volatile memory technologies; Development of firmware technologies... and we are just getting started!

Take any book about technology: Invariably, in the preface or introduction some historical context and information will be given regarding the technology to be discussed. That is your starting point for the historical examination of any computer technology you care to explore, and you will be well rewarded for the effort: Each technology has an interesting and easily documented history behind it.

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