Timelines, historian of memory Maurice Halbwachs writes, are mnemonic schemesfor immobilizing the past in fixed sequences. They are chronologies, the simplest form of narrative: narrative with the explanation stripped out. And of course, evensophisticated narrative is challenged today from all sides. Historians of memorywant to put facts into their own mnemonic schemes; historians of the longue duréewant to step outside of traditional narrative; postmodern historians want to do innarrative altogether.
Narrative and its younger brother, the timelinefrom thebegats of the Bible to lists of monarchs to the rise and fall of civilizationare placeswhere the appearance of inevitability serves political power.Beyond the philosophy of narrative history built into the timeline, there are otherproblems in what they suggest about historical change. We dont, in fact, walk through time; we stay in one place in the river of time, picking the direction we want to head in. That is, we make choices about what we should do next, and we makethem without knowing whats coming down the river of time. This is, from theperspective of the teacher, the most important failing of the timeline; it argues forthe inevitability of history. It eliminates the choices that were made. It suggests that there were no alternatives; timelines have no branches of paths not taken. Thetimeline makes us think that history is shaped with perfect foresight; that what happened had to have happened. It works well with a Whig history that suggeststhat the past must have led to the present, along the path that it did. The timelineseems like a pathway that we had to have followed, rather than a photograph of awell-worn path that weve taken.The timeline is an abstraction, and the differences of our experiences of the timelineand actual historical time is worth considering, as a place to start thinking about thepower and distortions of the timeline as interface.
At its most fundamental, the timeline is a kind of visualization, and like allsuch interface abstraction, it brings events or artifacts into groupings,
unified sets of data,´ making them more than discreet, individual objects.´
Itconnects bits in a structured way, and the creator of the timeline is the one whochooses that structure.
The timeline is an edited version of the flow of time. We pick and choosewhat to include, and what goes where.
The timeline lets us artificially alter our speed and focus. This is the brillianceof timeline, of course; it abstracts in useful ways. We can zoom in and out,
Jacques Le Goff, Is Politics Still the Backbone of History?,
100, no. 1(January 1, 1971): 119. Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. Francisand Vida Ditter (1950; New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 78-106. ADD also HaydenWhite
Treveor Owens and Jefferson Bailey, From Records to Data with Viewshare: AnArgument, An Interface, A Design, 2012, 2; More generally, see Martyn Jessop,Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,
Literary and Linguistic Computing
23,no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 281293.