Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Timesearch timelines, memory, narratives

A few days ago I saw Charles Arthur's note in the Guardian about Bamber Gascoigne's new search engine, Timesearch, which produces timelines. I agree that 'this really is a fascinating new wrinkle on the idea of search, at least academically'; he's also right that '[i]t's easier to use than to explain in words'. I'm sure they're working on it as we speak, but it's true, too, that it's not that good.

You can search geographically: for the world; for some regions, including, implicitly, the Middle East if you select West Asia and explicitly, though inexplicably, for 'Turkey in Europe' if you select East Europe; and for some countries, but not, for example, Cyprus.

You can also search thematically, from politics, religion and society down to dance, epic literature and weapons. You choose what date you wish the timeline to begin and it appears to presume you mean before the common era (B.C.E.), as it has "B.C." above it, but it sometimes doesn't understand you, so if you enter 1974, for instance, it will produce a timeline from A.D. 1974, rather than from 1974 B.C.E., to the present.

Discussing digital archives and digital culture's potential to impoverish the future study of history, including family historians' fears that 'we're in danger of wiping out our collective memory by over-relying on emails and other transient electronic formats', Matthew Weaver worried, 'can we rely on Google not to mess with our collective memory?'

Timelines are inevitably histories of events, of Things That Happened, rather than of the individuals, groups, communities, et al who - and their developments and movements that - caused those events. Obviously, a timeline is a particular form of narrative with recognised limitations, which do not render it worthless.

Nevertheless, as Yiannis Papadakis pointed out, the narratives that different parties to a conflict produce are partly dependent upon different structures - different timelines. It would be interesting to see which events are included and excluded from the histories that Timesearch writes, to see whether its timelines will "mess with our collective memory", or whether they will serve to reunite divided narratives and to reconcile conflicting understandings of communities' histories.

I think Charles Arthur was a little too enthusiastic about it, but maybe it was its potential he was impressed by and it certainly has that; but even if it isn't improved upon, it was worth it for the very idea, for the novel approach and perspective, because, as Charles Arthur observed, 'searching by time - rather than by "reputation" - is something that one would never have realised that the web was missing until it came along'.

Currently, it's only really useful for children at primary school or lower secondary school, or for others confirming dates of events (if they're important enough to be listed in the non-specific, thematic searches' results), but, hopefully, Timesearch's timelines will get better and better and become a truly powerful tool for producing narratives, preserving memory and promoting understanding.

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