8 June 2022

MDOH: The Forward-View with Douglas Lambert and Alexander Freund

The first in the Multimodal Digital Oral History seminar series welcomed speakers Douglas Lambert (University of Buffalo) and Alexander Freund (University of Winnipeg).

The recording of the seminar can be accessed here: Multimodal Digital Oral History: The Forward-View Seminar 1

Firstly, Douglas’ paper, Audio/video thematic indexing: meaning mapping for oral history access and usage, introduced the recent history of indexing for oral history recording as well as an overview of some key indexing software that he has been involved in developing through his own research career and with The Randforce Associates. These are:, Interclipper, OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchroniser) and TIM (Timecoding Indexing Module). Speaking to multimodality, Douglas made the point that, in working on different projects, ‘there was no single silver bullet software to be made, you had to always think about combining software and combining tools to make things work…’ He also discussed different conceptual models for indexing, such as the Unit/Story approach to define passages in the oral history interview, and the Non-linear Model that allows for multiple reuses and re-interpretation of an interview. He further discussed segment synopses, metadata tagging, and timecode indexing using OHMS. Douglas concluded by looking back to Frisch’s ‘post-documentary sensibility’ (2006) and asked how sustainable such an idea is, and that we might think of ourselves as cartographers mapping multiple pathways across oral history interview materials. He looked to hybrid models of indexing and transcription and multimedia displays, and suggested that the indexer and the user might be replaced by the ‘cartographer’ and the ‘explorer’.

Alexander’s paper, Historicizing modalities: a few thoughts on oral history under surveillance capitalism, discussed three interlinked aspects of the oral history interview: the political functions of transcripts and archives, the interview as a technology of the self, and the commodification of personal data online. This paper was born of a need to place the methods and the tools we use for oral history in their historical context in order to better understand assumptions and unintended consequences of doing oral history, especially now in an online environment of unregulated internet corporations and commodification of data. Drawing on Foucauldian ideas of the modern subject created by technologies of the self, Alexander traced the emergence of a mass culture of confession and an interview society from the Roman Catholic institution of confession, through state administrations, 19th century medical analyses, and contemporary social media platforms. He asked: ‘If agents of the state have been using for centuries the tools of interviewing, archiving, and indexing to report, pathologize, criminalise, and control people, then what are the implications for oral historians making use of exactly the same tools?’ Finally, Alexander discussed how oral history has become caught up in technologies of surveillance through the political economy of surveillance capitalism, heralded by internet corporations like Google, and lastly reflected on the limitations of the promises of digital technologies, and informed consent in this context, and how oral historians might carve out spaces of autonomy in such a world.

Questions that followed included whether we can speak of standardisation across different oral history indexing systems; whether a paradigm of ‘technologies of the self’ helps us to broaden our understanding of the role of social media platforms as artefacts in processes of self-formation; what might be lost in centring indexing over the full transcription; questions concerning subjectivity and the in/visibility of the interviewer, indexer, or transcriber; and whether oral history can escape the dangers of commodification in a digital world.

- Hannah K. Smyth, 24 June 2022

8 June 2022