in praise of enforced simplicity

Like many historians, I want to add variables to my studies. Lots of them. What if I can connect my research to this person’s findings? How about riffing on this popular narrative? Contributing new insight on a past study? There is an incredible temptation to add things simply because one can. History is not just the production of isolated bodies of knowledge; it’s a conversation with established scholars, graduate students, source bases, and places. Why not add more connections to whatever work one produces? It’s as if the discipline is one big pinball machine, and each carom is a new synaptic connection formed between one’s own work and a pre-existing one. Did it touch this certain button? Congratulations—5,000 extra points.

The problem is this: more variables do not necessarily mean more insight. Sure, your work might appear in more Google searches. And it might eventually land you in the same sentence as another important scholar. But at the same time, you risk cacophony. Think of your favorite historical monograph. Are there times it tries to do too much? Sure—there’s an overachieving streak in most historians that will never be completely quelled. Chances are, though, that the most powerful points in this monograph are the ones stated in the simplest terms. If your evidence/data works well, then logical conclusions should flow naturally.

My Digital Humanities seminar has taught me the beauty of simplicity. No, I haven’t sold all my possessions; I don’t live in a creepily unfurnished room like Rust Cohle in True Detective. But, since experiencing about HTML, CSS, Javascript, and QGIS, I’ve been enamored with simple commands. It’s often repreated that computers aren’t smart, just good at following directions (a criticism I’ve leveled at myself throughout the years). Need a computer to develop your thesis statement? You’re out of luck. Need it to print a certain message? Just use console.log. Need to see points on a map? Just load a vector layer. Computers are powerful, to be sure, but they can’t reason. That’s why we have to tell them exactly what to do. And you know what? That’s great practice for us in the humanities.

‘Simple’ isn’t necessarily a compliment for historians, but maybe it should be. Computers prompt us to boil our analysis down to the most elementary commands. They don’t care what theory we’re using or who we’re citing; they don’t even care about our sources. They do, however, need simple commands phrased understandably—no jargon allowed. Again, this is great practice. It’s also a great litmus test: if your argument can’t be understood by a computer, maybe it needs a bit of refining. Most scholars use computers for research and word processing. I think I’ll add ‘writing coach’ to that list.

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