It has transformed it in many ways. Digitisation of archives means we can search records and primary source material from the comfort of our own offices. Some old-school historians are furious about this, actually. A perk of the job used to be that you could travel abroad and work in an archive somewhere quite glamorous for weeks on end. Now we stay at home and do it online. For me, though, even more exciting is how it has allowed us to reach out to people. It’s made history collaborative and accessible. I can tweet about what I’m working on, and people will suggest ideas or come up with documents. It has opened a pipeline between geeky history people like me and the rest of the world. We used to just publish in academic journals, now we can share our research with huge numbers of people. And I love showing off and telling people what I’m up to!
Has it changed making history for TV?
Massively. I’ve made programmes with dramatic reconstruction, CGI, stop-frame, everything. I’ve just finished making a BBC film about myths of the first world war and the whole thing is CGI animation. It doesn’t involve me walking around a field, being a bore. There are visual representations of how many people died, action sequences, funny bits, cool music … It’s profoundly exciting. But the beauty of it is, man or woman walking around a field hasn’t died out either. That’s still going on. So are radio lectures. A rising tide floats all boats. Technology just gives you more choice. It allows you to work out the best way to engage an audience and bring alive what you’re trying to describe.
What’s the most impressive hi-tech artefact you’ve come across?
If you’re interested in innovation and technology, that applies to all eras. When you handle an 18th-century Brown Bess musket or a first world war Vickers machine gun – weapons spring to mind because they’re often at the cutting edge of technological change – or John Harrison’s marine chronometer, they take your breath away. It’s unbelievably exciting to witness something that has changed our world.
Via Farshad Nayeri.