When the question of whether technology can foster international diplomacy arises, people often think of Western governments offering military solutions to the developing world. At MIT, that conversation sometimes proceeds in a different direction. HyperStudio, the Laboratory for Digital Humanities, is working on a more peaceful way to harness creative technological options to facilitate diplomatic relations through a project titled US-Iran: Missed Opportunities (1997-2005). The project explores the period of Mohammad Khatemi’s presidency and asks why bilateral relations between Iran and the US did not improve in that period. As such, it is amongst HyperStudio’s widest projects in scope in terms of collaboration, adaptive potential, and political and academic import. At the same time, the project continues to further HyperStudio’s commitment to making online scholarship more dynamic.
US-Iran: Missed Opportunities is a collaborative project, joining the expertise of the Center for International Studies (CIS) at MIT, the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, the National Security Archive at George Washington University (GWU), and MIT’s HyperStudio. John Tirman, executive director of CIS, is a foreign policy expert who specializes in projects related to the Persian Gulf; Janet Lang and Jim Blight at Brown University developed the concept of critical oral history that has been applied to projects such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War and also drives the US-Iran project; Malcolm Byrne at GWU, who has written widely on Iran, specializes on research of classified documents; HyperStudio has been charged with bringing a conceptual framework, political sensitivity, and a wealth of materials together through a highly engaging and innovative research platform.
The research platform that will house both English-language and Farsi-language policy documents is HyperStudio’s primary contribution to the project. The platform aims to empower scholars and policy makers to collaboratively investigate and interpret the digital repository of documents. As the Director of HyperStudio Kurt Fendt puts it, “for this project, the goal of the platform is to support the political dialogue among policy makers and scholars from both sides.”
On the nuts-and-bolts level, the research platform comprises a multifaceted browser that allows for creative engagement with and different representations of the core materials in the online database. In addition to policy documents, these materials include historical documents, news articles, personal correspondence between policy makers, and some video content. The interface integrates and interlinks these materials so as to reveal spatial and temporal relationships in the content uploaded by both sides. The platform also highlights clusters of importance where additional research can be conducted. “Our system will allow scholars and policy makers to see a visual representation of when changes happen, where information clusters, and when certain social practices evolve. You can trace one actor, one location, or one issue through the entire digital repository,” explains Fendt. In addition—as a decisive step towards digital scholarship—researchers have the possibility to create their interpretations and arguments about a specific topic, set of materials, or events in wiki-like multimedia documents called “narratives.” Live links to the materials in the repository function as references and allow the community of scholars to follow the author’s reasoning, thus creating a basis for further discussion among the community.
Most importantly, the dynamism of the research platform will not be restricted to the US-Iran project alone. Titled Repertoire, the research platform has been developed with adaptability in mind and can be extended to different functionalities without having to rewrite the base software. Since the platform has been developed in conversation with scholars who are invested in using new media technologies to improve academia, Repertoire can be used to investigate projects from a variety of disciplines. Currently, HyperStudio plans to deploy the platform in several other projects, including the Comédie Française Performance Archive, Global Shakespeare, and Tories, Timid, or True Blue, an online educational environment providing access to the Old North Church’s archives.