How Mobile Tech Teaches History

Mobile Tech Teaches HistoryWhen we think about history in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, we tend to think of it in broad strokes. There were old-timey people in wagons, possibly dancing a delighted jig thanks to gold, then there was the earthquake, then a pretty hazy period punctuated by private detectives, followed by hippies, and then today. That’s generally how we process the creaking movements of history: easily-demarcated periods that don’t really have a connection to one another.

It’s an inaccurate way to look at it, but understandable. Until very recently, it was very difficult for any but the most-determined to study history in-depth. You had a few good books, but they were understandably limited (my favorite is The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury, a history of crime by the Gangs of New York author). Even people who really loved history had limited options. Mobile tech has changed all of that. It is now incredibly easy and fun to immerse yourself in history, to get competing voices and opinions through a variety of apps, games, and more.

History Apps

Obviously, one of the most important things a smartphone can do is give you unlimited information just by Googling something. If you want to ask “what happened in San Francisco on this day in history?” you can literally just say it into your phone. But history is a jumbled and strange cacophony (especially on the internet), and the heart of apps is making these disparate threads of information more accessible.

The best history apps will give you not just names and dates, but insights, laid out in an easily-readable and often interactive fashion. Timeline, for Android and iOS, gives a “this day in history” look back, with the ability to explore deeper into a subject. There are apps that have functions as widespread as reading The Book Of Kells with annotations or looking at how “The Illiad” related to real-life historical events.

We’re still early in the development of history apps, but we got a feel for what they could be like with the plethora of Civil War apps that sprang up for the 150th anniversary. These apps took you on a “this day in the Civil War” journey, with maps, battle plans, first person accounts, and the broader social-political overview. These features can be very specific, which will open up whole new worlds of immersive and interactive experiences of history, as we’ll get into below.

History Podcasts

Probably the most exciting thing about smartphones and tablets in the Information Age is that the kind of education you used to pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for is now nearly free. Top educators and experts and historians love recording their lectures, or creating whole new ones, so if there is something you are interested in, you can learn it from the best via podcast. It is a giddy world of exploration, and the field of history is leading the way.

One of the top podcasts include Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, the wildly popular series that combines a breezy and understandable tone with impeccable research and a great sense of both the micro and macro level of history in any given moment. Your author can personally attest to its power, as he has had several poker nights turn into long-winded conversations about World War I thanks to the podcast.

As podcasts like these get more popular, they will continue to be become more focused, allowing you to really learn about very specific areas. Microhistorians, interested in one thing, will be there to fill the knowledge gaps of your niche interests. Want the history of the Mission, or Brentwood, or San Mateo? There will soon be a podcast for that.


For a long time, the most history you could get in games was the history of how the Contras fought extraterrestrial communists in the Nicaraguan jungles. That’s changed. Games are now rich in historical detail which meshes seamlessly with the gameplay. The most well-known games are those of war, which work to recreate just what it was like to be there (the assault on the Reichstag in Call of Duty gave me nightmares). Games can reimagine historical movements like the Cold War, in ways that are extremely detailed as to how the politics of the era played out, putting you right inside the minds of low-level spies and big decision-makers alike. The point of these games is to educate, but also to give you sympathy for what it was like to be there. Sometimes history can be written at 10,000 feet. The best games put you at the ground level in a very tactile way. That can open up the world of the past more than 100 books can.

The Immersive Interactive Experience

This is more speculation, but based on trends. Think back to the app section, and picture other apps. You can open up an app right now that, based on your location, can tell you the best restaurants, or what nearby stores are having a sale. Imagine this for history: a hyper-localized and detail-rich historical experience called up just by opening up an app.

There will come a day, soon, when tapping on your smartphone or tablet will give you a truly enhanced historical look at where you are. If you are downtown, your phone will be able to geotarget your location and give you information about everything that happened on that corner. It will bring up pictures of what that exact spot looked like in 1960 and 1890 (assuming photos exist, of course). It will tell you what lies beneath the ground: a history of the BART, and sewage lines, and where the water comes from. It will show you architectural history of the buildings. You’ll be be able to basically watch the city build up through the years around you, truly immersing you in the past. It’s even more amazing to think about what this could be like when glasses tech really becomes mainstream (and it will). You’ll be able to walk around with one eye on the present, and the past flowing through the other. The “history as a stream” metaphor will never be more apt.

There’s no such thing as totally, objectively true history. Even the most meticulous researchers can only give us a collection of, by definition, limited accounts. The process of historical study is to gather up as much information as you can, and try to mold that into something that is as close to a recreation of the past as possible. With its endless access to information, mobile tech allows us to do that on our own. It allows us to indulge our passions, hear from the most knowledgeable experts, participate in the arguments, and soak in history.

The difficult and exciting thing about the past, as John Hodgman said, is that there is always more of it. That makes it hard to wrap our heads around, but it is easier now than ever. Mobile tech is not just about shaping the future. It is about giving us unlimited access to what came before.

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