The Spatial Turn

Working my way through this week’s readings, I felt like there was a lot of information, and new concepts, to digest and understand.  Many times, I diverted from the reading itself to Google terms contained in the reading – KLM, GIS, SQL and assorted other terms.  Keeping my dictionary by my side for “palimpsest” and “panopticism” was helpful as well! J  (special thanks to Guldi)  I found the lexicon a bit overwhelming at times, because it required first knowing the terms themselves, and second, understanding how they relate to the concepts contained in the reading.    Conversely, I feel I am beginning to grasp the breadth and depth of the digital history field.   It is amazing to me now that prior to this course, my primary understanding of history was through reading and museums.  The more I learn about digital history, the more I feel that I have been getting only half the story.

Beginning with last week’s readings on visualization, the Hypercities article demonstrated again how much more effectively a visual presentation can be than a written presentation.  Reading through the text explanation of Hypercities proved challenging, and I admit I was a bit lost.  Struggling through the stereotypical student’s challenge of reading a sentence three times without really understanding what I read, I decided to go straight to the websites to see if I could actually “see” what they were talking about.

What a difference!  The YouTube videos on the Hypercities projects showed me exactly what the authors were trying to accomplish, usually in a 2-3 minute presentation.  This was a vastly more effective and efficient method of presenting information. Why do I mention this?  In last week’s reading, we talked about visualization and presenting information.   In an article all about presenting information through maps, the reading was much more effective for me as visually presented information!

Some of the most impressive aspects of Hypercities included the variety of viewing cities across eras.  I appreciated how one could “walk” through a city, through three-dimensional pictures and over years, decades and even millennia.   I especially enjoyed the charting of events in Tehran in 2009.   This 21st century presentation tool seems tailor-made for 21st methods of recording history – YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, newsfeeds and videos from CNN.   It amazed me to watch the events of 2009 unfold in a matter of clicks, and how much more comprehensive an understanding of the election protests one could have by walking through the Hypercities collection.  Where else could one find a map of the protests, a timed chronology of events, with links to videos, pictures and news stories all in one?

I also appreciated the academic discussion about sustainability, creating and expanding the website (opening it to more public contributions) and goals of the website.  The fact that this is run out of UCLA, USC and CUNY take this far beyond anything like Wikipedia or other such media outlets.  This offers academic credibility to the collections, which can be used as teaching tools, or background research for graduate students.   I laughed when they quoted Kathleen Fitzpatrick, for I was thinking of her as I read the article.   They seem to be of a similar mind when it comes to putting academically credible content on publicly available domains, and making it a collaborative effort.  White discusses this further in his article on the Spatial History Project, indicating that it is actually not possible for academics to do this kind of work individually.  This runs counter to historians’ normal operating procedures in focusing their efforts as individual efforts.  Spatial history, Hypercities, and other similar projects could cause a fundamental, dare I say, paradigmatic shift in how historians approach their research.  I hope that it does.  I believe that the academic community and the larger public (our audience) would benefit tremendously from these new approaches to history.

The creators have obviously spent a significant amount of time and effort to put this website together, to think about long-term sustainability and implications of the website (regarding server accessibility and size, content, usability).  They have purposefully rejected using commercial servers because of the possibility of losing information, either because the “data disappears when the lease is over” or because commercial servers may not always be available (as in the case of Flickr and the Smithsonian).  They have also acknowledged the fragile nature of the website, and are keeping it closed to changes from the general public.

The time and effort required to create these projects is not insignificant.  It takes a lot of effort to put together a visualization or presentation well.  Liu’s point about PowerPoint presentations is well taken (in that they can leave a viewer with a reaction of “of course that makes sense”), if we assume that the presenter put the necessary amount of thought, planning and effort into conveying the information simply.  This requires a time, and a good understanding of the material one is trying to convey.  It is more than putting bullet points straight on a slide, and then reading those bullet points.

Admittedly, my skepticism comes from years working in the Defense Department, where Power Point presentations are the de facto method of putting information together.  However, they often fail to accomplish their original purpose.  They tend to fall into two categories.  First, they consist of words on a slide, which may have been more effectively and efficiently put into a simple information paper.  In either case (PPT or information paper), the presenter is asking the recipient to read.  Or, the presenter spend a lot of time on complex graphics, complicated organizational charts and “eye-charts” (by that we mean a chart that is so large and contains so much information that one cannot possibly understand or comprehend all of it in one glance – and are not actually meant to do so) that the meaning in the presentation (if the presenter understood what he was trying to convey at all) is lost.

I do not want to end this post on a negative note (and I want to conclude, for I have reached Professor Leon’s “thousand word limit” on blogs!), for I feel great potential exists in these tool to convey information, teach history and increase collaboration amongst historians.  But like anything else, these new tools and methods require an understanding of how to use them, and what information or knowledge is being conveyed and requires a significant amount of planning to account for sustainability, credibility and usability.

One comment

  1. Your post made me think about visualizations as an effective way to present history. With a seemingly endless acceleration of digital technology, I am starting to feel like visualizations and interactions might be the future of the field as opposed to written text.

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