Week 4: Visualizations
It may be that in two hundred years, digital imagery will be as much a part of academia as peer-reviewed academic journals. This is the premise of this week’s readings, the exploration of the idea that scholarly arguments can be made with sustained, creative, appropriate use and debate around the methodology of digital imaging to generate knowledge.
One of the key thematic positions of the readings was the use and limitations of visualizations to humanities scholarship, and the difficulty of applying rigorous academic standards to visual digital mediums.
Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, Martyn Jessop
“Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” by Martyn Jessop, attempts to make the point that increased visual literacy is necessary to society and academia as a whole, and that digital imagery needs to be treated more seriously as a method of creating rigorous secondary sources. Jessop meditates not only on the current paucity of scholarship on this issue, but also on digital visualization’s predecessors: on the use of a museum exhibit, in theater and visual essays, in historical re-enactments, and on the rich possibilities of digital visualization for academics in general.
Jessop makes the point, I think persuasively, that new knowledge can be generated and arguments made with digital images used as texts. In scholarship, there has always been a tendency to focus in on images as an illustration only: a lone representation of some old drawing, painting or photograph, lost in a sea of words. Jessop uses this article to suggest that drawing more out of digital imagery is possible in the search for new knowledge. The use of digital visualization is in scholarly curation to create an argument and show relationships between primary sources previously impossible.
Jessop fit with the day’s themes neatly, bringing up not only the possibilities of digital visualization for academics, but the real dangers of digital visualization being abused or “allowed to seduce” (290) the viewer. These fears are echoed by Guldi, who asserts the need for careful consideration when using digital visualization to avoid pat responses and deceptively simplistic answers to complex subjects, what she calls ‘naivety.’
The point he makes about the low visual literacy not only in the common milieu but also in academia rings a lot of bells. After all, many academics eschew coding, computers, and still fall back on tried-and-true but archaic forms of knowledge-making that recall the limits of typewriters, as opposed to engaging with the new media available. I see that as limiting and dangerous, just as much as Jessop.
The trouble scholars have with digital visualization often boils down to unfamiliarity, and the need for collaboration and thus higher overhead costs, which Blevins talks about later.
To see the possibilities those with low visual literacy are avoiding, Guldi and Blevins’ articles are particularly salient.
The History of Walking and the Digital Turn: Stride and Lounge in London, 1808–1851, Joanna Guldi
The consideration of this text, which meditates on the change in conceptions of walking in nineteenth century London, is far outweighed for our purposes by the usefulness for Guldi and others of the digital tools like Google’s n-gram coming into being to help historians research more effectively. This worked as kind of a case study for why digital visualization is so important to historians: new knowledge, and a previously unrecognized class conception between the virtues of lounging and striding (as well as an explosion of other words for walking with increased urbanization), was created with the invaluable aid of Google’s n-gram, a digital visualization tool. If Jessop’s article suggested a framework of the theory that digital visualization could help the humanities, Guldi’s showed this theory at work in aiding scholarship. Google’s n-gram is also a relatively simple digital visualization tool, which has already been of extreme help to scholars like Guldi. She also successfully pointed out how to avoid previously-discussed ‘naivety’ and do good scholarship with resources like the n-gram, thus pointing to the second theme, of the dangers of digital visualization, which is in part that they’re so simple to run it’s all too easy to draw false conclusions if one isn’t careful and thoughtful about search terms and date constraints, as well as the types of sources preferenced by academics. There is danger in taking an extremely complex topic and reducing it to graphs of key words. On the other hand, there’s danger in focusing in-depth on one text and missing the larger themes available when looking at thousands. This was argued most clearly by Blevins.
Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston and Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston, Cameron Blevins
Cameron Blevins used data mining to locate the imagined geography shown to its readers in two historical Houston newspapers, using a combination of mapping and data sources. Encapsulating both a pragmatic usage of digital visualization to further historical knowledge and a passionate cry for the furthering and use of digital visualization in the study of history, Blevins’ two papers bring our theme to a conclusion. Simply put, Blevins both articulates the use of digital visualization tools like data mining and mapping—uniquely possible with computers but truly impossible without them—and shows that there are actions possible through this method that would take a human scholar three to four years of unreasonably intense study to even try to match. That same amount of study could be done in minutes or seconds with the right computer program. This paper brings into focus our big ideas and major themes of today’s reading: digital visualization is useful for history, and makes inferences possible that could not have been without it, and two, the not-insurmountable difficulty of applying academically rigorous debate and standards to such a newly-emerging field of study.
In short, as Jessop argued, the future of our world is digital and visual, but academic debate and standards hold the key to avoiding what Guldi cautioned against as naivety. Blevins also included a consideration common with Jessop, which is the necessity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work to pull off digital visualization. Blevins’ work would have been impossible without the work of archivists in creating digital versions of these newspapers and the help of computer scientists and programmers.
Things to Think About
- What are the immediate uses and potential pitfalls of digital visualization, to your thinking?
- Do you think digital visualization could reach the same level of academic rigor as traditional journal articles? Do you think they should be better incorporated into history?
- In academia we often think of our papers as entering into the scholarly conversation, the debate that precedes us and will outlive us. How can we foster academic debate, as Jessop suggested, that will improve the usefulness of digital visualization to historians and humanities researchers?
- Guldi calls use of Google’s n-gram for scholarship a part of the ‘digital turn.’ What are some digital tools that have revolutionized the study of history for you? Do you welcome the digital turn, or fear it?