Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Timeline Visualizations: A Brief and Incomplete Teleological History (Part 1)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Timelines: the blessing and bane of so many digital humanities projects. While tools like SIMILE’s Timeline have made it easier to represent a series of events within the limited space of the screen, the timeline itself — a visualization so natural, so transparent to most users — is increasingly coming under question as means of depicting the complex network of historical relationships. Given that our understanding of temporal modeling has come to a crossroads (ah yes, yet another linear, spatialized conceptual metaphors for time — they’re almost impossible to escape in the English language!), it seems valuable to indulge in some oversimplified teleological history, and trace how the timeline came to be naturalized as the tool for modeling temporally-related events.

The first modern timeline may well be Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg‘s Carne chronographique, produced in 1753. This fifty-four-foot scrolling history, beginning with Creation, depicts time along a one-axis horizontal grid, with overlapping events laid out vertically.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Carte annotates events with symbols used to visualize the cast of characters involved in his moralist history:

The symbols serve as annotations to the names recorded in the section of the chart labelled “Personages.” Dubourg’s annotations are an assembly of both character-types (martyr, usuper, tyrant, just, bigot, cruel, debaucher, slothful, fool, noble, majestic, blessed, heretic, impious, upright, unfortunate, rebel) and “professions” (savant, painter, theologian, botanist, medical doctor, musician, monk, soldier, astronomer). The annotations declare Dubourg’s teaching agenda the study of history is intended to lead the student to virtue. The symbols give Dubourg’s answer to the question, “What sort of person was King so-and-so?”

– Stephen Ferguson, “The 1753 Carte chronographique of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 52.2 (Winter 1991): 190-230.

Several decades later, the English theologian Joseph Priestley began experimenting with timelines. In A Chart of Biography from 1765, he graphs the lifespan of famous thinkers within a space that, like the scrolling Carte, looks surprisingly like the SIMILE timeline:

Overlapping lines represent overlapping lives, as time moves from left to right, past to present, on a horizontal axis. Encouraged by this early experiment with visualizing history, Priestley expanded and reconfigured the space of time in his New Chart of History (1769), which plays with type size and the space of the paper as semiotic markers:

In an accompanying book (available in PDF form via Google Books), Priestley describes the process of translating information into a visual rhetoric:

Priestley’s two timelines were wildly popular, going into more than twenty editions. As Daniel Rosenberg writes in an excellent essay on Priestley’s historical visualizations,

It was not only scholars who imitated Priestley’s timeline; during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, readers of history books themselves began taking notes with the assistance of this new device. Manuscript notes in copies of Priestley’s books attest to the skill that his readers quickly acquired in making their own timelines and in annotating his.

– Daniel Rosenberg, “Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 36 (2007): 55-103.

Rosenberg goes on to argue that Priestley’s charts were more than innovations in the history of information visualization; they, like perhaps all mediated visual representations of reality, construct a subjective argument about history, progress,and our place in the world.

Priestley was both a progressive and a providential thinker; he believed that history had a direction, and it is undoubtedly the case that these convictions led him to reflect on the problem of time and lines. It is also clearly the case that the mechanism that he developed for representing chronologies in graphic form  achieved  its  popularity  in  part  because  it  lent  itself  so  well  to  the figuration  of  progress.  This  would  become  particularly  evident  in  its applications in the mid and late nineteenth century by Social Darwinists and others. But for Priestley, the timeline was something else; it was a mechanism for breaking open historical narrative and for subjecting it to questions that it resisted in form. If the Chart of Biography in some way looked like progress, this was not true for the Chart of History, nor would it be for a hundred other charts  plotted  within  the  same  epistemological  space.  For  Priestley  the creation of the timeline was a step toward reckoning with the many ways of seeing and representing history. As Priestley suggests, the very possibility of a non-linear historiography requires first accounting for the line.

– Rosenberg, 89

As happens so often with history, we see ourselves reflected in thinkers like Priestley or Dubourg — humanists who struggled with how to best represent information in the media of their day. (In fact, the many digital humanists who have been forced to print their born-digital materials for archival purposes, myself included among them, can share Priestley’s frustration when his Chart, designed as an enormous poster that could be observed holistically, was split into thirty sections and bound as an octavo volume in 1803. Medium specificity!, I can hear Priestley cry.) Returning to their documentation gives us a clearer view of our own research questions — and perhaps more importantly, keeps us from being lulled into easy answers. As the history of these charts show, timelines (and indeed time itself!) are, like all information visualizations, constructed and mediated cultural objects representing subjective experiences and epistemologies.

Further reading:

Put yourself in Paul Revere’s shoes…

Monday, July 27th, 2009


Who would YOU call to hang the lanterns?

Rather than simply illustrate the historical narrative of Boston’s Old North Church using primary sources, HyperStudio’s Tories, Timid, or True Blue? asks students to fully assume the role of an historian. The recently launched educational resource, developed in partnership with the Old North Foundation, provides visual access to the social, political, and personal dilemmas of real people at the time of the American Revolution. As the inevitability of the Revolution grew, every person in the American colonies was faced with a difficult dilemma, whether to remain loyal to the Crown, avoid taking sides, or join the fight for liberty and freedom. Their choice: tory, timid, or true blue?

As investigative historians, users of this resource explore the experiences of four members of the Old North congregation on the eve of the Revolution through primary and secondary source documents.

Guided by questions, students consider the specific choices these congregation members faced as the war loomed and, ultimately, interpret the historical record, supporting their take on the past with evidence from the documents. MIT’s HyperStudio for Digital Humanities advised on and contributed to the conceptual and pedagogical design, defined functional requirements, and led the project team in gathering standards based information (metadata) on historical documents. To explore the site, visit Tories, Timid or True Blue?

Why Design?

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Last weekend my colleague Whitney Trettien and I presented a paper, “Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface, at MIT’s Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission conference. In our presentation and paper, we argued for an increased awareness of the importance of design (the presentation and organization of visual information) in Digital Humanities projects. Through the discussion of projects such as NINES, the CHNM’s Object of History, and SFMOMA’s ArtScope, our goal was to show that design is far from “an accessorizing activity.” (See Johanna Drucker’s critique of the reigning attitude toward design Digital Humanities projects.) Indeed, design opens and forecloses interpretative possibilities and essentially influences the ways in which scholars and students can engage with material.

The process of writing this paper has been exhilarating on many levels. Digital Humanities requires a grounding in practical projects with scholars and material. But theory need not be divorced from practice. A constant dialogue must exist between, on the one hand, the material realities and insights gained working through practice, and on the other hand, the expanding potentials and critical perspective of theory. This paper was a chance to take a set back from our own projects at Hyperstudio and engage more broadly with theoretical concerns and other projects in the field. The work we have done for this paper will certainly influence how we conceive of and develop projects in the future.

Also, it was an interesting experience to apply the perspectives of art history and especially comparative media studies, the areas that constitute my own academic background, to the theorization of Digital Humanities. I think these approaches broaden the dialogue and scope of what Digital Humanities can be. This paper, written over the course of a few months through a series of intense discussions and writing sessions, was a truly collaborative process between Whitney and I, who have different academic backgrounds and approaches but shared intellectual commitments – much like the collaborations that occurring throughout the field of Digital Humanities.

Still, Whitney and I are both Masters Students in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department and believe in the importance of medium-specific considerations, the idea that different forms of media provide different affordances which must be taken into account. The ideas in our paper certainly stem from this kind of media studies perspective. In the case of digital media, the inherent structure requires acts of translation, from binary machine code to visible, linguistic symbol. As we write in our paper,

“This constituent role of mediation, and the necessary acts of translation that must occur between modes of representation, is crucial to consider as scholars turn increasingly to digital resources. UI design is, in one sense, the cumulative expression of the acts of translation required to transform physical artifacts to digital objects. Indeed, Mathew Kirschenbaum points out that the

“interface presents a number of interesting and unique problems for the Digital Humanist. Understandably driven by pragmatic and utilitarian needs, the interface is also where representation and its attendant ideologies are most conspicuous to our critical eyes. …. Too often put together as the final phase of a project under a tight deadline and an even tighter budget, the interface becomes the first and in most respects the exclusive experience of the project for its end users.” (Kirschenbaum online)

Our paper concludes by—and our main interest rests in—considering where Digital Humanities might grow and develop as a field:

This paper is intended to provide a provocation rather than a prescription, pointing to areas of possibility and potential growth as informed by a common goal of Digital Humanities: to provide compelling and useful access to humanist resources in digital form.

By speaking about visual epistemology and its expression through design as a constituent element of the experience and interaction enabled through Digital Humanities projects, we hope to illuminate what has too often been overlooked. Moreover, we hope to provide an entry point into discussing the affordances and expressive potential of digital media. To bring Drucker into the conversation once again, “we [Digital Humanists] have to show that digital approaches don’t simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity.” (Drucker online) As Digital Humanities is forming itself as a discipline, we need to think less about digitization and more about the expressive potential of digital form. Digital documents are distinct from their physical counterparts. How can Digital Humanities go beyond a kind of mirror representation and take advantage of what is different, new and possible?

I think this paper was a beginning, a way to raise important questions and considerations as we create compelling and innovative projects — and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

What is Digital Humanities?

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

The coalescence of Digital Humanities as a field, a discipline, even (at some institutions) a degree-granting department has been a hot topic lately. Inevitably, a few questions float to the top: What will be our standards, and who will decide them? How can we implement peer-review structures into our project work? What is our canon?

And, perhaps the question I hear most often, even from colleagues in the field: What is Digital Humanities, anyway?

The ACLS report that Madeleine talked about in the previous post was a first step towards developing a cyberinfrastructure that allows collaboration among scholars across the humanities; over the past year, projects like Bamboo, in which HyperStudio is involved, have followed up with a series of workshops that encourage scholars to think through these questions in a sustained and rigorous way. All of this buzz around has sparked some thoughtful commentary on what this all means, and where we’re going. I’d like to gather some recent favorites:

For me, a key sign of the DH’s emergence came when the NEH transformed the Digital Humanities Initiative into the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), signaling the significance of the “digital” to humanities scholarship.  After the office was established, Inside Higher Ed noted in “Rise of the Digital NEH” that what had been a “grassroots movement” was attracting funding and developing “organizational structure.”  Establishing the ODH gave credibility to an emerging field (discipline? methodology?).

  • Matthew Kirschenbaum has written an excellent and very thoughtful article for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Hello Worlds: Why humanities students should learn to program.” While not explicitly addressing the project work of digital humanities, he gets at the heart of why computing matters for humanities.

It used to be that we in English departments were fond of saying there was nothing outside of the text. Increasingly, though, texts take the form of worlds as much as words. Worlds are emerging as the consummate genre of the new century, whether it’s the virtual worlds of Second Life or World of Warcraft or the more specialized venues seen in high-end simulation and visualization environments. Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that.

Importantly, “world” here means something very much like model, a selective and premeditated representation of reality, where some elements of the real are emphasized and exaggerated, others are distorted and caricatured, still others are absent altogether. Virtual worlds are interactive, manipulable, extensible; they are not necessarily games, though they may support and contain games alongside other systems. Virtual worlds are sites of exploration, simulation, play. We will want many virtual worlds, not few, because reality can be sliced and sampled in an infinite variety of ways.

  • Robert Darnton has recently another article on “Google & the Future of Books” in light of the recent settlement between Google and publishers. As he points out, Google took the initiative in digitizing our world’s collections; but it also maintains a somewhat frightening monopoly.

Collaboration 2.0

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Technology changes not only what we do, but also how we do things. This seems an obvious observation. However, the consequences of these changes are far-reaching and demand attention. For example, the internet has profoundly affected the ability and necessity to collaborate among humanities scholars. The very idea of collaboration is something we at the Hypestudio have been thinking a lot about lately. From our US-Iran project (bringing together Iranian and American scholars and policy makers) to our Comédie Française Registers Project (bringing together scholars and archivists from England, France, Australia and US) to Cultura (bringing together students in France and the US in cross-cultural exchange) collaboration is, indeed, the essence of our work. With this blog post, I’d like to begin and open up a discussion about collaboration that I hope to revisit in the coming months.

First published in 2006, the ACLS [American Council of Learned Societies] put together a Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences, chaired by John Unsworth and supported by the Mellon Foundation. The commission report, Our Cultural Commonwealth, underscores the urgent need to develop strategies and tools for scholars to collaborate in the humanities, writing:

“Despite the demonstrated value of collaboration in the sciences, there are relatively few formal digital communities and relatively few institutional platforms for online collaboration in the humanities. In these disciplines, single-author work continues to dominate.”

The report continues,

“Most people the Commission interviewed expressed hope that an investment in cyberinfrastructure would allow humanists and social scientists to conduct new types of research in new ways. …

To take advantage of the technology, one must engage directly with it, and one must allow traditions of practice to be flexibly influenced by it. One such tradition in the humanities is that of the ‘individual genius.’ Nevertheless, many of the examples cited in this report show us that humanists can be highly collaborative and that by working in groups, they can sometimes address research questions of greater scope, scale, and complexity than any individual—even a brilliant one—could address in isolation…

For the humanities and social sciences, then, an effective cyberinfrastructure will have to support the computer-assisted use of both physical and digital resources, and it will have to enable communication and collaboration using a range of digital surrogates for physical artifacts; in fact, it will have to embody an understanding of the continuity between digital and physical, rather than promoting the notion that the two are distinct from or opposed to one another.”

Collaboration in this context is itself a link, a gathering, between the digital and the physical.

Earlier this month, Jim Brown facilitated a discussion about collaboration in the HASTAC Scholars Forum. The discussion was very interesting, and seemed to expand and contract around two common points: collaboration necessarily involves some kind of emotional investment, (the work must be effective and satisfying), and collaboration online cannot be severed from the physical world. As Cathy Davidson pointed out, “the Web isn’t about the act of collaboration but the ACTORS of collaboration, the community of connection as an end almost in itself. ” Further reading and resources were offered throughout the discussion, including Howard Reingold’s delicious links on collaboration and cooperation.

Collaboration online, especially in the humanities is emerging as an intricate weaving of digital and physical, tradition and experimentation, individual and community. At this point, I think we have more questions than answers. Collaboration has become an ideal and, to some extent, a dilemma. In this respect, I think it’s important not to let collaboration devolve into an empty buzzword. The potential actions and ideas that come and will continue to come from online collaboration are some of the most exciting areas of humanities research and the academic community. I leave you with a comment from Kristin Wolf that approaches the idea of collaboration,

“I think that the art of collaboration 2.0 is more about the multiple dimensions (on-line, offline, all-at-once-smaller groups-one2one) of collaboration than about just web-based collaboration alone (just like web2.0 is about participation, not about the technology alone).”

Above image: Collaborativesociability, vaXzine/flickr.

Participation Art Online

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Last Friday’s studio talk by Amber Frid-Jimenez was both inspiring and informative. We had a lively question and answer session as well, in which we talked about questions ranging from surveillance to the commercial art world to the dilemma of ending an online community.

In the talk, Amber positioned her work, “participation art online,” as an intersection of performance art and early-networked communication. She began by citing Ed Ruscha’s work, whose collection of writing “Leave Any Noise at the Signal” inspired the title of this talk as well as her thesis (S.M. 2007) for the Media Lab. She covered ground from Fluxus and the Situationists to early BBS communities and Alternative Reality Games, just to name a few. Viewing her work in the light of these earlier artistic and cultural movements, one can see the implicit political and artistic power present in online interaction and collaborative creation.

There is so much to explore and think about! Below, are some links to Amber’s work as well as some of the artists she mentioned. In the comments, please feel free to add links of your own.

Zones of Emergency: http://www.zonesofemergency.net/

Reflect Delay: http://plw.media.mit.edu/people/amber/public/mistydawn/
PLWire Telephone Tag: http://plw.media.mit.edu
Emma On Relationships Call-In Show http://www.amberfj.com/emma
OPENSTUDIO: http://www.amberfj.com/openstudio
Creative Browser: http://www.amberfj.com/highlights/browser.html

Frank, Ze. The Show. http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/
etoy Corporation: http://www.etoy.com
i love bees: http://www.ilovebees.com
Google Will Eat Itself: http://gwei.org

Social Media Classroom launches

Monday, October 20th, 2008

The Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory, a project spearheaded by Howard Rheingold and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, launches this month. I’ll let them explain:

The Social Media Classroom (we’ll call it SMC) includes a free and open-source (Drupal-based) web service that provides teachers and learners with an integrated set of social media that each course can use for its own purposes—integrated forum, blog, comment, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, RSS, microblogging, widgets , and video commenting are the first set of tools.  The Classroom also includes curricular material: syllabi, lesson plans, resource repositories, screencasts and videos.  The Collaboratory (or Colab), is what we call just the web service part of it.  Educators are encouraged to use the Colab and SMB materials freely, and we host your Colab communities if you don’t want to install your own.

As Sarah Perez at Read Write Web explains, “students need a classroom where learning is a more participatory experience and where the tools they use in their everyday lives — social networking, videos, chat, aren’t checked at the door.” In addition, students who aren’t familiar with these tools — and yes, as Siva Vaidhyanathan’s recent article on the myth of digital natives points out, many aren’t — can start to learn the new literacies required for living in a networked world (something MIT’s ProjectNML, another MacArthur funded initiative, has been working on).

Metamedia, one of HyperStudio’s earliest platforms, was designed to serve a similar role as SMC. Teachers can upload videos, documents, images or audio files to create collections which students can then explore, comment on, or share with others. Students can also upload their own materials. While Metamedia has reached its conceptual end, it continues to be used in classrooms to share and discuss multimedia materials. At HyperStudio, we’ve discussed the idea of making Metamedia an open-source tool like SMC — who knows, perhaps then some of SMC’s Web 2.0 functionalities could then be easily integrated with Metamedia, giving the project new life.

(Thanks to Jess for alerting me to this! For more of Howard Rheingold on participatory learning, check out last month’s HASTAC Scholars discussion.)

Rethinking Interactivity in the Digital Archive

Friday, October 17th, 2008

As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, I’m currently researching moving parts in books for my thesis on seventeenth-century volvelles, or spinning paper discs used to generate language. Unfortunately, digital archives have not been helpful in either identifying or studying these objects. Looking at images like this one –


– only reminds me how different these pages were in person, when I could use my thumbnail to gently turn the wheels against each other, or wiggle the surprisingly sturdy thread contraption holding it all together.

I don’t mean to fetishize the book. But, as our research increasingly relies on facsimiles — from fac simile, literally “to make similar” — it’s worth asking: what gets lost in the digital archive? What is flattened on the screen?

Despite persistent beliefs about so-called “print culture”, paper is not two-dimensional, and the codex does more than merely store and transmit text. Books are tactile objects, small sculptures designed to be folded, touched, torn, and written on, from the Old English writan, meaning to score a surface the way a stylus marks clay or papyrus. The most playful and imaginative authors understand this and exploit the expressive power of their medium, using the book to teach anatomy with paper flaps:

[From Thomas Gemini's English language version of Vesalius's anatomy (1543); various layers of flaps lift up to reveal different views of human anatomy.]


– or calculate the position of the stars with spinning paper discs:

[From Peter Apian's absolutely gorgeous Astronomicon Caesareum (1540); these layered volvelles and threads calculate positions of planets and stars]

– or simply depict certain beliefs about language, as Georg Philipp Harsdörffer does in his Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache (1651, pictured above), used to automatically generate German words. We see digital archives, faceted browsing and visualizations as having a certain depth — you can zoom in, we say, or drill down — yet, ironically, depth is precisely what is lost when we re-frame the printed page as a digital image. We should interrogate how the digital archive is mediating our relationship to the objects we study with as much vigorousness as we argue over how writing transformed oral culture, or how print transformed scribal culture.

Will the digital archive reinforce our often misguided notions about the fixity of print, or the flatness of the page? What would the study of volvelles or book flaps look like in a digital space?

Last year, HyperStudio sponsored an talk entitled “Harlequin Meets The Sims,” by Jaqueline Reid-Walsh. Reid-Walsh has done fascinating research on the history of children’s interactive narrative media, digging up paper doll games, puzzles, and flap books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because the materials she works with are fragile and little-known, she’s turned to digital humanities labs like HyperStudio to digitize and display the materials.

The only problem: no one has come up with a good digital solution for capturing what it feels like to cut out and play with paper dolls, or flip the page of a pop-up book to reveal a small paper universe. And, of course, we never will. The British Library’s Turning Pages technology is neat, but paper is not a screen, and a screen is not paper. Instead of trying to “recreate” these experiences in a virtual space, thereby pretending there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the two technologies, we should build on the digital archive’s strengths (broader access to rare materials, smart searches, the ability to manipulate and annotate the facsimile without destroying the original), and be honest about its possible weaknesses — what it elides, and how it frames the book.

Upcoming Event: Bamboo Workshop

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

This Friday, Digital Humanists from all over the world will gather in San Francisco to participate in a workshop organized by Project Bamboo. Kurt and Pete will be attending, and we here at the Hyperstudio look forward to seeing what develops!

In their own words,

Bamboo is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, and inter-organizational effort that brings together researchers in arts and humanities, computer scientists, information scientists, librarians, and campus information technologists to tackle the question:

How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?

One of the most exciting aspects of Project Bamboo is that it is deeply collaborative. Bamboo offers a site of synergy across disciplines and across institutions. It remains to be seen what will ultimately be produced by Project Bamboo. At the very least, they are offering a valuable contribution to the evolving cyberinfracture of scholarship.

The first series of workshops was held last spring in Berkeley, Chicago, and Paris. The outpouring of enthusiasm was so great – and so many people and institutions wanted to participate – that a fourth workshop was held in Princeton. Part of an initial planning phase, the goal of these workshops was to begin mapping the field and imagining possibilities. Notes from these sessions can be seen on Project Bamboo’s wiki. The next series of workshops are meant to build upon these previous conversations and identify next steps and organizational principles for future work.

Once Kurt and Pete return from the workshop, we’ll post more on their experiences at the conference.

Tagging Art

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

Major art museums have embarked on a project to include social tagging – by people like you and me – to increase the findability of objects in their collections.  The Steve Tagger makes it easy for people to describe works of art in our own words, which can then be used by others.  Steve: the Museum Social Tagging Project offers a suite of open source tagging tools, and has the participation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the San Francisco MOMA among others.