All posts by Kora Welsh

Physical to Digital (and Everything in Between)

The focus of the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities was the process of translating analogue materials into the digital world, and the possibilities for greater understanding resulting from the shift in medium. The editors, Dan Cohen and Joan Troyano, in their introduction “The Difference the Digital Makes,” point out that despite the primary focus on “the final product” displayed on the web “…we remain cognizant of this transition that artifacts of human expression have taken.” Delving into this transition then sets the stage for the potential scope of new projects.

This issue relates to some of the discussions we had earlier this semester in the “making things digital” section of the class, where we contributed our own efforts to this transition. Analyzing how our participation fit into the greater scope of digital material, we fixated on detailing how we performed our process. The focus on perspective gained during creation part of Craig Mod’s article “The Digital-Physical,” which explores the possibility of giving a framework to “…our journeys that live largely in digital space.” Creating these “edges” for digital productions underlines a reciprocal relationship between digital and physical, where understanding of the whole system is derived in the movement from one form to the other.

In 1999, it was evident what the difference the digital was making to Edward L. Ayers, noting archives transitioning into the digital: “These projects…create capacious spaces in which users make connections and discoveries for themselves. Such archives take advantage of the mass, multiplicity, speed, reiteration, reflexivity, and precision offered by computers.” Translating and manipulating analogue material is not only about translating the text into the physical, but using digital tools to manipulate the complete physicality of an item. Sarah Werner, in “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities,” looks into the widely accessible body of digital texts available online and focuses on both the quality of current holdings and the possibilities for future scholarly insights. Essentially, she points out the flaws created in translation from analogue to digital (quality of digital imaging and reproduction), but shifts to textual manipulations capable only with digital tools (multi-spectral imaging, densitometers, smell analysis, and virtual physical manipulations).The final analysis here was to “not limit ourselves to reading the digital in the same ways we’ve always been reading.” For Werner, reading text digitally includes much more than simply accessing and comprehending words on a page available online. Other authors writing in this issue also describe their own journeys between digital and physical materials through production (Booker) and communication (Terras), and the insights gained from each stage of this journey. Emerging at the end is a sense of the scratched surface of further digital re-imaginings of physical material.

Making Meaning

In “Invisible Australians”, Dr. Tim Sharratt addresses, in a blog post, the concern over lost context raised by the wall of faces, “…each portrait is linked back to the document it was derived from, and to the Archive’s own collection database. What is more important, I think, are the contexts that are gained”. With this explanation, Dr. Sharratt articulates what I found to be a valuable aspect of storytelling in new media: new meaning. The historical material forming the content of “Invisible Australians” still exists in the context of the National Archives, and the photos on the site are still even available in context of their documentation, and yet they have been recast to make an entirely new point. Opportunities for new perspectives not only come from the storytellers, but also from the audience.

Presenting stories in a textual, linear narrative implies that the creator is the authority. New media stories, especially factual narratives, engaging multimodal displays can make this implication fuzzier in a manner that doesn’t necessarily compromise the actual factual integrity. Effective stories can be told when users essentially make their own meaning and derive the narrative for themselves, though this is clearly presented to varying degrees. In many cases, derived meaning is an emotional response, such as a reaction to seeing the multitude of faces that were institutionally marginalized or to the town that doesn’t exist any more. Especially in the case of Pine Point, where the linearity is the most distorted, viewers are the most responsible for generating their own sense of coherency. This is less evident in “Snow Fall”, as a polished journalistic endeavor, but the invitation is still there. The embedded 911 calls, from which the John Branch extrapolated his own report, are there for readers to listen to, and have their own reaction to.

For obvious reasons, reading “Snow Fall” immediately reminded me of another project by the New York Times that came out about a month ago, “The Russia Left Behind”. Besides knowing very little about Russia and learning a fair amount, I actually found a greater thematic parallel between this and Pine Point – stories linked through their location, and the relationship of the “characters” to their location. The contrast, however, of reminiscence and journalistic exposition invites different degrees of engagement with the story and illustrates the range of perspectives that new media stories can accommodate.

Engaging Digital Collections

Clearly the scope and content of digital collections are taking advantage of the boundless space of the Internet, removed from the physicality of archival storage and public display. Projects that we have look at recently, such as the September 11th digital archive, “Our Marathon”, and American Memory, all display enormous collections available to explore and easily search (as long as you have a computer and internet). With this great degree of accessibility however, a great potential for utility is contingent upon the greater public to have a reason to engage in these collections. For events like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, this engagement is a direct part of community building and healing. But as absolutely wonderful as it is to have these material gathered in one place, what else can be done with them? Even though Internet connectivity facilitates the actual collecting phase of a digital collection (and in many cases is the source of much primary material), and makes available digital/digitized materials to geographically disparate locations, these vast stores also have much more potential due to vastly expanded nature of interaction on the Internet.

Digital collections that also move beyond just the “collecting” phase more fully utilize their accessibility and potential for community engagement. Consider this example of a digital collection of stories from New York City’s past. This City Lore project, City of Memory, is both a “repository for all of New York’s stories and experiences” and a curated exhibition of unique experiences particular to the city and its history. These two perspectives are combined into one project, one collection of stories, at once expansively inclusive and editorially selective. The fusion of these two perspectives is uniquely accomplished through its digital medium, both through the visualization of all the stories, uploaded and curated, on a single map, and through the opportunity viewers have to customize their experience. They can either be guided through the “tours” of the city that link stories together, or create their own experience using their own interest in a specific area or person. The creative interactions possible using digital collections (whether one is using Omeka, or has much more programming knowledge) then expands engagement with materials.

Visual Literacy and Public History

One of issues evident in this week’s readings was the concept of visual rhetoric as a function of the knowledge a viewer already has. In “Visualizations and Historic Arguments”, Theibault summarized this concern succinctly: “…authors have to consider how much background information the readers bring to the visualization…complex visualizations has increased the gaps between expert and novice interpreters, which raises challenges for historians who seek the most effective visual approach”. This struck me as a particularly important consideration from the stand point of public history, which frequently has the opportunity to engage an audience with very diverse backgrounds and levels of education.

Familiarity with the theory and methods of scholarly inquiry and interpretation, and the assumptions that are made in the construction of a visualization, is much less relevant to the tourist playing with the light up map of the Freedom Trail in the Old State House or following a time line of Midde Eastern history in the Museum of Science’s Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. To this public, Johanna Drucker’s visualizations of temporality exceed casual understanding, even as they reflect important considerations regarding the interpretation and use of qualitative concepts in visualizations as a scholarly activity. Martyn Jessop notes this disparity: “years of school life, and many of adulthood, are spent mastering written language but the western education system places little effort, or value on, teaching visual literacy” (288). Jessop is also understanding visualizations as a scholarly activity, but his treatment is more inclusive due his broadly stated purpose (“discovery of new knowledge” (282)) and use (if it generates insights (287)), and this has more purchase in public history. At this point, in visual literacy, Drucker’s visualizations require substantial explanation, relating to another concept introduced by Tufte when he discusses “Layers and Separation”, “confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information” (53).

Also for use in public history, a viewer’s background factors into creating effective visualizations by appealing to a customized experience. In describing the use of courtroom graphics, Tufte acknowledges their appeal to a jury: “visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalizing, reasoning, and understanding …simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel”(31). I like the courtroom scenario for the treatment of an audience, because there is no doubt regarding what the lawyer is trying to do. There is clearly a visual rhetoric intent on persuading the jury to a particular point of view and in order to appeal to the jury, the lowest common denominator of visual understanding has to be constructed. The “perceiver-controllable channel” is a method of achieving this commonality between diverse individuals, which is a guiding principle that could definitely be used to develop visualizations for public history.

Producing Space

Spatial history, especially regarding projects done on the scale of Stanford’s ORBIS project, appears to benefit from developing technologies and digital tools in a more fundamental manner than traditional and text based research and analysis. “Zooming out” from texts for big picture ideas is clearly facilitated by many of the tools we discussed earlier in the class, but it is still an extension of the concept of texts as an authority and researchers can still theoretically read for the information they are looking for. In order to get at some of the key information of spatial history, there is a certain extent to which the data cannot be accessed until it is visualized. These static representations, in order to reflect change over time, also have to contend with different variables and dimension, which often can be portrayed through interactivity. Walter Scheidel in “The Shape of the Roman World”, describes some the capabilities of the ORBIS project through previous attempts to understand space and history without the technology means now available. In his assessment of Fernand Braudel’s maps and “the human struggle against distance”, Scheidel notes: “ [Braudel’s] pioneering efforts were narrowly circumscribed by the resources available at the time” (2). Scheidel references the importance of the actual computing power require to deal with the various types of data that would have to come together to form an understanding of human movement through space.

This idea of movement and space is also heavily emphasized in Richard White’s article “What is Spacial History?” Space, including its constructions and its representations, has fairly consistently been understood to affect human behavior, especially in the wake of Henri Lefebvre’s historical theories. This brought to mind an example from another class, where the associations of behavior and space were explicitly rendered in architectural history. Robert Weyeneth, in “The Architecture of Racial Segregation”, summarizes the “spatial strategies of white supremacy”(12) and specifically the current legacy behind the idea that “the architecture of racial segregation represented an effort to design places that shaped the behavior of individuals (13)”. Referring to physical constructions such as separate drinking fountains, restrooms, ticket booths, theater seats, and a host of other segregated spaces, Weyeneth also describes some of the human behaviors elicited by these spaces. One notable reaction was his note that “one measure of the success of the civil rights struggle was the dismantling of segregated space” (38). While this instance of architectural history does not match the scale or technical demands of many spatial history projects, it models the effect of movement, which in this case is clearly institutionally manipulated. White makes the point that “we produce and reproduce space through our movements and the movements of goods that we ship and information that we exchange” (3). How exactly that space is produced and reproduced is the insight that visualizing trends in movements can help form, but are not always as obvious as signs on a fountain. The scale of projects like ORBIS, in bringing together an enormous amount of data in a very general way, shows the cumulative effects of elements like winds and ocean currents which are otherwise invisible, unlike the physical features of a building.  

Communicating Data: Visualizations

One of the strongest features recommending data visualization is the opportunity for effectively streamlining communication based on the immediacy and intuitive nature of our sense of sight. In the tradition of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is the acknowledgment that the information we absorb visually can be far more efficiently presented than purely with text or numbers. This is evident in mapping networks of actors, where the influence of each defined in physical space draws out an automatic reaction. Shin-Kap Han’s analysis of Paul Revere’s ride and mobilization not only revealed the unique placement of Revere and Warren in the network of revolutionary actors, as well as a visual scope of their influence, but also served to communicate the basis for a “critical corrective” regarding the incentives of brokerage.

In a fortuitously timely conversation I had with a close friend and graphic designer, I was directed to the one of the earliest influential incarnations of deliberately designed graphic representations of information. Charles Joseph Minard released this depiction of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (1812) in 1861:

This notorious military failure is given a shape that is more directly communicative than numbers, and simultaneously tracks multiple variables (direction, temperature, location) in a single presentation. The representation, done without the aid of technology available today, still compresses a significant amount of information mapping the relative influence of multiple factors on Napoleon’s army. The visual representation of the army’s decimation has a more immediate effect and comprehensive scope than a straight recounting of losses and environmental conditions.

Clearly there are ways in which these representations are then subject to manipulations and generate different conclusions due to the variability of interpretation. Caroline Winterer mentions geographic illusions that come up in mapping the correspondence of both Franklin and Voltaire: “depending on how we interpret the maps, we can call Franklin either more peripheral than Voltaire to the republic of letters (since much of his activity emerged from the colonial periphery), or more worldly than Voltaire (since his network reached across the Atlantic)” (Winterer, 611).The near instantaneously communication of the map plots do not contribute to forming an interpretation in either direction. It is still up to the scholar to understand the nature and content of these letters, or to adopt a perspective from which to derive insight from the newly visualized data.

Identifying Themes

In Macroanalysis, Jockers makes a concerted effort to delineate the reach and the limitations of “big data” with regards to interpretation and meaning. In the foundational opening chapters, he is clear to qualify the products of computer-based text analysis when he notes that “an early mistake …was that computers would somehow provide irrefutable conclusions about what a text might mean” (40). He explicitly denies that this macro scale is supposed to supplant analysis in that regard. Regarding his careful maintenance of this limitation through all the literary and historical conclusions he comes to, I thought the way he toed this line during his section on topic modeling particularly interesting.

I am accustomed to thematic material, derived between the lines of a book’s contents, that is usually subjectively interpreted, but I think now that is because I conflate the discovery of a theme with its interpretation. However, this relates back to Jockers’ description of research bias in terms of Irish Americans, and the focus on urban environments in Eastern states which clouded the understanding of important activities in the Western frontier. The raw material, consisting of the author’s actual words, in a piece of literature is the same no matter who reads it and specific topis require the use of specific words. Through topic modeling, these words are drawn out to find themes that may be obvious in one text (whaling in Moby Dick) but not so much other texts. Also, done on a macro scale, learning of the existence of these topics in a corpus of works too large for a single person to synthesize clearly reveals trends that open up other avenues for research, probably done on a micro scale.

This is where interpretation and meaning become foregrounded considerations, as subjectivity is derived from the commentary the author makes with the theme and the emphasis or connection the readers has on certain attributes of the theme due their own biases, and an author’s “artistry…comes in the assembly of these resources” (174). The trends that are highlighted from the macro reading serve to contextualize findings from a micro reading (even as often macroanalysis literally removes words from their surrounding text) because works of literature do not exist in isolation, and neither do historical events and activities. In Jockers’ own efforts mapping influence and discussing intertextuality in literature, he touches upon what seems like a valuable application for historical research. As literature synthesizes the (usually) unique voice and insight of an individual author the with common qualities of language, culture, and generation, and requires different methods to access specific data, addressing history engages similar parameters of time and distance, and thus similarly benefits from the interplay of close and distant readings.

Transparency & Selectivity

In light of the issues concerning Time on the Cross and the marked lack of transparency constructed around the authors’ methodology, one aspect of data accessibility stuck with me as an articulation expanding on the qualifications we discussed in class. Bringing methodology to the foreground of historical writing, as described by Gibbs & Owens in the Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, integrates the communication of processes with the findings. This serves to incorporate data and quantitative analysis with traditional uses of historical sources in a manner that assigns each a function appropriate to its scope, which the authors describe when they note that “as historical data becomes more ubiquitous, humanists will find it useful to pivot between distant and close readings”. Distant readings call for innovative methodologies and collaborations, as they also often serve as the mechanism for framing questions and directing attention to previously imperceptible patterns and trends, which can not be separated from the findings themselves. Gibbs & Owens also note that “historians need to treat data as text”, which seems to summarize the dichotomy between text and data though an analogy of a false separation. Both are treated similarly already: acquired, manipulated, analyzed and represented. This broader, more exploratory approach to data highlights also the fundamental difference from purely mathematical hypothesis testing, which ignores the subjectivity of historical information.

Fogel and Engerman certainly generated a fair amount of discourse through their own procedure, however, as Gibbs demonstrates through Owens’ own research, the type of additive commentary that occurs during a project where the methodology is laid bare allows researchers greater access to critique, commentary, expansion, and inspiration. Where the scope of and access to data is expanding, a greater weight is given to a researcher’s methodology than previously and the interaction is part of the interpretation. However, as Robert Darton describes in his article, access remains tied to money and power, and there is an ever shifting balance between private and public interests. As information is also treated as an asset, this valuation of data seems to guarantee conclusions warped to reflect the selectivity of available material. Darton references the Enlightenment thinkers to frame the disconnect between accessibility and privilege, where ideals fail to reflect reality. This seems to also be applicable to the discussion Gibbs & Owen initiate. Through their emphasis on transparent methodology, there might be a window for corrective forces for the bias of data filtered by private interests. Though Darton has faith in Google as a benign force, it may be that the vigilance he calls for is most appropriately generated when analyzing these works made denser through the additional scope of methodology, in whatever form that ends up taking.




Transcribing Letters

Trinity University  in Dublin has just started a public humanities project creating a digital archive of crowd sourced letters written around the time of Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916, called the Letters of 1916. They have complied letters from November 1915 to October 1916 found in institutions such as the National Library and National Archives, and have also issued a call for letters from private collections. They are looking to create a collection ranging over a variety of issues, such as art, politics, WWI, and the Easter Rising.  I’ve registered myself to contribute by transcribing the letters they have on the site so far.

Barely escaping my own bias…

My perception of Time on the Cross initially formed the inklings of hazy mistrust when I read through facts and figures completely devoid of any citations (before I learned of the material presented in the second volume). The density of the authoritatively delivered information, especially the graphic representations, and explicit conclusions populating the book mostly contributed to an uneasy reading (I probably read most of it by skeptical squinting at the page). Then my continued disturbance with what seemed to be an alarming lack of emotional/humanistic weight given to a incidences of whipping was reinforced in Haskell and Gutman, resonating particularly as the statistics were reevaluated and restated to account for the purpose and significance of such violent corporal punishment. This highlighted what I saw as one of the crippling weaknesses of evaluating history with computational scholarship, which was the decontextualization of the data. Arriving at a such a low rate of whippings per slave per year means nothing when the fact that it happened at all was significant to the population as a whole. Clearly however, Time on the Cross was hardly universally accepted as exemplary work by all cliometricians, due to the gaffes they made specific to their computational analysis. Even after looking past the misrepresentation of the number of whippings as a proportion per slave, “…the figure is too low because it is based on an erroneous count both of the number of slaves Barrow owned and the number of times he whipped them”(Haskell). For a discipline so often based on assumptions and inferences to combat a dearth of actual historical data, the inability to correctly utilize what was available seems like a particularly egregious mistake.

Fogel and Engerman lay the claim that historians were “overly preoccupied” with the destruction of slave families on the auction block, and thus this prevented historians from recognizing the “strength and stability that the black family acquired despite the difficult circumstances of slave life” (52). Regardless of the fact that cliometricians have discredited the assumptions used to arrive at the conclusion that slave masters were unwilling to separate families, I fail to see how one can be overly preoccupied with the destruction families, nor how this precludes the ability to recognize the strength of a family through. Fogel and Engerman err when trying to present achievement under adversity by lessening the scope of the adversity and superficially documenting the achievement (crediting slaves with knowledge in the full range of agricultural activities, from planting to harvesting (41)). This admittedly emotionally motivated response to Fogel and Engerman, as opposed to Ruggles, definitely highlights my bias. It is harder to see the merits in their scholarship when they address such a sensitive topic. However, it is clear that quantitative analysis creates many more opportunities to broaden the scope of historic practices. In Ruggles, where some assumptions are qualified and inferences tested, there is an acknowledgment of the limitations of quantitative data in interpreting human activities: “we many never know if people today care more about their families…” However, synthesizing data from IPUMS with the context of social conditions during the time periods analyzed allowed Ruggles to critique sociological theories and develop the body of scholarship regarding the transformation of family life.

I find that Fogel and Engerman, having admitted to shaping the presentation of their work in order to “popularize” cliometrics, subjected themselves to the same pitfalls that traditional historians, through the “fuzzier” work of interpretation, slip into. It’s here that I agree with Abigail, in that working with numbers hardly frees a researcher from errors or bias both in source material and presentation. In attempting to derive numerical values where there is no historical evidence for them to use in calculations of assumed or inferred relationships, there does not seem to be a drastic distinction in the manner through which both quantitative and traditional historians evaluate material.