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.  

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