The next two weeks of topics (digital visualization and networks, mapping) are areas that I have a bit more experience with. While this is truer of next weeks, I found myself going back to my undergraduate training in geography at various times during the readings. I can recognize that my undegraduate training is both a blessing and a curse as I am better versed in these topics but also exhibit a bias with them as well. The readings do a great job of engaging important quesitons or points regardin digital visualization I will touch on the three most important ones:
The first is a question. Why should we visualize data? This is an important question that should not be treated lightly. John Theibault in his article “Visualization and Historical Arguments” approaches what is, in my opinion, the best answer. Theibault states “This essay is primarily concerned with…how do we deploy the visual capabilities of the computer to show what we wish to communicate? It is slightly more ecumenical in…that it sees all uses of visual information to communicate an argument or narrative beyond the meaning of the words in text as forms of visual argument.” In essence it is conveying information beyond what the text is able to do. I like how he started his article with the cliche term “a picture is worth a thousand words.” While I don’t necessarily like or use the phrase, it does illustrate an acceptance and understanding among people that visuals can provide access to a slew of information. When I created and worked on maps, this concept was always weighing on me. I wanted to be using the data in the best way possible. I wanted my map to be clear and to the point. The majority of the time, I achieved this. The visual representation illustrated the data better than the written text. Lauren F. Kline’s article “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings” is a great example of the benefit of visualizing data. Her examination of of Thomas Jefferson’s letters to find James Hemings proved to highlight the silence of the archive. She used an arc diagram to illustrate these connections/relationships. They were able to convey the information quickly and succinctly. In all, it was a fascinating article on archival silence and the shadows that can be found there.
The second question or theme from the reading was balance. Both Johanna Drucker in her article “Humanities Approach to Graphical Display” and Scott Weingart in blog post “Networks Demystified 8: When Networks are Inappropriate” discuss the short falls and caveats associated with digital visualization and more specifically, networks. There are times that the data and narrative does not need or require digital visualization or the visualization would complicate or confuse the argument. Scott Weingart refers to this as the “No Network Zone.” Providing some direction he says ” a good rule of thumb on whether you should include a network in your poster or paper is to ask yourself whether its inclusion adds anything that your narrative doesn’t.” John Theibault refers to superfluous visualization as “chartjunk.” It seems like everyone can remember a textbook or article they read where a chart or graph or some type of visualization did not connect with the narrative and thus did not aid the argument. However, I must admit, that I struggle with the idea that visualization, if employed correctly, is not beneficial. My undergraduate training as a geographer has built the mindset that the majority if not plurality of issues can be aided with visualization (in my case, maps.) However, mapping is next weeks topic so I will avoid delving too much into that topic. I do understand that my training and experience as an historian is quite limited. As I progress in the Ph.D. program, I will learn to find better balance in my work.
The third is to know what the data visualization/networks are doing. Johanna Drucker delves into this point when she says “I will argue, such graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity.” While it was difficult to wade through her language, ultimately she is arguing that we, as humanists, need to come to a better understanding of our data and what is being portayed when we feed it through these graphical tools. She talks about data as capta. this means that as opposed to referring to our data as data, which implies that it was given to use like in an experiment, she instead should refer to it as capta which is derived or taken. We as humanists actively pursue this capta and take it from the materials. Re-conceiving what our data/capta is and then understanding what the visualization is portraying are paramount in our roles as scholars and purveyors of history. We must be aware of what we are collecting as data, what is happening to that data during analysis, and how the public is accessing or receiving that data.