Visualization in the Digital Humanities: Tool or ‘Discipline’? (Part I)
I. Visualization in the Digital Humanities
Traditionally, when we think of visualization within the digital humanities, we think computational tool. This should come as no surprise given field's historical origins. Early digital humanities projects like John Burrows' textual analysis of 17th and 18th century verse (Fig 1) used statistics complemented by visualization to help "make sense" of the literal volumes of information available to humanities inquiry.
The culture of digitization that characterized the digital humanities throughout the 2000s only magnified these volumes, and scholars began to increasingly use visualization to look not just at content but also stylistics, genre and related metadata over the long duree. Visualization, thanks to the unique pattern finding capabilities of the human visual system, is a great tool for facilitating what Franco Moretti has called “distant reading.”
Today, countless digital humanities projects have pushed visualization humanistic application in this tool-driven or methodological way. A few good examples are University of Richmond’s “Visualization Emancipation,” (Fig 2, top) and Stanford’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” (Fig 3, bottom). Both effectively, and I might add artfully, employ visualization to look at large amounts of cultural artifacts and the social and historical context surrounding them.
Tools, however, are often more than tools. As UCLA’s HyperCities (Fig 4), a collaborative web-based learning platform that connects geographical locations with the stories of people who live and have lived there, makes clear visualization is not only a tool for analysis.
The platform has been used historically to visualize the past of cities such as Berlin, New York and Los Angeles. More recently, it has been used presently, for nowcasting the experience of the Egyptian revolution this time last year. Past or present, what the interactive and iterative building of knowledge make clear, is that in its capacity as tool, visualization is also something we intuitively forget. It’s a way we learn and think.
This is a point made decades ago by Rudolf Arnheim in his 1969 book Visual Thinking. It has since been reactivated by many scholars in the name of information visualization, media studies, and contemporary technogenesis. In testing the idea set forth in my introductory post, that we can see visualization as a digital humanities discipline, this perspective is key. Visualization is an entire framework for building, communicating, and most importantly experiencing knowledge. And it’s particularly well-suited to insight amid large amounts of information.