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.  

 

FIg 4

 

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.

danasolomon

Visualization as Practice

Tara, I find your gesture toward visualization as a possible DH "discipline," as opposed to just a tool or instrument, to be a useful one. It seems especially appropriate given the fact that information visualization is itself already a fairly established field outside of the DH context, with its own conferences, degree-granting programs, courses, journals, etc. It also fits with the etymological roots of the phrase itself, more dynamic process than static object/tool. In my own work, I've been concerned with (re-)historicizing visualization as a practice in DH and beyond. You might find my recent MLA paper interesting:

http://danaryansolomon.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/mla-2013-conference-presentation-from-sunday-162013/

One thing I'm curious to get your take on, and something I've seen more widely in the field as well, is a high degree of enthusiasm for visualization without much thought given to its origins, original uses, or embedded priorities. The examples you mention are predominantly visualization platforms developed by humanities practitioners, though the majority of visualization projects in the field seem to be produced with readymade viz platforms like Gephi, IBM's ManyEyes, etc. Is your discussion of visualization as a discipline limited to the intra-developed humanities visualization platforms, or would you apply that thinking to "one-click" visualizations as well?

Looking forward to the next post in the series. 

--Dana Solomon

@danasolomon

tzepel

Visualization as Practice

Hi Dana.  Thanks for your comment and the link to your recent MLA paper.  Quite interesting!

You are right to point out the (re-)historicization of visualization as a practice in DH.  Perhaps because of the emphasis on "new," digital humanities often contextualizes itself with grounding in existing and related ties (outside DH).  I find this bizarre.

My research also deals in the larger field of visualization.  Basically, I am interested in the exploring the relationships between the ways we use data visualization analytically, aesthetically, and socially.  Existing perspectives on data visualization tend to focus almost exclusively on a single dimensions of use.  We might say that visualization in DH is only one of these (and a very specific one at that).   The reason that think it's interesting to look at its role in the digital humanities is because:

  1. I see a potential for practices that extend across the analytic, aesthetic, and social
  2. Many aspects of visualization already explored in its own field help what I see as a future-infrastructure issue in DH (more on this in Parts II and III).

As for the "one-click" graphics, I'm not sure they wholly reflect the idea of visualization as "an entire framework for building, communicating, and most importantly experiencing knowledge."  This doesn't however mean we can dismiss them...or that they're not becoming a dominant trend.  They do, however, certainly fit into the larger idea of relationships between use.  I'm just not sure about the application to DH.  So, I guess that leads me straight back to your concern of historical positioning visualization in DH and beyond.   

tzepel

Visualization as Practice

Hi Dana.  Thanks for your comment and the link to your recent MLA paper.  Quite interesting!

You are right to point out the (re-)historicization of visualization as a practice in DH.  Perhaps because of the emphasis on "new," digital humanities often contextualizes itself with grounding in existing and related ties (outside DH).  I find this bizarre.

My research also deals in the larger field of visualization.  Basically, I am interested in the exploring the relationships between the ways we use data visualization analytically, aesthetically, and socially.  Existing perspectives on data visualization tend to focus almost exclusively on a single dimensions of use.  We might say that visualization in DH is only one of these (and a very specific one at that).   The reason that think it's interesting to look at its role in the digital humanities is because:

  1. I see a potential for practices that extend across the analytic, aesthetic, and social
  2. Many aspects of visualization already explored in its own field help what I see as a future-infrastructure issue in DH (more on this in Parts II and III).

As for the "one-click" graphics, I'm not sure they wholly reflect the idea of visualization as "an entire framework for building, communicating, and most importantly experiencing knowledge."  This doesn't however mean we can dismiss them...or that they're not becoming a dominant trend.  They do, however, certainly fit into the larger idea of relationships between use.  I'm just not sure about the application to DH.  So, I guess that leads me straight back to your concern of historical positioning visualization in DH and beyond.