If your into history and computers, and looking for a mildly trippy read, break open a bottle of wine and spend three of four hours reading through David Staley’s Computers Visualization and History. Staley’s central, somewhat provocative, contention is that there is nothing natural or automatic about historians choice to communicate through writing. Like some scientists, historians could assemble evidence and communicate through visualizations. I think he is largely right about the value visualizations offer to historians, but I don’t think the most useful visualizations are going to be pictures or 3D models. In my opinion, the most promising places for visualization is visualizing texts.
In the introduction Staley argues that “the impact of the computer has been as a graphics tool more than as a processor of words.” I think the real issue here is not about processing words or creating graphics. As far as I’m concerned the fundamental power of new media, computers first and foremost, is the manipulative leverage provided by databases. I don’t claim to take credit for this notion, at the moment I am thinking primarily of Lev Manovich’s book The Language of New Media.
If you have a chance to read both Manovich and Staley against each other I think you’ll see some interesting parallels in what they are excited about. Where Staley sees the liberating power of visualization, Manovich sees the liberating potential of the database. Both graphic representation and databases offers a chance to escape the linearity of texts.
You don’t need to go much further than Wordle to see how powerful basic visualizations of texts can be. If your looking for something a bit more juicy and substantive take a look at Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Once you’ve seen Moretti graph the rise and fall of literary genres, and map out locations in stories to demonstrate megatrends in the history of British Literature, I am sure that you’ll be convinced of the largely untapped potential for these sorts of visualizations of texts. If you want to experiemnt yourself try doing some searches through Mark Davies Time Magizine Courpus and make some visualizations of them with Swivel.
Information technology allows us to manipulate linear texts, to search them, to parse them, to count frequency and relationships between words. In short, to take the linearity out of the text and stretch and visualize it for any number of reasons. At least at this point, that search and indexical stuff is something that really only works on texts. I think Staly is right about visualization, but the funny part is that the most exciting vistas that historical visualization are probably going to be texts.