We believe that this visualization of orchestra composition is excellent for organizing a large amount of instrumental data and making it very readable. It is very obvious which instruments comprise which types of orchestra (with the number of each instrument included on the outermost ring of the graph), allowing one to easily highlight the similarities and differences between each type of orchestra. The most observations worth noting include the variance of instrumental makeup between orchestra types, notably with regard to percussion and violin, such as the substantial differences between the classical and modern orchestras.

This graph went through a few iterations, until finally settling on a color-coded distinction by genre. There is a certain illustration of particular genres, particularly action and adventure, trending higher in both box office returns and IMDB ratings, while drama trends somewhat lower. There also seems to be a lack of a relationship between the IMDB rating and box office returns in general, and the most popular movies do not correlate with those that are highly rated.

We found this graph interesting for the sense of continuity that exists between different forms of music media, specifically that it takes quite some time for a newer technology to supersede its predecessor. Cassettes, for example, retained a significant proportion of the market share nearly half way into the life span of CDs, which still exist to this day. Meanwhile, other technologies like 8-Tracks disappeared almost immediately following the emergence of an alternative.

Week 3: A Little Fall of Rain

LITERATURE REVIEW

As I have continued in the Digital Humanities course, we have been expanding into different means through which information can be expressed.  For this week, we were assigned two works on the visualization of information.  This can take several different forms, whether it is the organized composition of text, mapping techniques, or other attempts at providing learners with a more interactive and visually appealing means of study.

The first article, by Eric Champion, discussed a few of these concepts in more general terms.  He accurately notes the historical similarities (or, rather, the lack of historical difference) between images and writing, especially given the pictorial nature of many written languages.  He also discusses the shift in the historical discipline away from purely text-based sources to include the ever-growing oral history project.  In his estimation, digital history needs to take advantage of this visualization process, rather than continue to focus on text-heavy monographs aimed at justifying the academic rigor of the project to professionals.

Given the emphasis of many digital projects I have encountered in my admittedly short time with this class, I’m not sure who he is arguing against.  Anecdotally, there is a strong emphasis on aesthetics when involved in digital projects, and most digital historians seem conscious of the difficulty in balancing textual information and other, more engaging forms of media.  While I agree with Champion’s principles wholeheartedly, I would be interested in investigating his sources which seem to indicate a more text-heavy digital humanities than I have personally been exposed to.

Champion’s stronger aspects emerge during his discussion of immersion and engagement, which I feel could be extremely useful in a classroom setting.  He talks about interactive options, including games, for users to be exposed to different information and perspectives.  While some of his specific examples seem a bit hackneyed (a Skyrim mod challenging players to discover which author they have been assigned sounds horrifically dull, for example), the concept itself is sound.  From my own experience, my entire knowledge of geography was initiated by my interaction with video games, specifically strategy games.  Taking the idea of a strategy game and applying it in a pedagogical manner could be an effective tool, especially when discussing geopolitical situations or military history.  Placing students themselves in the decision-making process of historical actors would do wonders for increasing an understanding of their context.  Likewise, first- or third-person games accomplish the same feat but on a more personal scale, allowing for investigations into historical empathy.  These tools, when accompanied by appropriate historical context and discussion (especially to correct certain liberties taken by game designers) are more likely to imprint on students than endless walls of text (like this blog).

The other reading for this week, Isabel Mereilles’ Design for Information, provides a more in depth look at the specific types of visualizations in a variety of subfields.  Given the direction of my own digital research, I spent some time looking at her discussion of textual visualization.  While much of it was quite familiar, such as word clouds and diagrams, I found the combination of mapping and textual analysis an interesting possibility.  As the text notes, we are constantly seeking patterns, and an approach that utilizes several different, yet distinct, patterns is likely to impart information in a more effective way.

That time was spent on case studies was also quite beneficial, as it clearly displayed the benefits and drawbacks of different systems.  My initial reaction is that textual analysis ought to be combined with other, more varied and stimulating, forms of visualization.  Mapping, in my case, would be the logical choice.  Newspaper mentions of certain plantations could be mapped alongside a more conventional textual analysis.  While neither of these alone would constitute a complete picture of the situation, they would provide excellent supplementary illustrations of prevailing viewpoints of the time.

Week 2: A few clouds overhead

LITERATURE REVIEW

The readings for this week focused on the question of databases and other forms of organizing information.  The first article, by Stephen Ramsay, was a largely technical document discussing the removal of redundancies from databases, as well as increasing the efficiency for the user.  Initially, I found myself exceedingly disinterested in the bulk of the text, imbued as it was in technical jargon and procedural coding.  While I appreciate the importance of Digital Humanities in providing access, am I required to physically construct the databases in question to accomplish this?  Is the merger of computer science and history, two disciplines asking radically different questions, a necessity?  How much coding is a historian expected to learn, really?

It was about this time that I started to see the flaws in my own thinking, and that this dismissal of the technical aspects of the Digital Humanities in reality put me into the same camp as those hidebound researchers who don’t see value in a digital presence at all.  Put simply, it appears that yes, if historians want a digital presence, they will have to create it themselves.  That means learning coding, database construction, and a host of other actions that seem insurmountable for those who have received virtually no training in that field.  However, by front-loading the difficulty on those initial researchers, it will by extension make future scholarly endeavors much simpler.  As such, Ramsay’s explanations of streamlining database construction will likely be revisited in the future.

The other article was written by Anne Gilliland, discussing metadata (literally data about data).  This includes copyright information, library records, and a host of other identifying characteristics.  By this point, my skepticism had not entirely vanished (part of it still remains), but she presented a strong argument.  Metadata provides historians with a considerable amount of information that goes beyond the source itself.  It retains the context in which a document is found, rather than isolating it as we so often do with online sources.  It also allows for the tracking of different versions of documents which have been edited for different scholarly audiences, be they images, text, or audiovisual sources.  Given the anxiety of historians over contextualizing sources, especially with regards to the “silences” of certain peoples discussed by Michel Trouillot, the inclusion of metadata is clearly of great benefit.

PROJECT UPDATE

I have more or less settled on a textual analysis of a variety of documents pertaining to French Indochina.  I have already obtained a strong compilation of economic records of the rubber industry from my Master’s thesis, but I have been wanting to expand beyond a purely economic analysis.   This would include a social understanding of the participants of the rubber industry.  In particular, I want to focus on the low-to-mid level overseers who ran day-to-day operations of the plantations, as well as the upper echelon owners.  The archives at Gallica have roughly a dozen newspaper archives from colonial Indochina, which span the bulk of the period I am investigating.  While I will undoubtedly be going through many, MANY pages to evaluate the industry on a more subjective level, textual analysis could provide some clear context.  Tracking mentions of the word “caoutchouc (rubber),” for example, would be an easy way of viewing how visible the plantations were to the general public.  Mentions of certain individuals, especially prominent rubber investors or plantation owners, could be tracked as well.  I’m quite interested in what other questions could be asked of this data, though, and I’m looking forward to exploring other opportunities in the coming weeks.

Week 1: Into the Storm

Link

The role of the academy within the digital realm is a complex one, particularly for the humanities and over the course of the next few months I will be exploring the interaction between these two fields.  Specialist publications, including those by historians, often struggle with accessibility, whether it is from an overdependence on academic jargon or paywalls preventing the general public from accessing journal articles.  History only matters if it is communicated, and the ways in which we communicate it need to adapt with everchanging technology, and the society that changes right along with it.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Among the readings I tackled this week was William Thomas’ “The Promise of Digital Humanities,” which provides a basic appraisal of the state of the discipline itself.  Thomas argues that digital projects have, up to this point, been focused on the accumulation of information and the creation of digital archives.  This has led to a relative lack of engagement in terms of analysis or interpretation. Thomas, like many of the other authors I’ll be discussing this week, believes that digital humanities is capable (and indeed, morally obliged) of instituting radical change in how we analyze history and other disciplines.  While he gives certain examples of digital scholarship, such as simulations, ever-evolving digital narratives, and themed research collections, there is comparatively little in terms of specifics as to how digital scholarship can change our way of thinking.

Given the history of History as a discipline, though, this does not surprise me.  The professionalization of history began in earnest in the early 1800s, with Leopold von Ranke, who argued for an objective, rational, and impartial recording and interpretation of historical documents.  While there were plenty of analytical documents at the time, much of the focus was simply on the collection of data on the human experience.  Interpretation is useless without evidence, and the creation of digital archives like Gallica is a massive project by itself.  Digital history seems to be still in that early stage of development, much like those earlier historians, where the accumulation of information is the primary goal.  What makes their project so much different, of course, is how accessible that information becomes from here on out.

Miriam Posner, another of the authors for this week, wrote a work entitled What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities, in which she tries to answer a few of the questions that Thomas asks.  Her solutions are, as the title suggests, radical, and in my view mostly miss the mark.  She argues that “many of the qualities of computer interfaces that we have prized, qualities like transparency, seamlessness, and flow, privilege ease of use ahead of any kind of critical engagement (even, perhaps, struggle) with the material at hand.” Systems like Google Maps are problematic because the technology “enshrines a Cartesian model of space that derives directly from a colonialist project of empire-building.”  In my view, accessibility and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive, to say the least.  Complexity and clarity are capable of coexisting.

The most creative (though likely ineffectual) of these solutions was the idea that data modeling needs to be reimagined to include actual persons.  The example she gives is of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity who dies before he can be brought to justice.  In this system, the perpetrator himself could be submitted to the archives as an “imaginary document.”   From there, he “could then be subjected to evidentiary testing and cross-examination, as in the way of any archival data.”  The logistics of such a process beg several questions.  How exactly do analysts interact with the perpetrator?  Is it the image of the perpetrator in this archive?  The concept or memory that this individual existed?  A description produced by a third party?  Heaven forbid, not the remains of the actual person?  Overall, Posner encourages the complication of access to information because she believes it ends up being more valuable to the student in the long run.  Given that the current problem with history is the lack of engagement from the public, I cannot bring myself to agree with this approach.

PROJECT UPDATE

By the end of the semester, I’m expected to have completed a major digital project for my own research, which focuses on the economy of French Indochina in the 1930s.  Given the sources that I have available (through the brilliant French digital archive at Gallica), this will likely be a textual analysis of rubber plantation documents, looking for certain patterns and the like.  A geographic analysis of different colonial industries is also a possibility.  However, this is still the early stages, and thoughts are still formulating.