A Letter to the Next (Figurative) Generation
My Dearest Prospective Digital Humanist,
Welcome to the discipline. Even after signing up for this class, you might still be asking yourself, “What are the Digital Humanities?” Well, the simplest summary is this: it is the marriage between Humanity studies (English Literature/Communications/Social Sciences) and technology. It is the attempt to use code, machines, and computerized programs to help understand and streamline the way we humans process, clarify and store knowledge. If that still doesn’t make the crystal-clearest of sense, do not fret; I’m here to extend a few nougats of wisdom, which will hopefully, at the very least, reassure you that you can do this class, and do it well.
This is somewhat of a survey course, where you will be thrown headfirst into many different online programs. You will find some of them, such as “Monkeys Writing Shakespeare,” to be seemingly void of value. You will find others, like “Zotero,” to be hidden gems you ponder upon as to why they were never revealed to you before. Then there will be a generous deal, like “StoryMaps,” where it takes many tries before you understand what you are doing. But do not give up. Do not throw skyward your palms like Shakespeare at a computer, and proclaim, “Technology hates me.” That is false. Technology cannot hate; do not say such silly things. Technology has only the feeling that you give it, and so you must imbue it with feelings of usefulness and power, if you are to receive utility and power from it. That is my great philosophical advice.
As to practical advice, when you don’t know what to do. I urge you to toggle often. One of those buttons is bound to accomplish your command, and you might even uncover some bonus features along the way. You cannot say you do not know what to do, if you have not toggled to the fullest extent. This will most likely be the case when you are introduced to “Scalar,” a presentational website with complex metadata functions. Definitely hold onto this particular program, if you are the kind of person who might find themselves in pitch meetings in the near future. As a writer (and screenwriter) I am truly happy to have this particular site at my disposal, for the purpose of Script Bibles since it will allow me to interconnect characters, themes, settings, and plots through multiple pages of complex material. But it is a pain to use. OH, what a pain! Recommitting to the mantra, do not give up! But if you do not have a physical artifact to represent in Scalar, I do suggest you at least give up that particular subject; it is limited in that you need quite a few demonstrational pictures or very many short slides.
Of the most important things you will learn this semester, I suggest you keep your ears open when it comes to the factions of over-abundant vs. scarce information. The Digital Humanities is quite devoted to how mankind stores its knowledge digitally, and this is certainly the most universal issue within the discipline. Which is worse: to forfeit information to time for the sake of what matters, or to accumulate it all until we don’t know what’s true and what’s false and where it all even originated from? Both sound pretty bleak, don’t they? I’m still piecing it together myself, but I side more with scarcity being the better option. It is much easier to manipulate truth by oversaturating and replacing it in secrecy than it is to remove it completely in the light of day; those who wish to play with culture have a better time slipping their reality through the cracks than eliminating the alternative outright. There are checks and balances, at least, to scarcity, whereas over-abundance is pure chaos – mob rule, but the mob is manipulated by elite mobsters (not the Casa Nostra kind, mind you).
But that’s up for you to decide for yourself. Five bucks says most people in your class – maybe even you – choose to defend over-abundance, and that’s fine. It’s much easier to condemn the obvious problems of scarcity – probably because there’s little chance it has affected you – than to sift through your reality and see what might have been negatively impacted by over-abundance. But, whatever you do, DO NOT throw your hands up in front of philosophy, like Shakespeare at the computer, and proclaim, “I don’t understand or care about any of this.” That is the silliest thing to say; we are part of the technological age, and the Digital Humanities will determine how that age is defined in the academic sector.
This is Intro to Digital Humanities. It is brutal, yes, it is confusing, indeed, but it is certainly worth your time and effort. Steel yourself, and toggle the heck out of every option you come across, whether that be on the screen or in your brain. And don’t feel bad about asking the internet every now and then if you are stumped – just keep in mind that not all answers understand the question. So long as they’re born from more than “interest,” though, there will be worth in them; use that to narrow your focus, and you’ll walk away just fine.
What is the first thing you notice, without any context, looking at the Voyant compilation above? Perhaps the only thing you can say for sure is that the work I analyzed was Russian, based on names. Words such as “Moscow,” “peasant,” “house,” and “love” suggest that this is your average Russian novel: political, but only to the extent that relationships within dramatic households are affected. These words are mixed with those they have no relationship with, so you can also postulate that either there are two different parallel stories, or it is primarily composed of conversation (both of these are correct). If you are familiar with Russian literary tropes, but not with the names, there is no possible way you can narrow down to which one exactly, since they are all structured within the same staging for the most part.
The work I ran through Voyant was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Specifically, I ran 2,000 iterations on the dot. Then, I updated the page, and I realized that my embedded frame restarted to iteration numero uno. We can chalk that up as just one of Voyant’s Topic Model tool’s limitations. Then again, what advantages does it really afford? It cannot list connected statistics as definite percentages, it cannot track page numbers where topics are listed nor the distance between linked topics, and even the topics that are linked can make little sense to someone who knows the book extremely well. “room just expression went wife getting smiled drawing happiness way.” That line just oozes important details, doesn’t it? I’m being facetious, but I am rather frustrated because if the algorithm could yield hard statistics, it might be possible to get somewhere. But, as is, Topic Model does little to help a scholar advance their field of study in a work.
Moving on to the “Talk to Transformer” site, we find something not particularly useful in affordances, but fun in the sense that you get to see if what you pull conforms to your own beliefs or not. For the sake of Digital Humanities (since we were asked to tie a subject from the discipline in, rather than continue with our Voyant subject), I typed in the bold words you see below. The algorithm filled out the rest, and I received similar responses every time I asked for a fresh analysis, this being the fifth:
“Over-abundance of information is dangerous because we are opening ourselves to a wide range of harmful potentials. The information overload has led to the problem in our civilization, so now it is time to turn things around and make sure that all of us benefit from information. We need to ensure that we are constantly experiencing unlimited-availability feedback. We need a permanent digitization of information that is 100 times more efficient than the immediate and nearly instantaneous feedback loop that we see today.
We are on the threshold of a different kind of civilization. We are living in the Age of Limits.”
What does it mean? Does it even mean a thing? The fact is that multiple different interpretations can be read into the paragraphs I was receiving as if the primary goal of the algorithm was to give me something neutral or at least agreed upon as an explanation agreeable by those who populate the internet with their opinions. That “Age of Limits” translates to something else in my opinion, then. To me, it sounds like the Age of Limits is not so much that there is too much information out there, but that we either only look for and are given information which we were already convinced was the truth.
The Age of Limits is not defined by information overload, so much as we are given the tools to find only the information we seek, and consider it the only information that matters. Furthermore, so long as its structure is masked in the guise of scholarly style, we accept it as something high-minded, something original, something “intellectual.” And so long as it appears to be just that, even if a 7th grader could come up with the same incomplete ideas in plainer words, we are willing to take it seriously or go so far as to adopt it. In the digital world of communication, style dominates content, and that theme is seeping into the Digital Humanities. Short-sightedness is the true herald of the Age of Limits.
These tools have more limitations than affordances themselves. While the algorithms can certainly come in handy, they are not at that point yet in their programming. These tasks, though impressive, are not very practical, and I can hardly see myself coming up with an academic use for them. But that doesn’t mean they should be tossed out, simply because I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. It will take some more developing, and then perhaps they will be given the flexibility to find multiple purposes in a digital world of endless meaning.
Fate is Written in the Code
So it seems that no matter what I try, I cannot figure out what precisely breaks the “Monkeys Writing Shakespeare” program. What’s more, I cannot fathom exactly what the original site was created to accomplish. The primary issue with the virtual computer is a similar yet simpler issue that which plagued virtual monkey experiment in the UK: technology is naturally programmed with fail-safes. Correct copies of the text were preserved as the “monkeys” continued their “typing,” meaning only incorrect segments were tossed out. When real monkeys were finally brought in, the results made me chuckle – expectedly, but sometimes the expected is all right as a conclusion.
Here you’ll find the extent to which I corrupted the text before the system finally gave up on me:
Or, rather, I wish it gave up on me. I’m the one who gave up on it. I won’t try to act like entertainment value was not at all involved with such a decision. Truly, I realized I just had to be as simple as possible – don’t mess with factors, don’t mess outside paragraph break lines, don’t put too many emojis in. Really, it went as far as my interest and my room for corruption went, as well as how dirty I was willing to get, before I realized I wasn’t really doing anything but pleasing myself with a slight distraction. It is is a synthetic creation – because I think I am amusing with my words, yet how much effort I put into my use of a tool to corrupt someone’s else’s text has little to no bearing outside of its contained environment.
“Literature, film, and other media are changing, and the way we interact with them is also changing. As we imagine a digital approach to the humanities, we must look back even as we look forward, considering what media has become while we simultaneously examine the hows and whys of its becoming” (Stommel). The Digital Humanities, then, is reserved to the breaking and building of communicative forms. I would not, as Stommel suggests, consider it as the actor, but a means to an end in literary criticism and rhetorical subjectification of text and truth. Digital Humanities helps to cut through those hedges, but it hasn’t much of an ability to trim them into different shapes, or even plant the shrub seeds. Not yet, anyway.
Taking into consideration the art of building, rather than breaking, I considered making a Twitter bot as our inventive professor, Dr. Remy, had on IFTTT. Then I recalled I possessed no Twitter, and so I moved towards syncing my Alexa with the system instead. In the end, I decided to do none of these things, because, for some reason, it tugs on the hem of my neuroses.
I am someone who likes to build. I’m a writer, after all, and so creating is kind of my thing. However, I prefer to have it done on the inside – internally – where I can control every little aspect and have nothing to fear about outliers and their sort. The more I split myself with technology, the more worried I am about perceptions and changes in the world, and become increasingly distracted with managing and maintaining my digital presence. That presence doesn’t even have to be noticed; I grimace at even having my list of works on multiple flash drives, it’s that bad (I fear one will fall into someone else’s hands). This is part of that “new attention” Stommel mentioned in their article, except I simply cannot adapt by spreading myself thin across digital programs; not because I cannot, but because it wrecks my nerves. My brain was made for generating, not retaining, and the more of me I feel spread thin the more time I waste managing it all. Keep your arms close to the chest, and you retain control – Like a boxer.
To work in Digital Humanities, you must be neither a coder or a builder, but a sponge. Computer scientists create the programs (water), writers create the texts (soap), and the Digital Humanities soak up both creations and spread them out over the academic machine. There is a little breaking and building involved on the part of the Digital Humanist, but it mostly requires a fascination for materials that already exist, and a desire to see them joined together for the furtherment of scholarly curiosity. Don’t get me wrong; if you want to be a pioneer in the Digital Humanities, you have to learn the intricacies of both, especially coding. But then your expertise would be in a different field, probably, and Digital Humanities would be a means to the end of your creation.
On a Scalar of 1 to 10…
According to page 1 of its handbook, Scalar Occidental is a “scholarly authoring tool designed from the ground up for academic use.” The idea behind it is to allow open inquiry, hypothetically never-ending research with endless interconnections between collected material. It is essentially another curation site, but what sets Scalar apart is its ability to connect related subjects in each page, thereby tailoring each click to continue the experience as the author likes. My experimental Scalar site involves the letters I transcribed from Chapman’s Center for American War Letters Archives. I have created the website with the intention of reading multiple letters (which I will not actually do) and doing a close reading of their text and script. You can access it here:
I’m going to tell you the truth, I would have a hard time making use for Scalar in an academic setting. Even in my sample Scalar, you see I revert to humor and storytelling because I simply don’t know what to talk about. That is because I am a man of words, and my words are primarily narrative or theory, rather than dealing with text or artifacts. Zotero, as a curation and research tool (the Scalar handbook names this specifically as “collections-based research”), is much more useful to me in this regard for its speed and accessibility. Zotero, however, does not have the presentational ability that Scalar has, nor the space for extensive notes if we so choose. Zotero would be a good setup for those looking to make immediate use of their research, taking the sites they have saved and translating them into academic practice in an analysis on Scalar. In that sense, it is much more of a final iteration than Zotero, and would suffice just as well as writing a report.
It is amusing that you can publish the Scalar webpage as a “Book,” considering it is much too difficult to use if you do not have images. Unlike Voyant, which tries its best with limited applications to make visualizations from words, Scalar requires the author’s expert use of visual aid for readers to make any sense of where they are in the “Book.” The reason for this is also a result of Scalar’s greatest asset: interconnectivity. Arc-GIS’ StoryMaps enables smooth movement between all present places, thanks to the ever-present pictures, clear captions, and tabs. Once a reader enters Scalar, with a whole web of possibilities for the next click in a dedicated curator’s project, it is almost impossible to track where they’ve been before or what they have missed – especially since not every page will show up in the Table of Contents. I don’t know if Omeka is similar, but I am much more comfortable with Omeka since its interface does not take up the whole screen. For some reason, I become discombobulated by text and pictures that take up a whole screen.
It is true, that WordPress Blogs are restricted by their order-based-on-recent-publication, linear format, stand-alone posts, and non-academic heritage. But they are better than Scalar for those who write to receive readership (less intimidating, more accessible, and easily checkable for new updates) and deal more with their own words than those criticizing artifacts of study. The only instance in which I would ever use Scalar would be to create a Script Bible. A Script Bible is in-depth coverage of an entire television show before it is produced, and is used frequently in pitches to networks. Using Scalar, it would be simple to connect characters to the episodes they are involved in and the characters they interact with thanks to Scalar’s use of paths. The same can be done with settings, themes, and arcs; tying them all together using paths so one can keep track of relationships. If there are sketches or art of the settings and characters, all the better for identifiability, but this is the one instance I can think of where I would be just fine without the use of pictures.
This is, of course, provided you can actually upload your files. Fun fact, my transcription of the letters was the only thing I could upload. The letters themselves, taken with my iPhone, were not supported. I even converted them from HEIC to PNG files, and resized them from 7.7 MB to 444 KB; yet, no matter what I do, Scalar will not allow me to upload these photos. It is also doing something odd with styling, in which my background image only appears when I click from one link to another, and even then does not take up the whole page. I don’t know why Scalar is so difficult in this regard, the regard to making it look appealing, but I was unable to fix exactly what the problem was in all my expert fiddling. And I promise you, I am an expert fiddler.
Scalar is certainly more impressive and comprehensive to creative executives than PowerPoint, that much is true. So long as you have plenty of time to figure out what you’re doing, it’s worth investing the extra headache into.
There is a misconception about minimalists – that our end game is to reduce one’s possessions/resources to the nitty-gritty, most basic and simplistic forms. In some circles, that means an Amish sort of outlook. Speaking as a die-hard minimalist, such a mindset is not at all what we strive for. Rather, it is the aesthetic of the uncluttered, the peace of mind knowing that all pieces are in their place, that spurs us on to create more than we began with.
Zotero is a program with the power to make minimalism much more manageable. Instead of being in a hurry to remove all of our materials and prove that we have made progress, though we’ve already lost half of them in clutter already, our progress is much more effective because resources are categorized based on tags and material in a quick-link format that keeps both the list and the resource itself immediately on hand, inseparable. As Stephen Ramsay states in Chapter 15 of A Companion to Digital Humanities, “The purpose of a database is to store information about a particular domain (sometimes called the universe of discourse) and to allow one to ask questions about the state of that domain.”
Unless all these domains are present at one time, the prospect of sorting through them is an insurmountable task, even one as tiresome as (and certainly far more fruitless than) the end product they influence. It is, after all, our own academic mind on display at once, so that no thought is left out because it was hidden by another’s shadow. Our thinking has spread far too thin to remember everything, and then try to compensate for things we know we’ve forgotten. We falsely believe digitization is meant to help with this, but it really only affects efficiency – digital scholarship needs something like Zotero to ensure that efficiency is not drowned out by an over-abundance of information.
My Zotero bibliography is attached below:
My experience with Zotero was at first a tad frustrating. Instead of links, the application would save snapshots of the web pages I included. I split my account into 5 distinct categories: Storytelling Materials (not included in the bibliography), Rhetoric and Linguistics (Ditto), Current Class Resources, Book Research, and Screenplay Research. I will admit, my focus was to first clear up my Safari bookmarks, so that favorites bar was not so stuffed with links I hardly ever touch, partly because they will serve me at a later date, and partly because I can’t see the types of trees for the forest. Thus Book Research and Screenplay Research were the first folders. Not only was I able to add those links and relevant information, but I could also add tags that linked them to certain works of mine for quick reference. That, honestly, is Zotero’s most essential feature to me; I have the patience to deal with Easybib, unlike many others.
There is really only one clear issue with the taxonomical process of databases in my opinion, and only if that one issue is forgotten by the academic: restriction. Databases, as helpful as they are, are restricted by the fact that the original programmer operating the database has determined which domains share common interests, establishing a lane they must stay in unless synthesized by the mind outside the database. Furthermore, not only are unlike subjects harder to join together in cognitive interaction – thereby rarefying originality and out-of-the-box, against-the-grain thinking – but, once the database has been completed or filled to an extent, the academic has been satisfied by the knowledge they’ve gained and stops researching. As someone addicted to categorizing, I find the completion of collection a tad hard to believe, but we already do this mentally in certain subjects. We choose to listen to ourselves over new or adverse perspectives that are not knowledge we have worked hard ourselves to acquire and understand; who’s to say we can’t pull this sort of power move on our own hierarchy of thought?
Zotero is certainly helpful and satisfying, so long as it continues to receive and the categories are not too specific. The moment you specify too definitively, the moment you confine your own scholarship within a box, is the moment you lose interest and satisfaction succeeds the role of intimidation. Then all you have is stasis on your part and the neatly-organized thoughts on the part of other scholars and databases. Remember that databases exist because the tracks of academic scholarship are endless, and the knowledge is found on the railway cars rather than at the stations. The stations are where trains of thought meet, and where you decide the station you ought to head towards next, and you might as well take as many trains as you can nab to get there.
Truth from Concentrate
When juice is concentrated, excess water is filtered to enhance shelf life and reduce bacterial growth. However, due to heavy processes that act like pasteurization, less nutritional elements of non-concentrate juice are left intact. Many additives likewise find their way into the mixture to give color and enhance taste. Juice is somewhere in there still, but it’s so overwhelmed and bogged down by excess weight that the benefits are outweighed by the costs. Except for price; juice from concentrate remains relatively cheaper.
This juicy analogy was fresh-squeezed for comparison to authentic records of truth online, and their treatment within the Digital Humanities (as well as forces outside the field with a heavy-handed grasp on technological control). Two extremes that face us as a byproduct of progress are scarcity and over-abundance, referring to whether we are more in danger of information being withheld or forgotten, or whether it will be forgotten because there is too much information out there. The matter is further complicated by the question of how to save information, and what information is worthy of saving.
The contest is certainly one worth debating, but I believe that over-abundance is the primary antagonist of this conflict. This is not the same thing as “information overload,” which deals with the psychological fatigue involved in processing too much information, but rather “information saturation,” in which the presence of the sources of information waters down the possibilities of locating and discerning the truth. It is true, most truth is subjective; but that which is subjective truth must first be founded on the individual’s assessment of certain principles that are objective truth, lest they make an uninformed decision. Worst yet, lest they make an uninformed decision of subjective truth in such confidence that they treat it like objective truth.
That is the psychological effect of information saturation: when so many suppositions can be spread by so many so-called experts, that the value and certainty of truth is not necessarily diminished, but cannot be ascertained except by the fact that we chose to heed it. And then, because it has been made by personal choice, any attempts to reconcile that truth with other truths is seen as a personal attack since it is a question of the individual’s ability to know. In order to guard against such feelings of doubt or hostility, the individual joins groups of others in the same frame of mind to feel secure and guard themselves against opposition. If so many people arrived at the same subjective conclusion, it must be objectively true, yes?
People more frightened of scarcity might instead see this as a good thing; with more thinkers thinking on the same things, “the man” – that shadowy government entity, that puppetmaster behind the curtain of the elite – will not be able to so easily erase history or important ideals. Did they not consider, however, that, since those ideals they hold dear came to a head in the age of online over-abundant information, that they have already been infiltrated by “the man’s” manipulations? Important truths of history, as we have learned, cannot really be tampered with; Holocaust deniers and 9/11 inside-job propagators are two examples of this. But there are ways of exempting small portions of the big picture, things that most people gloss over so long as it affirms their overall understanding of the event. And those particulars do matter, for it takes only one Jenga block to capsize the whole tower.
When it comes to the big picture, we have little to worry in the way of scarcity. Like the 9/11 Archive, they are concerned primarily with record and experience to create a personal connection with visitors; unless a personal connection is made, there is no possibility of the visitor forming “interest,” which is the primary spending-power in the online world. Most sites are born from interest, only to make others feel interested as well. It is difficult for me to say if interest is bad, since it pushes predispositions towards certain truths on thinkers, converting them primarily into feelers. But, honestly, why research or investigate anything unless you hold a personal connection to it? This has affected man since the dawn of time, long before Digital Humanities, so there is no fixing that flaw. The problem is that the web has aggrandized the hold it has on decision-making, with less effort to investigate.
It is in the actions of cross-referencing and research where “information overload” actually does have an impact. Students (even myself on occasion) do not often care to line all sources of all perspectives side-by-side, compare the inconsistencies, and resolve the question based on impersonal data alone. We simply can’t every single time, for we have saved far too much information online that who is trustworthy and what is true can hardly be determined anymore, too daunting to attempt and too impossible to accumulate. From institutions to authors to the disciplines themselves, it is impossible to uncover how much has already been lost to information overabundance. That is, what has been buried by Google search analytics, what has been monopolized and touted as truth by certain self-proclaimed “experts,” and what has been subjective truth force-rationalized by objective strains saturated here and there at the links. “‘Fakery,’ write David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, ‘has not been a major issue for most researchers in the past, both because of the technical barriers to making plausible forgeries, and because of the difficulty with which such fakes entered an authoritative information stream.’14 Digital media, tools, and networks have altered the balance” (Rosenzweig).
Digital Humanities finds its struggle in the authenticity of over-abundant information because it is directly attached to the performance of the discipline itself. “Librarians have a moral responsibility to educate the users on judicious use of information. However, information overload makes it doubly difficult for information professionals to discharge this duty because of the sheer volume of information on which they have to provide expert advice” (Hoq 58). Is there a way to fix over-abundance in Digital Humanities? No – it has already worked its way into the system. Even peer-reviewed journals are open to scrutiny, given that the term “peer-reviewed” gains its power from numbers of different individuals with similarly-vested interests.
The only way to fix this silent catastrophe is for Digital Humanists to educate students on the nature and representation of academic observation. To ask questions, to research in other fields affecting their subject of “interest,” to uphold the pursuit of truth as more necessary than the satisfaction of said interest. It is the understanding of how far to trust sources and tools, perhaps through passing along research methods, questions to constantly ask oneself, and words to guard one’s mind against. This is a question of preparedness to meet the rhetoric of the intellectual writer, and judge their input as another drop in the bucket to be tested for its true mineral levels. And, above all else, to remember that pure water never comes out of the online faucet.
In a world where everyone wants to be an expert, everyone wants to be heard, and everyone wants their mundane lives guided by “interest,” scarcity is never something we will have to worry about. If anything becomes scarce, they are perspectives drowned out by “the man” as it pushes a wealth of information printed from its own treasury and has its trusted banks (websites, databases, and articles) circulate it as the one true currency. Scarcity eventually occurs, but it is hardly ever detected since those statistics are buried deep beneath the over-abundance that has replaced it. A “the man” conspiracy theory as much as the one for scarcity, I know, but the more frightening thing about this one is it is so much harder to detect, and nearly impossible to prove after its integration.
In today’s online culture, you will find it never enough for the wolf to wear sheep’s clothing; they must now join with other wolves of their pack to convince the sheep that their sheepdogs are the real wolves, when they’re a different breed of dog entirely. Eventually enough wolves will gather that they outnumber the sheepdogs, and the sheep will become convinced enough to help rout them – thus truth is seamlessly integrated into lie, and vice versa, always because of overabundance.
Hoq, Kazi Mostak Gausul. “Information Overload: Causes, Consequences and Remedies – A Study.” Philosophy and Progress, LV-LVI, 2016, pp. 49â€“68., doi:10.3329/pp.v55i1-2.26390.
Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review, June 2003, doi:10.1086/ahr/108.3.735.
The Sun Also Rises On Digital Humanities
In the merry month of May, right after my 2015 high-school graduation, my mother and I embarked on a two-week tour of Japan. Planning and traveling according to our itinerary put together by the company “Global Basecamps,” it was a wondrous experience and remains my favorite vacation ever. Already an Otaku, I became a Nipponophile, rather obsessed with the country and intent on tying it in with my…shall we say, ambitions.
It was a pleasure to revisit the Land of the Rising Sun in the 5,000 photos I took using my old Kutcher-endorsed Nikon Coolpix. A bit of a pain to redownload them all from the Verbatim DVD-Rs I burned them to, but it was worth the time to gather them all and extract the best of the bunch; you will find that they have made my plotting of our trip as displayed via ArcGIS much more vibrant when synced with StoryMaps:
StoryMaps has a leg up on other tools when it comes to location-based narratives, specifically linear products like WordPress blogs and magazines such as Vectors. Whereas those must rely primarily on words to relate conjecture and theory, StoryMaps is dealing with images to convey an experience. The other two platforms would be bogged down by the images rather than enhanced by them, because the blog format considers text to be its primary medium. StoryMaps is really the only way to go if you are dealing with pictures. You don’t even need to go on a trip; historical accounts, biographies, and product development tracking could probably use StoryMaps much more efficiently if there are visuals to be utilized.
One of the strongest aspects of StoryMaps is the ability to add tags. Because they are not restricted by location, you can group different categories together regardless of distance. For example, suppose I was marking ticket sales in aprticular theatres. With StoryMaps, I could add new tabs to group similar sales figures across the country and see trends at a glance. Of course, the downside is I must reenter the location every time I create a new photo in a tag; you will notice I have not done this with my maps, partly because I’m just trying the tool out, partly because I have the photos on discs so my iPhone can’t mark the location, and partly because they’re all grouped by location anyways.
StoryMaps tells a very strong overall narrative, but the details are a tad harder to iron out. Before you enter your information, you must have all your photographs in order if you hope for any sort of linearity. I was beyond all hope, since my photos were burned on the discs out of order and without location information (some towns even mixed with others). For 5,000 photos, that’s a lot of sorting. I also realized that, if people are to be able to view your story, you must tag the items in a location; this forces me to paint with a broad brush, indeed, especially since all my addresses are complicatedly foreign and a search for “Tokyo” comes up with nine different options.
Another major drawback of StoryMaps, or at least the Shortlist version, is that you cannot really draw lines connecting tagged locations. Many of my photos were taken in-between prefectures, from the window of moving vehicles, and I would love to be able to guess and place those pictures along that makeshift line. Otherwise, they just sit out in space or, in the best case scenarios, muck up the map with random points until you narrow them down in a separate tab. Another serious drawback for a visual tool is that you cannot embed videos – I wanted to link a video of a process (a traditional tea ceremony), which must have a video to give visual impact, but soon discovered that was an impossibility.
As a narrative tool, again, the strength of StoryMaps lies in its visual representation. That, however, depends on just how overarching your story is. If it is a trip, like mine, then it is more difficult to do anything more than catch the audience’s attention with pictures that they might like. Attempts at an actual narrative for vacations is asking too much, even for something like StoryMaps. You might be able to group certain events together in tabs if you knew your trip like the back of your hand, but StoryMaps is still primarily a spatial representative tool; how your content is arranged is the primary focus of viewers rather than the notes you place in the boxes below them. Too many pictures, and anything you refer to before will be forgotten under the tens of thousands of words that pictures create. Narrative isn’t so much the goal as experience, for the way the pictures are placed on a map and in groups allow for the cultivation of a sort of spatial representation. Said cultivation is magnified in the viewer if they’ve never even visited the subject location before.
I would definitely use StoryMaps again, far more tastefully than I did here, and probably a more complex type than Shortlist. For now, I am satisfied with the whole “Photo Album” look. The issue is that I am using unorganized photos from five years ago, so all I can do is hope to be entertaining and interesting from a storytelling platform. If I had calculated that I might one day present these photos, I would be able to group them into even smaller tabs: shrines, museums, cultural events, restaurants, gardens and nature, and road trips (the bus and train rides between locations). With such limited time, all I can do is group by location, and keep my explanations brief and catchy instead of explaining what is so interesting about each photograph and why I took them. The tone must definitely be consistent: tour guide or travel diary. StoryMaps can become too overcrowded with pictures to split between two different perspectives.
I chose to pursue a travel diary, but that is still a form of storytelling, albeit without too much depth. But by no means does StoryMaps require depth to be engaging. So long as it was amusing enough to keep you looking at my photos – then I’d say it’s done its job.
Envisioning “Re-Envisioning Japan”
This is the slideshare Powerpoint for my midterm presentation. Nothing more, nothing less.
Lost in Translation
Arc-GIS is an online educational tool that allows the user to map specific points and analyze their connections. Below, you will find a map of my 2015 high-school graduation trip to Japan. The little colored dots represent some of the major places I visited. Not all (I went to countless shrines), but many.
Johanna Drucker’s piece “Humanities Approach to Graphical Display,” an article in Digital Humanities Quarterly, indirectly addresses the importance of tools like Arc-GIS in developing a reliance on digital visualization models as more interpretive than factual. The spatialization of texts raises cause for concern when it comes to distinguishing maps and charts as capta rather than data. As Drucker notes, “To expose the constructedness of data as capta a number of systematic changes have to be applied to the creation of graphical displays. That is the foundation and purpose of a humanistic approach to the qualitative display of graphical information” (Paragraph 9). Here is her example:
This low-resolution bar graph represents the percentages of population that are male or female in the present time. It is only a sign, however, and does not accurately represent truth, especially when one reads the flaws between the lines. “A standard critique of data introduces reservations about the appearance of certainty such a chart presents. What counts as a nation? Are transient and immigrant populations documented? What kind of time span counts as “at the present time” within which these populations are counted? If the basic bar chart would have looked like a series of bands showing discrete categories of information in finite and certain numbers… what are the problems?” (Paragraph 11). The problem of the bands is that they show and conceal whatever the graph-maker decides, and are considered factual when the true takeaway for the reader is far more interpretive.
The same could be said for the map of my journey across Japan. My travels hit many of the populous cities, but what does that infer about the regions I did not reach; that they are’t worth visiting? What about the quality and speed of transportation, specifically the difference between bus, train, and bullet-train travel? How does the terrain in-between rides affect the trip, or perceptions of the regions passed through? Most importantly, how does a map truly humanize my experience, or tell the observer anything other than where I went?
Obviously, you may judge some of the places by their name or location alone, and perhaps be able to guess my travel. There is a lack of human experience, as well as a lack of facts other than what the map is trying to prove. You see where I’ve been, but many of those places are underwhelming compared to the places I did not list. It also took me two weeks, and I visited Tokyo twice through a circular journey, but you could not tell that from looking at dots that look far closer together than they actually are. Even so, they are in fact closer than you might think upon sooming in and calculating distance through lines and numbers, thanks to modern transportation. But a visualization cannot tell you these things; only convince you that you know them.
A map is a linear visualization – like a graph – mostly told in black lines. It takes a special program like Arc-GIS to recover data and create a more layered visualization, paving the way for contra and interpretive experiences. But, still, spatialization is limited by human communication. Without speculation, at best we see what we are desired to see. At worst, we see a bunch of meaningless points and lines and connect to nothing at all, merely considering this use of space as proof of the writer’s point.