For this week’s reading in my Digital History course, the class looked at Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past by David J. Staley. I really enjoyed reading Staley’s work as I found it to be a phenomenal survey of visualization. What really struck me about Staley’s work was that while he is an advocate of digital tools such as visualization, he is still an advocate of traditional prose.
Out of all the digital humanities/digital history/GIS books and articles I have read this semester, I have yet to encounter an author who describes visualization as being equal, but different than prose. Staley, however, masterfully demonstrates that prose and visualization are equal, but different. For example, after describing the characteristics of visual history, Staley states, “visual history should not be viewed as “superior” to written history, only as an alternative. Visual history will be qualitatively and structurally different from written history” (Staley, 55). So, in order to understand how visualization and prose are equal but different, it is important to define visualization.
According to Staley, visualization is “the organization of meaningful information in spatial form intended to further a systematic inquiry” (Staley, 36). Similar to prose, visualization can be viewed as a medium of presentation, a “template for ideas” (Staley, 37). Yet as a medium, visualization must be distinguished from artistic expression. For example, where artistic expression prioritizes “decoration,” visualization prioritizes “inquiry” (Staley, 36). Thus, when using visualization for academic purposes, it must be more than artistic expression – visualization must be based on inquiry and research. Being rooted in the sciences, “which have a long history of simplifying, abstracting, labeling, marking, and schematizing,” visualization requires inquiry and research (Staley, 36).
Further analyzing visualization, Staley states “visualizations may be categorized on a continuum between the representational and the abstract” (Staley, 37). Representational visualizations convey data that is already in visual form, such as maps. Abstract visualizations, on the other hand, create the visual structure for data to be conveyed; examples of abstract visualizations include diagrams (such as the periodic table of elements), company organizational charts, music notation and more.
With this definition of visualizations in mind, we can begin to consider ways in which visualization is an alternative form of communication when compared to written history (Staley, 31). First, where written history depicts scholarship linearly, visualizations can depict scholarship nonlinearly. Due to visualization’s “multidimensional syntax,” as a medium, visualization can portray ideas simultaneously as opposed to individually (Staley, 44). In addition to being nonlinear, the multidimensional aspect of visualization allows one to see “the whole and the part at the same time” (Staley, 46). For example, when looking at a visualization such as a graph of stock prices, one can see the stocks’ value that day (the part) along with the stocks’ value over time (the whole). Furthermore, the ability to see both the parts and the whole makes visualization a better medium for synthesis instead of analysis; as analysis promotes the breakdown of the whole into parts, synthesis promotes the assembly of parts into the whole Additionally, using the pattern of connectedness needed to engage in synthesis, one is forced to “note common patterns, thus drawing associations and analogies” (Staley, 47). This, consequently, makes visualizations more conducive to analogy where written history is more conducive to logical, linear thinking. Moreover, thinking about ideas simultaneously allows one to look at history from a synchronic perspective; written history, on the other hand, allows one to look at history from a diachronic perspective (Staley, 54). This ability to view history in both time and space allows one to consider “holistic structure” through visualizations as opposed to considering events over time through written history (Staley, 54). As noted by Staley, focusing on holistic structure would allow historians to engage in what he calls “thick depiction” (taken from Geertz’ “thick description”), allowing one to spatially view history from an Annales-like perspective (Staley, 55). In more general terms, visual history is more conducive to networking ideas whereas written history is more conducive to chaining together ideas. For a direct comparison, presented below is Staley’s chart contrasting the characteristics that make visual history different, but equal to written history (Staley, 55).
Written History Visual History
Causation “Thick Depiction”
Before reading Staley’s book, my biggest questions about using visualization involved introducing visualization training in undergraduate courses along with evaluating visualization as scholarship. Reading the book, however, I was pleasantly surprised with the wonderful answers Staley provided to my questions. With my main questions answered, I believe my only question about digital scholarship would be: What ways can visualizations receive the credibility/reliability/trust that comes with the name recognition of university presses?