Having read Staley’s Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past, I feel compelled to make a confession. I never suspected it, or I would have come out about it sooner. But apparently, I am a logocentrist. A logophile. A textaholic. And by Staley’s standards, I’m a Luddite, trapped in my textual ways– a fossil.
I have to say, I always thought I was a pretty visual person. I’m a cartoonist by avocation. I diagram and sketch every paper before I begin to write it. I’m a product of the "MTV Generation,"1 which according to Staley, is much more visually than textually oriented. Moreover, my main historical interests are visual: visual culture, history of media, cultural geography. I rely in my research on a multitude of visual primary sources. I have been known to incorporate maps, lithographs, and photos into a number of my paper, interspersed with letters, news items, etc.
Yet on almost every page of this book, I found myself saying "no" to the author at least once. I patently reject much of what’s being said. I don’t think it would be progress for professors to begin accepting collages as historical research, rather than papers.
Let me backtrack a bit and also say that I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I don’t come to this program with a background in History: I began with literary theory, which took me to cultural theory, which took me to cultural history. I was delighted to be reading a book that actually engages with works I’ve read and enjoyed– Stephen Pinker, Douglas Hofstadter, Barthes, Foucault, hints at Derrida and even Saussure. (I actually listed all these authors in the bibliography of my senior thesis, years ago…)
I should be in my element with this book– a nice change from my constant intimidation in the face of History, with all it’s secrets of historiography and "thinking like an historian." He talks about the impact of technology on the potential capabilities of maps– a concept that delights and excites me. And yet I found myself arguing with the author at every turn, digging my heels in, refusing to accept his most basic premises.
I have lots of piddling little arguments with the book– as I mentioned before, probably at least one per page. But I’ll just go into my two biggest issues here.
First, I simply cannot accept that visualizations can be employed in a manner that uses the same depth of analysis that prose can. I may be mistaken– I’m new to this, as I said– but I was under the impression that the discipline of History was about the interpretation of past events, not simply about churning data relevant to past events. Interpreting the past inherently means dealing with contingency, inchoate data, and abstraction. This is precisely the kind of stuff that words do better than images. Images concretize and give the illusion of forming complete wholes. Language is constituted of slippage, double meanings, uncertainties– it is simply better for addressing questions that cannot be answered, but deserve to be asked.
This kind of leads to my second main objection. I don’t buy his whole notion that visualizations can show simultaneity better than prose. The simple fact is, the human brain isn’t very good at comprehending simultaneity. Most people can’t even look at a grouping of like objects and immediately perceive the number when there are more than five objects in the field. Look at those stupid commercials for Vonage. You can’t actually watch the person in the foreground because your eyes are drawn to the person in the background. Of course, the person in the background is doing something distracting, so there’s that. But try reading Derrida’s Glas, or listening to The Velvet Underground’s "The Murder Mystery". The human brain focuses on one item at a time. Even Staley’s example of the triangle, circle, and square of varying sizes, labeled A, B, and C, cannot be comprehended in a single glance, simultaneously. Rather, the eye reads it from left to right, just as when reading text, and takes in one item at a time.
While Staley insists that prose is "one dimensional," I don’t buy it. While you cannot read more than one word at a time, the mind moves around within the sentence, the paragraph, and the book or article as a whole while in the process. The method of input may be one-dimensional, but the experience is certainly multidimensional. An active reader will flip back and forth through a book when engaged, double-checking things, re-reading passages that have suddenly become relevant or suspect. If I am right in my assumption that visualizations won’t be useful unless "read" as a sum of individual parts, how is this so different?
Don’t get me wrong– I’ll keep using maps and pictures in my work. I’d love to be able to develop an interactive map of, say Boston Common. But I don’t think that any such map could replicate or surpass the level of analysis that can be conveyed in writing. It’s still supplemental to me.
There’s lessons to be taken from the book, and things to think about. But overall, I think that Staley, who describes himself as a "futurist" in his about-the-author section, is too given to the hyperbole and pie-in-the-sky optimism of tech-boomers.
Maybe that’s the most surprising thing of all– that the book was published, not in the midst of the speculative and naive technology boom of the late nineties, but in 2003, long after that bubble burst.
1I was two years old when MTV went on the air. I’m as MTV Generation as they come. As a sidenote, if the MTV generation is so anti-reading, as we’ve been hearing ever since that term was coined (probably when I was four), why does MTV now have its own book imprint?