Stop, Collaborate and Listen*

Each of us processes the stimuli of our experience differently. Our senses pull in raw data that is translated by our brains into some sense of order, providing us with the ability to navigate the onslaught of external input. Our brains want order, they want to find a path through. The trick is that we all experience and translate these stimuli a little differently. Whether it is in how our brain perceives it or how we emotionally or intellectually process and react. This week’s readings, so focused on the inherent shortcomings of curating, standardizing and relaying information, all point to an overall takeaway that there is no such thing as objective truth because the complexity of the many interwoven phenomena that comprise both our experience and understanding of it is not fixed. 

With that understanding, it is easier to understand maps as limited tools that allow us to capture a specific thesis relevant to a specific world view held at a specific point in time. When we map histories, for example, not only is the map relying on a specific depiction of a physical location that in itself makes assumptions, it is overlaying data that is relevant to a specific moment(s) in time as marked by the map’s creator. Time as a necessary data point in relationship to a map makes them multidimensional, yet maps are almost one dimensional as a concept in that they are instruments to convey a premise developed by its creator.  The map’s creator is documenting their correlations and understanding of what is important at the expense or in relief of all other possible observations. Because of this, it becomes imperative to ask—what was left out? What values are on display and what is the motivation driving this depiction?

Considering these limitations, it would seem that maps incorporating multiple expressions of collaboration would be the most relevant and successful to Digital Humanities. There should be collaboration and discussion on the authoring side—rich input to help decide, in particular, the appropriate final form and content of the project.  As the field moves more into active public discourse, often attempting to bridge the academic and public worlds, targeting a large audience AND engaging them in the functionality, content, and development of the end product would invite the most robust outcomes.

Richly layered maps, a benefit of digital expression, with filters that provide various lenses, although still curated, offer more potential for user interpretation, inspiration, and interaction. The excellent Evictions Lab map shared in class last week, rich with data, includes an easy to engage with interface that  gives users multiple ways to view statistical data to arrive at their own understanding of the story that emerges from the map. The creator(s), having chosen what data to include in the map, remain the curator, but the user becomes a collaborator invited to engage and therefore challenge, expand, and synthesize the data for emerging concepts and perspectives. We are inviting the public to “read” the findings not just witness, where reading implies deep engagement and processing of what is taken in. 

A visualization that could benefit from more interaction is the one featured in Bonilla and Hantel’s  In Visualizing Sovereignty: Cartographic Queries for the Digital Age. Revealing an understanding of the world that is not accounted for in traditional tools is an extraordinary challenge. Admirably, the author’s were able to step away from step away from the traditional depictions of land mass in a geospatial context— for a more linear understanding of time as well as collaborate with colleagues outside of their immediate circle (animator).  However, the end result leaves out a core aspect of the authors’ perspective. Rather than depict nations in relationship to their colonizer and traditional achievements of “sovereignty,” it might have served the creators to consider the notion of sovereignty itself within their depiction as deeply as they do in their writing. Variations of sovereignty as the underlying framework over which the nations are placed would help center one of their primary ideas.  In the current depiction, we are told that the dates of achieving “sovereignty” are important, but all other nuance is stripped away— the violence and continued paternalistic relationships inspired by political gain the authors mention in writing are absent. The Renewing Inequality visualizations may have applicable learnings to offer. By providing multiple views (map, cartogram, chart) the project not only accommodates multiple users’ preferences and needs, but creates the potential for the relationships between the data points to reveal varied insights. I have to wonder if the chart view in this project might not inform a possible solution for the issues arising with the Visualizing Sovereignty project. Updated to a quadrant based chart, it might allow the mapping of Caribbean nations in relationship to various concepts of sovereignty over time. Interaction in the form of a sliding bar could dynamically visualize the shifting of each nation over time, emphasizing the dynamic nature of these shifts in a more palpable way. This treatment may also more readily reveal the lack of complete political and social sovereignty in nations that were previously considered “sovereign” in the traditional Western sense as discussed by the authors, thereby engaging users in discussion of the very concept of sovereignty. Overlays could be toggled to provide additional context, including colorization to account for colonial relationships, demographics, cultural traditions and more.

As the readings make clear, it’s critical that we question every tool we are offered—ensuring that we understand its origin and implications when conveying our perspectives and findings through them. In addition, I believe it’s important that we consider the tool of our own mind in the same way. Through collaboration we gain outside perspective on what our own minds may have presented to us as truth. Not only does collaboration help illuminate our own biases and assumptions, it also creates the opportunity for dramatically new configurations and perspectives.

*Ice is back with a brand new edition

1 thought on “Stop, Collaborate and Listen*

  1. JP Essey (he/him)

    Your post captures the essence of the readings from this section. I especially like the 3 questions you pose in your second paragraph as they go the the heart of what needs to thought of when looking at a map. I think your point about Bonilla and Hantel’s writing missing in their own writing what they expounding is a poignant one.

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