neatline & visualization as interpretation

[This post is re-published from an invited response to a February 2014 MediaCommons question of the week: “How can we better use data and/or research visualization in the humanities?” I forgot I had written it! so thought I would cross-post it, belatedly, to my blog. Many thanks to Kevin Smith, a student in Ryan Cordell’s Northeastern University digital humanities course, for reminding me. Read his “Direct visualization as/is a tactical term,” here.]

Neatline, a digital storytelling tool from the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library, anticipates this week’s MediaCommons discussion question in three clear ways. But before I get to that, let me tell you what Neatline is.


It’s a geotemporal exhibit-builder that allows you to create beautiful, complex maps, image annotations, and narrative sequences from collections of documents and artifacts, and to connect your maps and narratives with timelines that are more-than-usually sensitive to ambiguity and nuance. Neatline (which is free and open source) lets you make hand-crafted, interactive stories as interpretive expressions of a single document or a whole archival or cultural heritage collection.

Now, let me tell you what Neatline isn’t.

It’s not a Google Map. If you simply want to drop pins on modern landscapes and provide a bit of annotation, Neatline is obvious overkill – but stick around.

How does Neatline respond to the MediaCommons question of the week?

1)   First, as an add-on to Omeka, the most stable and well-supported open source content management system designed specifically for cultural heritage data, Neatline understands libraries, archives and museums as the data-stores of the humanities. Scholars are able either to build new digital collections for Neatline annotation and storytelling in Omeka themselves, or to capitalize on existing, robust, professionally-produced humanities metadata by using other plug-ins to import records from another system. These could range from robust digital repositories (FedoraConnector) to archival finding aids (EADimporter) to structured data of any sort, gleaned from sources like spreadsheets, XML documents, and APIs (CSVimportOAI-PMH Harvester, Shared Shelf Link etc.).

2)   Second, Neatline was carefully designed by humanities scholars and DH practitioners to emphasize what we found most humanistic about interpretive scholarship, and most compelling about small data in a big data world. Its timelines and drawing tools are respectful of ambiguity, uncertainty, and subjectivity, and allow for multiple aesthetics to emerge and be expressed. The platform itself is architected so as to allow multiple, complementary or even wholly conflicting interpretations to be layered over the same, core set of humanities data. This data is understood to be unstable (in the best sense of the term) – extensible, never fixed or complete – and able to be enriched, enhanced, and altered by the activity of the scholar or curator.

3)   Finally, Neatline sees visualization itself as part of the interpretive process of humanities scholarship – not as an algorithmically-generated, push-button result or a macro-view for distant reading – but as something created minutely, manually, and iteratively, to draw our attention to small things and unfold it there. Neatline sees humanities visualization not as a result but as a process: as an interpretive act that will itself – inevitably – be changed by its own particular and unique course of creation.  Knowing that every algorithmic data visualization process is inherently interpretive is different from feeling it, as a productive resistance in the materials of digital data visualization. So users of Neatline are prompted to formulate their arguments by drawing them. They draw across landscapes (real or imaginary, photographed by today’s satellites or plotted by cartographers of years gone by), across timelines that allow for imprecision, across the gloss and grain of images of various kinds, and with and over printed or manuscript texts.

digital humanities in the anthropocene

[Update: I’ve made low-res versions of my slides and an audio reading available for download on Vimeo, Alex Gil has kindly translated the talk into Spanish, and Melissa Terras’ wonderful performance is now up on the Digital Humanities 2014 website. Finally, a peer-reviewed and formally-published version appears in a 2015 issue of DSH: Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.]

“And by-and-by Christopher Robin came to an end of the things, and was silent, and he sat there looking out over the world, and wishing it wouldn’t stop.” – A. A. Milne

Every morning, as the Virginia sun spills over the rim of the Shenandoah Valley, I dive into the water of my municipal swimming pool and think of ruined Roman baths. On either end of the lane in which I take my laps are blue tile letters, mortared just beneath the waterline by a craftsman of the century gone by. I read two words as I swim back and forth: shallow and deep, shallow and deep.

I’m here to give a talk that likewise wants to glide from shallows to depths in turn. My hope is to position our work—the work of the DH community that has nurtured me with kindness for some 18 years—less as it is lately figured (that is, less as a fragmenting set of methodological interventions in the contemporary, disciplinary agon of humanities scholarship) and more as one cohesive and improbably hopeful possibility. The possibility is for strongly connecting technologies and patterns of work in the humanities to deep time: both to times long past and very far in prospect. But I’ll swim to the shallows, too—because, by musing about the messages we may attempt to send and receive in the longest of longues durées, I mean also to encourage a searching and an active stance in DH, toward our present moment—toward engagement with the technological, environmental, and ethical conditions of our vital here-and-now.

I promised in my abstract a practitioner’s talk, and that is what you will get. I’m not a philosopher or a critic. I’m a builder and a caretaker of systems—so I will attempt to bring a craftsperson’s perspective to my theme tonight.

Continue reading “digital humanities in the anthropocene”

anthropocene abstract

I am deeply honored to have been invited to give a plenary lecture at this year’s Digital Humanities conference, planned for Lausanne, Switzerland in early July. My fellow keynoters are Bruno Latour, Sukanta Chaudhuri, and Ray Siemens, who will receive ADHO‘s Zampolli Prize. This is quite a line-up! I’m not nervous at all. Why do you ask?

Now that I’ve provided an abstract for the talk, I thought I’d share it here. My subject is Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene:

This will be a practitioner’s talk, and—though the abstract belies it—an optimistic one. I take as given the evidence that human beings are irrevocably altering the conditions for life on Earth and that, despite certain unpredictabilities, we live at the cusp of a mass extinction. What is the place of digital humanities practice in the new social and geological era of the Anthropocene? What are the DH community’s most significant responsibilities, and to whom? This talk will position itself in deep time, but strive for a foothold in the vital here-and-now of service to broad publics. From the presentist, emotional aesthetics of Dark Mountain to the arms-length futurism of the Long Now, I’ll dwell on concepts of graceful degradation, preservation, memorialization, apocalypse, ephemerality, and minimal computing. I’ll discuss digital recovery and close reading of texts and artifacts—like the Herculaneum papyri—once thought lost forever, and the ways that prosopography, graphesis, and distant reading open new vistas on the longue durée. Can DH develop a practical ethics of resilience and repair? Can it become more humane while working at inhuman scales? Can we resist narratives of progress, and still progress? I wish to open community discussion about the practice of DH, and what to give, in the face of a great hiatus or the end of it all.

The talk will likely be recorded at the event and later published in one of the ADHO journals, but I will also (as usual) post the text here after I deliver it. You’ll see hints at my reading on the subject in the abstract above—from Jo Guldi and David Armitage to Steven J. Jackson, Rebecca Solnit, Shiv Visvanathan, Bruno Latour, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Timothy Morton, Susie O’Brien, Brian Lennon, Eileen Crist, and more, including a number of institutional and collective projects—but I welcome messages pointing me at things you suspect I’ll miss.

switching codes

This post should really be a comment on one entitled “Tacit,” by Natalia Cecire — but it exceeds the author’s permitted word length for comments, so — rather than cut too much — I’m publishing it here. Alex Gil has also shared some thoughts, which I find very constructive. The subject is “Speaking in Code,” an NEH-funded summit and planning meeting we are hosting at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab. This 2-day program is meant to get advanced digital humanities software developers talking with each other, perhaps for the first time, about what may go unspoken in their technical and communal practice, and therefore be difficult for scholars and newbies to access — and then to see where they think energy may lie, within their own ranks, for concrete next steps.

* * *

Hi, Natalia — thank you very much for your post. You’re absolutely right to call me out on the make-up of the list of facilitators for the “Speaking in Code” summit. This is a move I have been known to make, myself. (More than once, actually, usually with happy endings.) So I respect the impulse.

I’m writing to share some of the thought process and fumbling around I went through in the first phase of organizing “Speaking in Code.” Continue reading “switching codes”

resistance in the materials

[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé’s presidential forum on “Avenues of Access.” The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.]

Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I do this before I dive into my email, head off for consultations and meetings, or (more rarely) settle in to write. There’s a grinding whirr as the machine revs up. A harsh, lilac-colored light clicks on above the golden Kapton tape on the platform. Things become hot to the touch, and I walk away. I don’t even bother to stay, now, to see the mechanized arms begin a musical slide along paths I’ve programmed for them, or to watch how the fine filament gets pushed out, melted and microns-thin—additive, architectural—building up, from the bottom, the objects of my command.

I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I suppose I print to feel productive, on days when I know I’ll otherwise generate more words than things at the digital humanities center I direct at UVa Library. Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3d-printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things. That they kind of… want to. It’s like when I learned to set filthy lead type and push the heavy, rolling arm of a Vandercook press, when I should have been writing my dissertation.

I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. And when the extruders stop extruding, and the whole beast cools down, I’ll crack something solid and new off the platform—if a colleague in the lab hasn’t done that for me already. (It’s a satisfying moment in the process.)

Sometimes, though, I’ll come back to a mess—a failed print, looking like a ball of string or a blob of wax. Maybe something was crooked, by a millimeter. Maybe the structure contracted and cracked, no match for a cooling breeze from the open door. Or maybe it’s that my code was poor, and the image in my mind and on my screen failed to make contact with the Replicator’s sizzling build-plate—so the plastic filament that should have stuck like coral instead spiraled out into the air, and cooled and curled around nothing. Those are the mornings I think about William Morris. Continue reading “resistance in the materials”