A New Look for Historiography

July 31, 2003

A virtual reconstruction of the market building at the Forum in Pompeii. Image by Kirk Martini, from Computers, Visualization, and History.

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform our Understanding of the Past. By David J. Staley, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 2002, 190 pages, $56.95 (cloth), $22.95 (paper).

One of my first encounters with history, at the age of 9 or 10, came via the movies. My fourth-grade class in grammar school, and all higher classes, were marched into the school hall; the curtains were drawn and Mr. Nevins, the instructor in the woodworking shop, was in the back running a projector. The flick was Columbus' Discovery of America, a black and white silent produced by a group at Columbia University. The film broke several times during the show, and the curtains were raised while Mr. Nevins painstakingly re-threaded it. That experience seems to have left me only with the (silent) words: "Master, we've been at sea two months and yet no sign of land." Years later, when I read Admiral of the Ocean Sea, by Samuel E. Morison, a historian who retraced Columbus' route, the gaps surrounding those words were plugged.

David J. Staley, a historian and computer aficionado who is an assistant professor at Heidelberg College, advocates a substantial increase in the use of computer graphics in the presentation of history. The technology is there, and visualization serves as a reaction against the excessive abstraction that goes on in treatments of history.

Graphics have always been an adjunct to written history, not necessarily in the books themselves, but in supplementary material to which students, casual readers, and specialists have access. An early piece of graphical history appears on a ceremonial slate palette from Hierakonopolis (c. 3150 BC) on which King Narmer of Egypt is depicted smiting his enemy.

All along, history has been transmitted by paintings, sculpture, maps, diagrams, stained glass windows (for teaching biblical history), museum collections of ancient finds, plays (e.g., Richard II.) With the 20th century we also got movies (Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra), comic books, 3-D models, in situ reenactments of Civil War battles. The material past itself has not yet been totally obliterated. We can go to the Roman Forum and sit there musing satirically (or in any other mode), even as historian Edmund Gibbon sat while "barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter."

All these visuals and many more have shaped and amplified our historical knowledge and ideas. True, the graphical potential has had its ups and downs: Sometimes it has been neglected; often it has been used to the fullest extent possible with current technology. Consider, for example, Description de l'Égypte (1809-1828), the magnificent volumes---text and engravings---produced as a result of Napoleon's interest in Egyptian antiquities.

This being the case, it is important to anticipate what a substantially increased use of graphical or visual material by historians would imply. Before I proceed, let me put my graphical cards on the table. Actually, I am quite a fan of visualization. In 1974, years before computer graphics came into its present glory, three years before Benoît Mandelbrot published his fractal book, I wrote an article (Proceedings of Symposia in Applied Mathematics, Vol. 20, American Mathematical Society, 1974) deploring the fact that over a period of about 150 years, mathematicians had downgraded the image in favor of the word and the specialized mathematical symbolisms. As I wrote much later in SIAM News (March 1995), "In their great works on celestial mechanics, Lagrange, Laplace, and others deliberately suppressed figures in place of analytical reasoning. The very possibility of doing so was considered the great glory of analysis." By the time mathematicians got to continuous, non-differentiable curves, space-filling curves, and so forth, in the late 1800s, they were almost ready to pronounce that the eye was a pitiful and inadequate liar because it couldn't accommodate what the symbols produced. But the reverse, I felt, is also true: that the mathematical symbols cannot accommodate entirely what the eye sees*.

In my earlier article, which at the time of publication was countercultural, I argued for the recognition of what I called "visual theorems," produced by computer, not requiring analytic proof or treatment, but having an equivalent integrity. Things have changed substantially in the quarter century since I wrote, and it is now generally recognized that the computer/eye combination can produce significant material that analytics is not able and has no need to reach.

What I wrote then about mathematics is close to what Staley is now saying for history. I like both text and pictures. I agree that the potential for using visual images is increasing daily with computer graphics. Nevertheless, Staley's assertions raised strong reactions and reservations in me---so many, in fact, that I might have done best by writing this review in hypertext format.

Staley begins with a long epigraph from historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), in which Carlyle complains of the limitations of one-dimensional text: "Narrative is linear, action is solid." And to drive this message home, Staley calls in a couple of visual gurus of more recent vintage:

"If Carlyle, [Marshall] McLuhan, and [Rudolf] Arnheim are to be believed---[written prose is] ill equipped to represent the multidimensional complexity of thought and experience."

Staley makes much of the limitations of the linearity of text. But is linear text really so bereft of solidity? Text can send us from one place to another in our imagination: backward and forward in time, from one realm of thought to another, from inside one mind to inside another. It can burst with emotions, with dreams, with the impossible. Read Joyce's Ulysses or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, or Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon, and experience the fact that a linear arrangement of words does not imply a linearity of meaning.

Even if linearity is not as limiting as often claimed, additional Carlylean solidification is possible and desirable. Two methods now stand at the forefront: (1) hypertext, which creates the paradoxical impression of material that is both simultaneous and sequential; and (2) computer graphics.

Hypertext is all the rage. The Web is super- or meta-hypertext. Instruction on the preparation of hypertext documents is available to students. What will (or is) happening on that front? To update Tom Lehrer's parody,

Hierarchicalize, hierarchicalize
Let no one else's hypertext evade your eyes.

Will a really new world emerge from cutting and pasting? Or will we be left simply with a solidification of the old world, one that will explode with sins of its own?

In many ways we have already moved toward an increasingly pictorialized world. Icons, i.e., signs that appear to be independent of language (but really depend on acculturation), are replacing control words, e.g., traffic signs. Time and Newsweek have become more and more picture/diagram-oriented. Bible history can be found in drug stores in comic book format. The inequalities of comprehension seem to be: Looking is easy, listening is harder, reading is still harder, reading/understanding mathematical symbols is hardest of all.

Staley has provided examples of visuals in the service of history. Among them are a number that have been hand drawn by artists. Some of them seem to be useful; others, a visual hodge-podge, would have been more clear in the form of numerical tables. As recent and prime instances of another category of visuals, the new computer-aided cliographics (my coinage), Staley cites the following virtual worlds:

"'Designers have created a virtual reconstruction of the sixteenth-century Dudley castle in Dudley, England."

"Relying on engineering principles, surviving historical records and the remaining ruins, scholars are reconstructing the market building at the Forum at Pompeii in a virtual reality space."

"'Historians have developed a type of 'interactive historical documentary' that reconstructs the second floor of the nineteenth-century Barnum's American Museum."

These examples come from "hot projects." They fit in very well with what goes on in Brown University's archaeology department, which has received substantial grants to use the latest computer technology to prepare a virtual reconstruction of the ancient structures of Nabataean Petra.

Can we really reconstruct Petra as it was? What about the surrounding culture, with its sights, sounds, smells, or its residents' mindsets? However accurate the measurements, would we simply have an idealized reconstruction of the past, on par with Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village, through which we are invited to wander, mouse in hand?

Another consideration. I've suffered from the fact that, in publishers' minds, pictures as an accompaniment to fiction constitute an infantilization or at least a dumbing down of the verbal message. Would intensive cliographics be heightened, solidified history, as implied in Staley's book, or would it be, contrariwise, dumb history?

Yet another. Use of PowerPoint is now pretty standard for talks. The curtains are drawn. The effects are breathtaking: bullets displayed, color graphics galore, animation; hypertextual features, audio, potentialities for multilanguage and world broadcast, all presented in rat-a-tat succession. Despite this plethora of goodies, my poor brain is paradoxically both over- and under-loaded when I attend a PowerPoint lecture. The lecturer provides little time for any particular thing to sink in. And I even wonder: Isn't the speaker (qua speaker) superfluous?†

In the old silent movie days, the "professor" was a piano player who also provided emotional solidity.

Of course, Staley sees limitations:

"The one dimensional linear properties of prose are constraining to be sure, but . . . every medium constrains our thinking."

Or expands it in desirable---or alters it in undesirable---ways. We all know that words can be liars. The falsification brought on by reductionism is also well known. And we have a long list of literary forgeries that have resulted in egregious social actions. But images can just as easily lie, and computer graphics have increased enormously our ability to create visual forgeries. I have no doubt that a photo editor, given Robert Browning's lines on the good news carried from Ghent to Aix, could now amass or create a collection of visuals to prove that the news was good, bad, or indifferent and that the action was either necessary or superfluous.

Over the centuries, historiography has had a number of idealized goals. We have had history as the road to salvation; as a guide to conduct; as a record of the past as it really was; as the explanation for how we came to be as we are; as a science. Last, but hardly least, has been historiography as entertainment. There is no doubt that cliographicists will strengthen this last goal.

Polls show that the average American knows shockingly little U.S. history, let alone world history. And as regards local history (state and city), forget it. Does anyone really think that a serious intensification of cliographics is going to increase the historical knowledge and understanding of the populace?

Language and visual images have different types of meaning potentials. Think of "smileys," such as :-). For mathematics and science, special symbolisms have worked productively. Each mode has a role to play; each can convey what the other cannot, and neither, together or apart, nor with the addition of other as yet undeveloped dimensions, can convey a full story. The reconstruction of the past as it really was, as expressed by the historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) in his famous phrase "Wie es eigentlich gewesen," is an unachievable ideal.

"'My vision," Staley writes,

"'is more modest; that historians might find a prominent place for visualization in our discipline, that the profession will alter its processes and standards to accommodate a visualization as 'serious history', and that the profession will learn to balance prose and visualization."

"Literacy and pictoriacy" is the author's battle cry. Despite the harmonious moderation that Staley avows, a book that advocates increased emphasis on cliographics and pictoriacy tells us that we should be gearing up for the shock of a new look in historiography. And not only in history, I would add, but in all fields; for computerization in all its potentialities has been moving forward with juggernaut force---advocated with impatient passion by its zealots, but resisted by disoriented others who fear that in being swept along, they would change the meaning of education. The new forms of human communication and interaction to which mathematics has made significant contributions are now projecting the acquisition of knowledge and the wellsprings of creativity into an unrecognizable future.

* For readers who want to pursue this topic, I recommend a splendid article by Peter Galison (in Iconoclash, MIT Press, 2002). Beginning with Poincaré, Galison traces the conflicts and cooperation between those mathematicians, physicists, and astro- and microphysicists who work with images and those who work with symbolic theories. Actually, the story of the mathematical "iconoclash" begins a century before Poincaré.

† Edward Tufte, guru of good graphics, has just produced a critical assessment of Power-Point presentations (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Graphics Press LLC, 2003). A review will appear in a future issue of SIAM News.

I wish to thank Kay O'Halloran, a semioticist and mathematician at the University of Singapore, for many helpful discussions of the issues raised by the book under review.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.

Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube