Week 7: Maps

Like other books in its genre, HyperCities teeters on the border between innovative and gimmicky. The enthusiastic splashing of color, toggling between different authors by means of fonts and copious inclusion of screenshots seemed to emphasize its uncomfortable position as an inescapably analog book promoting the digital. The authors’ “choreography” may have felt more fluid had they not so persistently reached to reframe perceptions of the media that fuel historical GIS. Still, whatever potential misfires there may have been in format or tone, the book presented useful framings for considering spatial history in digital contexts (digital history in spatial contexts?) and how to approach the discipline theoretically and practically. The exploration of Berlin’s “uneven time-layers” and excavation of the city’s palimpsests was a particularly fascinating example of examining memory cartographically, especially in regards to the ideas of architectural persistence and the ‘“simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’” (34). Slicing maps through with notions of time offers a kind of justification for feelings I’ve personally experienced in certain places, including in Berlin, where a structure impresses (even has an “aura”) through its persistence and seeming co-temporality with surrounding buildings, despite being centuries old.

Presner’s emphasis on how media representations affect our understanding of objects and spaces (29) in part reflects the dichotomy Richard White invokes: the distinction between focusing more on the language of spatiality or more on the spatial experience. The move toward forms of more collaborative, mutable, extensible, generative media allows for a deeper exploration of the second approach. We can construct “wormholes” in online maps that bring us to indicated places with the click of a mouse, thickly collage layers onto “Ghost Maps” or plot the nodes of thousands of tweets, all of which ostensibly provide new ways of experiencing space. Less of a clear priority for these capabilities is the language around spatiality, and the ideological underpinnings of what our approaches mean in broader historical and societal contexts. For instance, though the authors (thinking mostly of Presner) take into account the role of power over territory, alluding to colonial impositions of control and enforcements of certain geographic perspectives, I’d be curious to learn more about other approaches to spatial history that are less rooted in the European tradition. Reconnecting culture to space and the movement of people through that space (as well as time) may not map to physical realities in the ways we’ve come to imagine them in today’s highly cartographically delineated world. Understanding the “vagaries of human experience” (Knowles 19) in a more abstract way, less in the tradition of “the colonial will to know, domesticate and control space” (Presner 85) seems one worthwhile area for the discipline to consider.

The avenues for spatial history that lead to questioning of dominant historical narratives (the Dust Bowl) and illuminating hierarchies of spatial relationships (as Tim Cresswell explores in some of his work) seem some of its most fascinating. Like much of the digital history work we have considered, maps offer new knowledge by providing different ways of considering existing information. The continuously improving tools that allow us to evaluate this information in more visual formats give insights we would not be practically able to glean otherwise. Hazards certainly exist, one being the the seeming clarity and definitiveness maps project. When projects such as the Orbis network model of the Roman World rely on ancient, translated, incomplete, biased or somehow imperfect data, communicating the subtleties of knowledge gaps might be problematic. Even still, just as 16th-century map readers might have viewed their atlas’s illustrations of sea monsters with a measure of skepticism, there are ways to digest information from modern geospatial representations while recognizing potential flaws in the input.

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Northeastern student in journalism, history & international affairs. Cats, bats, tea, travel, museums, mangoes, public radio and podcasts.

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One comment on “Week 7: Maps
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