While not as explicitly made as in the readings on text mining last week, an important theme of this weeks’ articles on visualization and networks is the dual role of these tools. While these tools are usually used to provide a visualization of data, they can also be used in an exploratory mode to reveal connections not normal apparent, and thus serve as a starting point for inquiry rather than merely as evidence for an argument or a conclusion. Like many of the other tools we have learned about, they also have their flaws that must be accounted for if they are not to lead the novice digital historian astray.
To start with the traditional use of networks, I think David Staley’s two element definition of visuals images, quoted by John Theibault in his article on “Visualization and Historical Argument,” is an extremely simple and useful way to think about the use of these networked images. Visual images can be a stand-alone organization of meaningful information, much as the digital history projects on the Houston Daily Post and Kissinger’s memcoms and telecoms, or this week’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Alternatively, and perhaps how we as historians are most familiar with their use, is when they are employed as a supplement to written accounts to further bolster textual arguments or provide additional evidence. Both of these uses are primarily for the purpose of displaying data, but while the standalone visualizations in our readings have been finished projects, it is easy to imagine how they could also be used to expose new questions and paths of inquiry.
Thiebault does a valuable job of exploring the possibilities opened up for further visualization by the increased use of digital tools, but one point he made struck me as especially surprising as well as illustrating the radically expansive possibilities and democratization made possible by new media. This was the simple point that you can use color extensively in digital history, while it is prohibitively expensive in print media. This seems like a minor point, but when one considers how important it is in visual images, it clearly illustrates how even such small factors create large changes in the new world of digital media.
This does not mean, however, that visual networks and other visual tools are without their pitfalls. As Johanna Drucker argues persuasively, we have an innate tendency to accept these images as substantiated fact with their own intrinsic proof in a way we would never do for a textual argument. Instead, we must consider visual images like we do interpretive arguments…by evaluating the evidence and methodology that underlie them to make our own determination if the end result is supported and convincing. To this danger, Scott Weingart adds several additional criticisms. For Weingart, “network structures are deceitful.” The must be evaluated closely to ensure that what the historian is attempting to show by applying his data to a network structure matches the network structure used. Central to this is networks lack of memory (ie they can only show connections, not how those connections were used) and difficulty showing multimodality. Weingarts final call is for historians to ensure these visual networks are employed only when appropriate, going back to Staley’s second definition of using visual images to supplement written arguments.
While these criticisms must be considered, none of these historians is calling for the abandonment of the use of visual networks. Rather, like the other tools we have learned about, they must be approached with a complete understanding of their methodology and implications in order to be properly applied. One component of this, not as explicitly covered in the readings, is the ability to use these visualizations as a research tool rather than simply as evidence or a final product.