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The Moving Image 4.2 (2004) 141-145

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Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past. David J. Staley. M. E. Sharpe, 2003.

It is by now a commonplace assumption among archivists, archives, historians working in public history projects, museums, archival filmmakers, and various historical collaborative [End Page 141] initiatives that every project and every institution needs an on-line Web presence. To reside exclusively in the analog world is to advertise one's own retro status. To live only in the realm of the artifact as obscure sacred object is to reject the bounty that these fluid, ever-evolving networks yield of endless interconnectivity and immersion.

These assumptions are conceptualized in a myriad of ways. In the somewhat crass rubric of digital capital, a position develops that all that matters is information and immediate, easy access at the drop of a Google search. In the business model of global entertainment, a cultural object no longer exists as a stand-alone but as a node across a multiplatformed, synergistic landscape. In the world of the network, institutional identity is determined by a series of deep linkages and hypertextual utility. In the world of the Web, utility is calibrated by number of hits.

However, these exuberant digital ideologies frame a world where content, structure, and meaning are subsumed by interconnectivity and immersion. Yet, for historians and archivists, digital nodes and networks leave important historiographic questions unanswered and untheorized even as the digital presents new opportunities to imagine the form and function of visual culture history. What is the nature of evidence? What is an artifact? What is the relationship between primary and secondary evidence? What models can be deployed to generate powerful explanatory models? What models of continuity and contiguity, linearity and spatiality can help to explain events and data in meaningful ways? What kinds of knowledge does history produce? What is the relationship between sources, artifacts, explanation, and use?

David J. Staley's important new book, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past, embraces and thinks through the new challenges of digitality to the historical profession without losing sight of historiographic models that provide structure and meaning. In the past ten years, a virtual explosion of books celebrating digital culture have gushed forth from a variety of university presses analyzing remediation, cyberculture, cyberfeminism, digital capitalism, game theory,, remixing, cyberwarfare, networked communication, e-life. However, this work tends to focus on the textual operations and social implications of art and life in the binary code. History and historiography are figured as just another set of images and ideas to be remixed, remediated, and rebooted.

Computers, Visualization, and History enters into this digital discourse with an argument missing from most digital culture theorizing: digitality presents new ways for historians to consider visualizations as important as writing. He argues that the visualization properties of the computer need to be not only exploited, but anchored in historiographic theory that emphasizes spatialities rather than linearities. Against the frenetic textual poaching and endless remixing of images that the digital provokes, where meaning is drained away, Staley asks for a reconceptualization of the historical and archival professions to see visualizations as important as writing. His argument should resonate deeply with all readers of the The Moving Image who confront this query daily in their work: How can images be made accessible? How can images be organized for better explanation and justification? What should be saved in the archives and why? In the world of professional history, Staley argues, writing trumps the visual. Computers, he contends, offer an interface that suggests that visualizations are just as important explanatory tools for historians.

Staley argues, following information design luminary Edward Tufte, that the organization of a two- or three-dimensional spatial form should "further systematic inquiry" (9). He advances that visualizations entail symbols and syntax that are not linear and can be arranged in more than one dimension. Throughout the book, Staley advocates "data not decoration," a good...


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