Nicole Coleman & Charles van den Heuvel

Visualizing Uncertainty and Complexity: Humanistic Methods for Mapping the Intellectual Geography of the Early Modern World

Intellectual Geography / Wednesday 7 September, 2011

As large-scale digitization projects move forward, capturing vast amounts of information about the movement of people, ideas, books, letters, and instruments in the early modern period, data and information visualization plays a critical role in helping us to explore this terrain and to understand its shape and topography. And yet we are faced with the challenge of how to convey appropriately the incompleteness, uncertainty, ambiguity, and inaccuracy of the historical data. More often than not, visualizations of humanities-research material deliberately or unconsciously distort evidence through data manipulation or implicit design decisions made to enhance effect or to suit the technology rather than prioritizing humanistic methods in creating instruments for research.

The innovative techniques for visualizing complex data sets have been modeled on the sense-making methods of information science and knowledge management, presenting a density of information and making it available for interaction and interpretation, often with the explicitly stated goal of improving efficiency and effective decision-making. And while we can look to the work that has already been done in the infovis community on assessing the effectiveness of visualizations, the evaluation is based on goals that are different from, if not in direct opposition to, the goals of humanistic research. Within the humanities, where critical discussion of visualization techniques appears, it tends to be limited to GIS applications and most often shows a willingness to reduce uncertainty, adopting a tacit endorsement of ideals pertaining to knowledge production from the natural sciences.

In this paper we will bring together perspectives of visual theory in the humanities and the field of communication design, around the analysis of challenges arising in the design of temporal and spatial representations of data from two projects dealing with correspondence networks in the early modern period: Mapping the Republic of Letters and Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic.