19.753 less is more? a note on interface design

From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty_at_KCL.AC.UK>
Date: Thu, 4 May 2006 08:49:13 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 753.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 04 May 2006 08:25:39 +0100
         From: Stan Ruecker <sruecker_at_ualberta.ca>
         Subject: RE: 18.719 less is more?

Hi Willard,

I'm afraid this may be a bit of a tangent, but your comments on the
value of creating and studying microhistories brings to mind some
ideas for computer interfaces that I've been considering for the last
couple of years. My thought was that we could profitably examine
Jacques Bertin's 1977 notion of three levels of information: the
overall, the intermediate, and the element.

If we look then at something like Minard's classic diagram of
Napoleon's ill-fated march into Russia, we see it in its current form
as an overall representation. There is a thick line of troops at the
start, and a trickle coming back. I'll attach a Figure 1 in a jpeg.

[I'm unable to figure out how to post this jpeg along with the words
given here; I suggest a note to Stan Ruecker if you want to see it. --WM]

But surely we now have information collections that could allow us to
see the same image with an intermediate level of information
superimposed. The next two figures in the jpeg show two alternative
scenarios, where the red line represents hypothetical numbers of
officers. Did they die off quickly, or were they the principal
survivors? The story is quite different in each of the scenarios, and
there are of course other possibilities. To be meaningful, this
representation would need to access an appropriately complex digital
collection, which these don't.

At the elementary level, I imagine a diagram like this serving as an
interface to a collection of microhistories, so the reader could
choose a single military unit or individual soldier and access the
available history. I guess what I'm doing is advocating for the
creation and study of this kind of zoomable interface, which has
meaning at all three of Bertin's level. It would also be important to
create further tools to allow different ways of configuring the
diagram/interface for different purposes, based on the kinds of
information the (hypothetical) collection provides.


>===== Original Message From "Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard
<willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>)" <willard_at_LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU> =====
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 719.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/
> www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2005 07:11:32 +0100
> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
> >
>This note gets to a question I asked some time ago concerning the
>disciplinary, epistemic effects of ever-expanding access to ever greater
>volumes of data. To ask the revised version of this question, inspired by
>historian Carlo Ginzburg, I need to quote at some length from his essay,
>"Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible", in the latest issue of Critical Inquiry,
>31 (Spring 2005): 665-83. I quote from the beginning and end:
> >At the end of his masterpiece, Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the
> >Second World War, [Erich] Auerbach wrote: "Beneath the conflicts, and also
> >through them, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place.
> >It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal
> >begins to be visible." Half a century later one hesitates to describe the
> >so-called globalization that is taking place under our eyes as an
> >"economic leveling process." On the other hand, the "cultural leveling,"
> >the erasure of cultural specificities, which Auerbach looked at with
> >growingworry, is an unquestionable reality, although difficult to grasp.
> >In an essay published in 1952, Auerbach remarked that Goethe's concept of
> >Weltliteratur had become increasingly inadequate to our endlessly
> >expanding gaze. How can a philologist from a single cultural tradition
> >approach a world in which so many languages and so many cultural
> >traditions interact? Auerbach believed that one has to look for
> >Ansatzpunkte, that is, for starting points, for concrete details fromwhich
> >the global process can be inductively reconstructed. The ongoing
> >unification of the world, Auerbach wrote in the conclusion of Mimesis, "is
> >most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and
> >exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different
> >people." (pp. 665-6)
> >A life chosen at random can make concretely visible the attempt to unify
> >the world, as well as some of its implications. In saying this I am
> >echoing Auerbach. But Auerbach was implicitly referring to Proust. Let us
> >allow Proust to have the final word: "People foolishly imagine that the
> >broad generalities of social phenomena afford an excellent opportunity to
> >penetrate further into the human soul; they ought, on the contrary, to
> >realise that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that
> >they might have a chance of understanding those phenomena." (p. 683)
>Greater volume of cultural data challenges our conclusions reached on the
>basis of the smaller amounts we were able to survey before digital media.
>(Please twist the tail of this statement if you wish.) The question is how
>to meet the challenge. One way is exemplified by statistical approaches to
>masses of literary and linguistic data and by the methods of corpus
>linguistics -- to tackle the volume head-on. Auerbach's focus on
>Ansatzpunkte, taken up by Ginzburg, suggests another, and, as he says, a
>complementary one:
> >My approach to microhistory... has been contrasted with another version,
> >more oriented towards the social sciences and the critique of their
> >methods. In my view, the opposition is groundlessbecause both versions of
> >microhistory aim at the same theoretical target, albeit from opposite
> >directions. I knowthat theword theory cannot be taken for granted in this
> >context. In the social sciences, theory is often tacitly identified with a
> >broad approach a la Max Weber, and microhistory with a narrowly focused
> >attempt to rescue fromoblivion the lives of marginal, defeatedpeople. If
> >one accepts these definitions, microhistory would be confined to a
> >peripheral and basically atheoretical role that leaves the dominant
> >theories unchallenged.... A life chosen at random can make concretely
> >visible the attempt to unify the world, as well as some of its
> >implications. (p. 682)
>The literary critic (to pick the kind I know best) is not inclined to
>choose a poem at random, but, it seems to me, the methodology translates:
>small, minutely focused study of individual works -- but study that (to
>echo the Psalms) raises its eyes to the expanding horizons, whence cometh
>our help. A a powerful and powerfully appealing way forward?
>[NB: If you do not receive a reply within 24 hours please resend]
>Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
>Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street | London
>WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
>willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/

Stan Ruecker, PhD
Assistant Professor
Humanities Computing
Dept of English and Film Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton AB CANADA
Received on Thu May 04 2006 - 04:14:27 EDT

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