Part of the first sentence of “Personal Dynamic Media” provoked thoughts about the ways that images, both digital and non-digital, can represent quantifiable human behaviors. The relevant phrase is that the Xerox group is interested in “all aspects of the communication and manipulation of knowledge.” The two images posted below are two very different ways of communicating knowledge about the spread of disease across time and space. Image 1 is a map from an 1892 publication, Die Influenza-Epidemie 1889/90, which some students found on the research trip to the National Library of Medicine on March 7. The map shows the outbreak of disease by two week periods across Europe. Image 2 comes from the Flu Near You project, which uses reports about symptoms submitted by individuals using smart phones and other devices. On the website, the map can be set in motion and it is also possible to focus in on specific areas.
Image 1: Outbreak of Influenza Epidemic in Europe, 1889-1890
Image 2: Flu Near You, March 20, 2014 (https://flunearyou.org/)
Both maps are visual representations of human behavior that can be tracked quantitatively (number of victims, dates, and locations). The connection between Image 2 and the reading is obvious, as “personal dynamic media” are now being used on a massive scale to track human behavior. While Image1 has its limits (it can’t be put into motion and the scale cannot be adjusted), there is something about the simplicity and directness of the information that is attractive. The tension between these two maps is suggestive of the seminar themes, as we ask what is gained, and what is lost, by communicating and manipulating knowledge through a digital medium.
Ted Nelson, like the other authors we’ve read in this seminar, offers a vision of computers that seems to have three elements that exist in some tension with each other: the great potential to expand capacities for intelligence and creativity, the danger of routinizing behavior in ways that become dehumanizing, and the advantages of performing simple repetitive tasks with less effort. I’ve been dealing with all three elements with my Russian Flu research project. On the one hand, the project is taking advantage of new tools such as digitized source materials and shared editing of documents to work in new and different ways. On the other hand, it seems that often these new tools take as much time to learn, and to regularly monitor and update and correct, that at times it seems easier to do things the old fashioned way. And, on the third hand, it is so much easier to do more that it is hard to imagine how we ever worked without this technology. Here’s my latest example of these tensions at work. Tomorrow morning (the van leaves at 6 am) ten students and I are going to the National Library of Medicine on the NIH campus in Bethesda Maryland for a day to work with their collections and meet with some scholars. On the one hand, we’ve been able to prepare for this trip and to generate a report using shared content and editing in ways that would have been much more difficult in the past. On the other hand, we are putting a lot of time and effort (fortunately, not much money) into setting up in person meetings and time to work with non-digital library materials, in ways that would have been very familiar to scholars twenty years ago. And, on the third hand, the primary goals of this project are to generate an online database of source materials and to prepare postings for the History of Medicine Division blog, Circulating Now, both of which are new forms of scholarly output that facilitate exactly the ease of movement and creative engagement recommended by Ted Nelson. So these issues of what’s new, what’s better, and what’s different are recurring concerns of mine as I continue working with these students. Now if only we had the technological to fold Virginia so it didn’t take 4 hours to drive from one corner to another…..