All posts by etewing

Dramatic elements

Laurel’s reference to the Apple promotional video, called Knowledge Navigator (see links below) reminded me of the earlier mention in the NMS of the Apple ad, called 1984 (a novel that featured prominently in an earlier activity of mine today). The Knowledge Navigator is interesting because it suggests such potential, yet it also seems dated: Siri could run circles around the KN in terms of responsiveness, but the KN does a better job of retrieving data. By contrast, the Apple ad witht the 1984 theme seems prescient — if only because the dramatic tension (from Laurel) include the relationship between the lone individual and the forces of mass control. I’m sure someone has redone this ad as the conflict between Snowden and the NSA, for example, and it was certainly the google vs. Microsoft narrative until Google took over the world. Professor Bradford does have a stunning office (not that he spends much time in it, apparently).

Knowledge navigator:




Three terms from the Bill Viola reading resonated with my current efforts in other dimensions: memory, spatial movement, and storage (recording) of ideas (p. 467). The “Russian Flu” project is at the intersection of these three terms: how can the transmission of disease (spatial movement) be studied using newspaper reports (storage of ideas) in ways that are useful for both historical and contemporary understanding (memory). The challenge in this project, however, engages the broader issue raised by Viola about the transition across media. In this project, one shift in media is obvious: the digitization of newspapers, thus moving from paper to electronic media. The transition across media platforms is actually more complicated, in ways that can illustrate the tensions and themes central to Viola’s work. Information about disease begins as biomedical (symptoms) which is then reported, orally in most cases, to and by physicians, and then collected on some level by health officials and reporters, who turn this information into text. Even in the late nineteenth century, this information took on an electronic form, as news was transmitted by telegraph wires between cities and internationally along cable lines. The text then enters the paper medium, which  is how it remained for a couple of decades, until someone microfilmed the newspaper, turning the paper medium into film. The information remained in this medium for another few decades, and then was digitized, which is the current form being studied by students and transformed into an online database. In other words, this point where we are now comes at the end of a long process involved multiple transitions. The anticipatory stage outlined by Viola, where are we going and what will we find when we get there (a porcupine?) is thus suggestive of on-going processes that are central to this other research project.


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

Map1 from NLM

Image 2: Flu Near You, March 20, 2014 (

Flu Near You March2014

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…..

Analysis and intepretation

Last week’s reading and discussion of the divide between rational and interpretive ways of thinking echoed a tension running through a research project that I am conducting this semester. I have a group of 11 students who are doing research on the Russian Flu (1889-1890). Some students have majors in history, but others are in business, biomedical engineering, biological sciences, and other scientific fields. Ten (of the eleven) also have the capacity to read source materials in languages other than English (Spanish, German, or French), which was part of the criteria for selecting them. The topic lends itself to quantitative analysis by looking at numbers of cases or deaths (hence the rational approach) but the nature of the source materials tends to defy quantification because they are incomplete, partial, or subjective (leading to a more interpretive approach). It’s been interesting working with the students on resolving these tensions — and having this experience running parallel to the NMS discussions.

Choosing an image for the blog site

I’ve spent more time thinking about a graphic for this blog than I have about the content. I’m trying to find an image that captures the spirit and purpose of the blog, yet is also consistent with my scholarly approach as a historian and within my limited capacities as a designer and manipulator of images. I expect I’ll try some easy options, get frustrated, and settle for something less than what I want, which is a pattern I have previously experienced in this realm.

Welcome to Awash in Data

This site allows for reflections, observations, and suggestions about the implications of “big data” for research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences. The metaphor of being “awash in data” is both illustrative of my perceptions and suggestive of possible responses. More reflections to come…..