Seeing Is Revealing: A Critical Discussion on Visualisation And The Digital Humanities

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  1. 1. Erik Malcolm Champion

    Curtin University

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Seeing Is Revealing: A Critical Discussion on Visualisation And The Digital Humanities

Erik Malcolm

Curtin University


Paul Arthur, University of Western Sidney

Locked Bag 1797
Penrith NSW 2751
Paul Arthur

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Long Paper


digital humanities - nature and significance
history of Humanities Computing/Digital Humanities

Images and Written Language
Yet visualisation is at least as old as written language. The earliest symbols are artistic rather than literary. Historically, the distinction between text and symbol has been blurred, from early European languages to Asian languages and as part of world history in general
Tang201324(Tang, 2013)242412Tang, DidiChina Discovers Some Of The World's Oldest WritingHuff PostChina Discovers Some Of The World's Oldest Writing201310 JulyNewspaper>. Even today, language is geographically influenced
Mark198925(Mark et al., 1989)252510Mark, David MGould, Michael DNunes, JoanSpatial language and geographic information systems: Cross-linguistic issues (El Lenguaje Espacial y Los Sistemas de Información Geograficos: Temas Interlinguisticos)Conferencia Latinoamericana sobre el Technologia de los Sistemas de Información Geográficos (SIG)25-291989Venezuela>. One can include cave paintings; they reveal the long-term association between image, space, and meaning
Viegas200826(Viegas, 2008)262643Viegas, JenniferMusic and art mixed in the Stone AgeABC Science: News in ScienceABC Science: News in ScienceThursday, 3 July 20082008ABC>

Brown, 2012). In some prehistoric caves the paintings are apparently spatial pointers to reverberant spaces (and reverberation apparently indicates spirituality) while some archaeologists believe Lascaux cave paintings are maps of the stars (see In Australia, traditional Aboriginal paintings are visualisations of mythical knowledge as well as environmental resources; they are cultural schemas and ‘totemic maps’
Lewis197637(Lewis, 1976, McDonald and Veth, 2013)373717Lewis, DavidRoute Finding by Desert Aborigines in AustraliaJ. NavigationJ. Navigation21-3829119760373-463310.1017/S0373463300043307McDonald201323232317McDonald, JoVeth, PeterThe Archaeology of Memory: The Recursive Relationship of Martu Rock Art and PlaceAnthropological ForumAnthropological Forum367-38623420132013/12/01Routledge0066-4677>.

Textual Literacy
To improve public access to digitalised material
Warwick201213(Warwick et al., 2012, Kirschenbaum, 2010)131328Warwick, ClaireTerras, Melissa M.Nyhan, JulianneDigital humanities in practiceDigital mediaHumanities -- Technological innovationsLibraries -- Special collections -- Electronic information resourcesInformation technology -- Social aspects2012LondonFacet Pub. : in association with UCL Centre for Digital HumanitiesKirschenbaum201015151556Kirschenbaum, Mathew G.Digital Humanitiesacademic room20142010Online of Maryland?> we also need to tackle the problem of literacy, digital literacy, and digital fluency
Resnick200216(Resnick, 2002)161613Resnick, MitchelRethinking learning in the digital age2002The Global Information Technology Report: Readiness for the Networked World. Oxford University Press?>. Multimedia, visualisations, and sensory interfaces can communicate across a wider swathe of the world’s population. And although literacy is increasing, technology is further wedging a fundamental divide between those who can read and write and those who cannot
UNESCO201417(UNESCO, 2014)171712UNESCOLiteracy for all remains an elusive goal, new UNESCO data shows | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization20142014/01/29/03:31:29>. Yet developing visual literacy is still nascent, even though more and more people read by viewing graphical interfaces, and text-based interfaces cause serious problems for people with low levels of literacy
Medhi201135(Medhi et al., 2011, Chaudry et al., 2012)353517Indrani MedhiSomani PatnaikEmma BrunskillS.N. Nagasena GautamaWilliam ThiesKentaro ToyamaDesigning mobile interfaces for novice and low-literacy usersACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact.ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact.1-2818120111073-0516195902410.1145/1959022.1959024Chaudry201236363610Chaudry, Beenish MConnelly, Kay HSiek, Katie AWelch, Janet LMobile interface design for low-literacy populationsProceedings of the 2nd ACM SIGHIT international health informatics symposium91-1002012ACM1450307817?>.

Non-Text-Based Media Are Part of Digital Humanities
Archives are not just text, and the digital humanities
are collaborative and interwoven. Even the book itself is a material, embodied experience. Literature itself is linked to both the image
Theibault201220(Theibault, 2012)20205Theibault, JohnDougherty, JackNawrotz, KristenVisualizations and Historical Arguments by John Writing History in the Digital AgeDigital Culture Books(Spring 2012 version)Part 52012OnlineUniversity of Michigan Press?> and to materiality
Rudy201121(Rudy, 2011)212117Rudy, Kathryn M.Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts through the Physical Rituals they RevealElectronic British Library JournalElectronic British Library Journal20112011 Manuscripts made as private devotional prayer books often reveal that their owners handled and kissed them as part of rituals.?>; the materiality of Icelandic sagas and runic inscriptions are considered by various scholars to be essential properties
Jesch201322(Jesch, 2013)222217Jesch, JudithRunes and Words: Runology in a Lexicographical Context (plenary paper)Futhark, International Journal of Runic Studies, Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, 'Runes in Context'Futhark, International Journal of Runic Studies, Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, 'Runes in Context'77-1004James E. Knirk and Henrik Williams2013August 2010Oslo Norway recenly, younger scholars in paricular have been invesigaing he ways in which he whole runic objec “means” (Sern 2009, Bianchi 2010), showing how he decoraion, design and layou o runesones in paricular conribue o he meaning o he inscripions, making hem muli-modal objecs. I mysel have argued (Jesch 1998) ha he maerialiy o runesones is as much a par o heir meaning as heir exualiy. ?>. Humanities is/are not merely multimodal but also embodied experiences. The objects in and on which the humanities are described, critiqued, and preserved are more than just holders for text; they are essential artefacts that give researchers essential clues in the interpretation of text and author. Material objects are not merely brute objects; they are symbolic as well, inscribed into the lived and symbolic world
McDonald201323(McDonald and Veth, 2013)232317McDonald, JoVeth, PeterThe Archaeology of Memory: The Recursive Relationship of Martu Rock Art and PlaceAnthropological ForumAnthropological Forum367-38623420132013/12/01Routledge0066-4677>.

Scholarly Arguments
Research labs that call themselves visualisation labs include Kings College Visualisation Lab (, Wired! Lab Digital Art History and Visual Culture (, AliVE—Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment (, and the founder of CAVE VR, EVL—Electronic Visualization Laboratory ( The name also appears in conferences and in journals—for example, the
Journal of Visualization and Computer Animation

. Can they all be wrong?

The above labs and journals suggest that visualisation can also be the development of a simulation rather than the depiction of data or a model. These laboratories may produce high-resolution graphical models to represent archaeological data, but they can also produce simulations to test hypotheses. Beat Schwendimann
Schwendimann201017(2010)171756Schwendimann, BeatWhat is the difference between a simulation and a model? [Updated]Proto-Knowledge-Turning disconnected information into knowledge through visualizations20142010unknown> explains the distinction succinctly:

A model is a product (physical or digital) that represents a system of interest. A model is similar to but simpler than the system it represents, while approximating most of the same salient features of the real system as close as possible . . . [while] . . . a simulation is the process of using a model to study the behavior and performance of an actual or theoretical system. . . . While a model aims to be true to the system it represents, a simulation can use a model to explore states that would not be possible in the original system.
By creating a simulation rather than a model, we can test hypotheses. So, yes, I am also arguing that games can be considered to be visualisations, of the designer’s mental model of the game world. Games (with examples like
Papers, Please; September 12; and
Space Refugees) are persuasive
and rhetorical simulations.

Earlier definitions don’t appear to understand the persuasive and rhetorical nature of visualisations, perhaps because they wish to use them as value-neutral tools. For example, McCormick et al.
McCormick1987140(1987)14014017McCormick, B., DeFanti, T. & Brown, MVisualization in Scientific ComputingComputer GraphicsComputer Graphics216November 19871987?> defined visualisation as ‘to form a mental image of something incapable of being viewed or not at that moment visible’ . . . (Collins Dictionary) . . . ‘a tool or method for interpreting image data fed into a computer and for generating images from complex multi-dimensional data sets’. This definition invalidates visualisations that predate the large use of data, does not attempt to explain the mental model and process behind the visualisation, and believes visualization must focused on image generation.

More interestingly, Kosara
Kosara200728(2007)282810Kosara, RobertVisualization Criticism – The Missing Link Between Information Visualization and ArtProceedings of the 11th International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV)631–6362007> posited three interesting criteria for visualisation: it must be based on (nonvisual) data, produce an image, and the result must be readable and recognizable. He added this interesting subcriteria: ‘In addition to readability, a visualization has to be made with the intent to communicate data three steps: realizing that data is being visualized by the image, understanding what is being visualized, and how the display is to be read’. Unfortunately he also tried to create a simple spectrum ranging from practical visualisations to sublime/artistic visualisations. I believe he has conflated two quite different concepts, at least according to Kantian aesthetics. But he has come closer to a more useful and generic definition: visualisation should reveal the process behind the output.

But where is visualisation as a research tool in its own right? Can’t visualisation actually
create new research questions or at least prove difficult to answer questions? Examples in my field, virtual heritage, include a photo-realistic model which showed colours not actually visible in the ruins of the remaining temple
Chalmers199634(Chalmers and Stoddar, 1996)34345Chalmers, A.Stoddar, S.Higgins, T.Main, P.Lang, J.Photo-Realistic Graphics for Visualising Archaeological Site ReconstructionsImaging the Past: Electronic Imaging and Computer Graphics in Museums and Archaeology 85-93114 British Museum Occasional Paper 114 1996London British Museum Press?>, computer modelling to deduce the astronomical function of ancient Roman obelisks (, or digital data-driven maps to create historically derived visual descriptions of ancient Roman journeys ( There have also been more general humanities-orientated papers arguing that visualisation can be reflective and critical

(Dörk et al., 2013; Jessop, 2008; Robichaud and Blevins, 2011).

Visualization is an extremely significant aspect of digital humanities, and writers such as Burdick et al.
Burdick201218SG2-3(2012)18185Burdick, AnneDrucker, JohannaLunenfeld, PeterPresner, ToddSchnapp, JeffreyA Short Guide to the Digital HumanitiesDigital Humanities2012Cambridge USAMIT Press> agree, but we need to improve our understanding and communication of visualisation as being part of the humanities not just now but also historically, before the advent of computer data.
And to recap: historically text has not lived in a hermetically sealed hermeneutic well all by itself. A world with literature but without the arts is intellectually and experientially impoverished. Critical thinking and critical literacy extend beyond the reading and writing of text. Visualization can make scholarly arguments relevant to the humanities. Therefore non-text-based research should figure more prominently in digital humanities readers and monographs.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2015
"Global Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Western Sydney University

Sydney, Australia

June 29, 2015 - July 3, 2015

280 works by 609 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (10)

Organizers: ADHO