The Rhetoric of Mapping Interface and Data

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Elli Mylonas

    Brown University

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In this paper I want to continue to the discussion of the rhetoric of the digital monograph I presented at ACH-ALLC2005. That paper looked at past discussions of rhetoric as applied to scholarly hypertext and to the web.
As a continuation of this line of thought, I’d like to
consider the relationship of underlying “data” to user-facing
“interface.” Two significant current theoretical models of digital publication are the notions of the “digital
archive” and the “database.” Theorists like Daalgard and Moulthrop see the internet as a global archive; their choice of term privileges the function of the collection of data, its completeness and lack of a singular perspective or notion of truth. For them, the archive is specifically a very large collection of homogeneous or heterogeneous
documents available in digital form, like the internet,
or the NY Times archive. Lev Manovich uses the term “database” as the informing paradigm for the
organization of new media productions; his terminology privileges the mode of interaction enables by a particular
technology. For Manovich the “database” is a more
suitable replacement for “narrative” when discussing the potential and effect of digital art and other (constrained)
websites. Like Moulthrop and Daalgard, Alan Liu uses the term “archive” for digital collections that are XML-based, as opposed to scholarly collections that are
database driven, and views both sorts of collection as
functionally equivalent.
In this paper, I’d like to move between the larger and more generic archive and the database informed individual
website. Manovich’s idiosyncratic use of the term database to refer to any structured data can be confusing, but in this paper, implementation methods, whether XML markup, database, or some other technology, will not affect the discussion.
Alan Liu has described the change in user interface
and in the role of the scholar/author as more websites become template driven. He identifies a shift from the craftsmanlike activity of early website creation, to a
model where the interface and the underlying source data are intentionally separate, as are the roles of their collector and designer. Interface designers are designing pages with empty space into which data pours, over the content of which they have no control. The user interface is usually considered the locus of meaning in a website or in a digital publication. In the case of the contained,
authored “monograph” the user interface is where
an author can present a point of view and engender
behaviors in the readers of the work. At first glance, even in a digital archive, the user interface determines what a user can do, or learn about the underlying material. However, the underlying data, which may be structured
either as a database or using XML markup, also is
inextricably linked to the interface. Rhetorical casts that have been inserted into the data interact with the interface, just as the interface affects not only users’ technical ability to manipulate the data, but their view of what manipulations make sense for that data.
This interaction occurs in the space between the data and the interface. That space contains the process enabled by a web site whose most important part can be described as a mapping between interface and data. This mapping necessitates an interaction of surface and infrastructure and can only be understood in the context of an awareness of the rhetoric that belongs to each side of the map. Part of this space is the domain of information designers and
interface designers. They are the ones who plan user
interactions, lay out the relationships of pages that a user sees, and are familiar with human cognitive ability
and usability. But before one can draw the map of the presentation, the map of the content must exist, and this is also an intentional product. Because of this, at the most significant level, these decisions inhere in the scholar
who is amassing the archive or who is authoring the
monograph. The scholar can indicate what to markup, and what kinds of interactions a user should be able to have with the digital work.
The importance of the relationships between “source” and “visualization” or “content” and “presentation” has already given rise to a new genre of art, that explores these relationships in a playful way. Artists represent
existing, often real-time, data streams such as internet
traffic, economic or geophysical data using visual
representations. Manovich suggests that one way to
engage critically with such works is to look at how
effectively the choice of mapping functions as a
commentary on the data stream. This same approach may be applied to digital publications in order to
evaluate and understand the dependencies between
interface and data.
These theories will be tested by discussing some
representative websites such as the Women Writers
Project (, documents in the Virtual
Humanites Lab (
Italian_Studies/vhl/vhl.html) and Thomas and Ayers, The Differences Slavery Made (http://www.vcdh.
[1] Daalgard, Rune, “Hypertext and the Scholarly
Archive - Intertexts, Paratexts and Metatexts at Work”,
in Proceedings of the twelfth ACM conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (14-18 August, Aarhus, Denmark). New York: ACM Press: 175-184
[2] Liu, Alan, “The Art of Extraction: Toward a
Cultural History and Aesthetics of XML and Database-
Driven Web Sites.”
[3] Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse. By: Liu, Alan. Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2004, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p49-84
[4] Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.
[5] Manovich, Lev, The Anti-Sublime Ideal in New Media. Chair et Metal 7, 2002.
[6] Moulthrop, S. The analog experience of digital culture, in R. Koskimaa and M. Eskelinen (eds.), Cybertext
Yearbook 2000. Jyvaskyla: Publications of the
Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, 2001. pp. 183-98.
[7] Moulthrop, Stuart, “What the Geeks Know:
Hypertext and the Problem of Literacy” in Proceedings
of Sixteenth ACM Conference on Hypertext and
Hypermedia, ACM Press 2005, pp xx-yy.
[8] Christiane Paul: Databases, data visualization and mapping in Christiane Paul: Digital Art, Thames and Hudson 2003, pp. 174-189
[9] Ryan, Marie-Laure, Cyberspace, Cybertexts,
Cybermaps. Dichtung-Digital 2004, issue 1.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None