Complication in Simplicity: Timelines, Graphs, and Maps

Time is an abstract concept. Well, it traditionally has been. Among many advancements in traditional concepts that are basic parts of our everyday lives, time is yet another important abstract concept for the digital humanities to make more abstract. Whether we look at timelines or graphs, there is a lot of ways online resources for literature, and even written works, can benefit from being able to summarize information and give a visual representation for text. Of course, as with any study or construct of a study, there are many benefits and potential problems.


Franco Moretti had a much different explanation on time with graphs. Moretti’s idea that close reading is basically a waste of time seems to be the opposite of Rosenburg’s idea to include more in time representation. Moretti seems to think we must keep reading relatively simple if we want to read and study more literature and more of the world’s history in general. Graphs are very easy in that sense, but they could exclude a lot of information. It is important to use close reading in order to look at the subtext and interpretations in reading, graphs, media, and any type of humanities medium. Maybe we should read more books in our canon for pleasure or be more selective about what we read closely, but the digital humanities itself would not exist if it could not take texts and make them more interactive and open to interpretation.

From my own experience, in my psychology classes specifically, graphs can make the text more complicated. By trying to leave little to the imagination it tends to just leave the imagination wandering more. If Moretti thinks that graphs are not open to interpretation, then I think he is wrong based on my experience. The graph that confused me was by Fazio et. al on black and white people’s speed in interpreting negative stereotypes about each other based on a prime, such as a photo. It is not so simple to show one group perceiving themselves as better than they did the other group with just a primed que. Even seeing the amount of time it took the two types of people to come up with stereotypes does not tell us anything about the prime or what factors could have led to the difference in values between and within the group.


See, this graph is confusing isn’t it?

The statistics could always be skewed by other untested constructs or something else that went ignored. In psychology there is often a social desirability response. Even in literature’s quantitative data, there could be other reasons that data could be incomplete as well. Maybe the rise in book reading is based on being forced to read for school rather than being interested, for example. It makes sense that Moretti wants things simple when he says that literature has a symbolic triumph for its ability to control others and make them insubordinate and lazy for example. Moretti does say that graphs comprise of quantitative data for information but not interpretation, and maps and trees are more important for interpretation, which will be read next, but he seems to advocate for very simple graphs.  This all seems paradoxical since, as I attempted to display, obviously graphs are open to interpretation too and are not always simple.

Daniel Rosenberg’s explanation of timeline limitations brings up the idea that messing too much with abstract concepts and trying to confine the concepts to simple categories is a big mistake. Time may seem linear, but it only seems anyway since it is an abstract concept. What is more important than time itself is all that is encompassed in time. If we use timelines, we have to think about what caused an even to occur rather than just what preceded each event and what succeeded it. The basic infrastructure of a timeline does not allow for showing obstacles in an event or other deviations, as Rosenburg explains. Even the color and shape can make a variation in a timeline that can show more information about sequential events. Changing the temporal distance between events in the timeline is important to. If maps and hierarchical trees are interpretive and graphs are qualitative data, then where does the timeline fit in?

I guess since a timeline is much like a temporal map and a hierarchy, Moretti would see it as interpretive, but it actually seems less interpretive than graphs in a lot of ways and it needs to be more interpretive. The simplicity of the timelines contrasts a lot from the graphs because it is not easy to generalize, but graphs typically are very generalized and are still overly simplified. Complication in itself can be overly simplistic because specificity and generalizations are both simplistic and they are complicated because they either are too open to possibility or not inclusive enough. In digital humanities we must find a balance.

I believe that we need to just realize the shortcomings of graphs and timelines. Working with websites such as  StoryMap, Timeline JS, and Tiki-Toki shows just how the digital humanities can attempt to expand and develop graphs and timelines to omit their shortcomings. They all are usable for interpretation, data, summarizing, and expounding. We have to include multiple viewpoints and include multiple mediums in our digital humanities tools if we want them to be useful. If we want to avoid incorrect interpretations, classism, sexism, or any type of exclusion we must be willing to use both graphs and timelines simply when they need to be and more in depth for other situations. Maybe, eventually, we will not need sites like Orlando for women authors and other important literary contributors, if we make sure to include them in our historically patriarchal timelines and graphs.


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