Digital Cartography

The re-enactment of history is something that I love to watch- and participate in! Recreating the folkways of yesteryear, the costumes of our forebears and the events that defined their lives are all worthwhile activities, but re-enactment can happen on a greater scale.

Digital Mapping – creating three dimensional, explorable maps for the computer- has been put to great use by historians. The applications are obvious- we can recreate the landscapes of earlier eras, and travel through, for example, 19th Century New York, or 16th Century London. By overlaying these earlier views with more modern versions of these cities, one can track changes, notice similarities and study the history of the city- not the history of mayors and people, but the history of the urban space itself.

Another use is mapping nationwide- and worldwide- trends, putting history into its geographic context. We speak of the early women’s rights movement in America. That sounds fine, until we realize that America is a vast and varied place. When we study Suffragist marches, do we understand where they are happening? While woman protest in New York City, what are they doing in New York State? What are they doing in Colorado? Can the women’s rights movement be called an American phenomenon, or a New England occurrence?  Obviously the idea spread enough to gain acceptance, but how did it spread? What routes did it take, under what speeds did it travel? Are there still pockets of inequality?

Historians have always used maps to chart history, but their uses were often limited. I think it was the maps themselves that limited their thinking. When one uses a map, one is attempting to find one’s way, to select a route. These are uses we have for maps, but they are not the only things that maps can be used for. Historians who did not realize this use maps to track pioneers and military movements. It makes sense, does it not? Maps are used to go places. Clearly, we can use them to show where people went. Nothing else seemed to present itself.

We cannot blame these historians, of course. Until recently, it was much easier to follow settlers and generals than societal trends or diseases. The former tend to have diaries. Tracing the concrete route of a Civil War Officer from A to B is not too difficult. Tracing the spread of a cultural norm- which may start in the North-east, spread to the Northwest, find itself in some parts of California, slowly make inroads into Middle America, fill up the Eastern Seaboard, double back to the rest of California and then make its way to the South- is much more difficult. Then you discover it hasn’t gained currency with the middle class yet, which will surely alter the future of the trend’s trajectory.

The point here is that the routes of things more ephemeral and difficult to measures than a man’s footsteps are harder to trace when all you have is a pencil, With enough census records, newspaper articles and processing power, it becomes easier to map out what is happening across a nation. Or, indeed, a single city.

The uses of this are almost endless. Frankly, the hard part is getting decent numbers to put on the maps. Measuring First World War casualties by county is not difficult. Measuring non-monetary effects (happiness, contentment) of the Great Depression in rural Saskatchewan is more difficult. Mind you, the great thing about digital mapping is that it can be multi-media in form and multi-disciplinary in action.Instead of numbers, have hard-hit towns appear on your Saskatchewan map. Create a 3-d rendition of this place, circa 1935, for users to explore. Place links throughout the town- on interesting buildings, perhaps- to interviews with survivors.

In this way we can have users understand the scope of the Great Depression- as move move around this map of the Prairies, they can see the desolation of the farms. They can move in closer, and tour a dust-blown town, and understand the deprivation of its inhabitants. They can get even closer and listen to residents, realizing what their lives had been like. It is this ability to ‘zoom in’- to go instantly from seeing the big picture (“Two Million out of work!”), to a single town, to a single factory, to a single employee- and then back out again, to another place in Canada, to people in different circumstances. A digital map gives us the ability to see both big picture and little picture details- the broad numbers, the nation trends, and then the individual lives, the local stories. By seeing both we can learn to connect them.

This does not have to be limited to more modern history, although the plethora of data and the still-living survivors certainly help. Using Digital Maps we can create 1st Century AD Rome, the size, the scale, the traffic. Rome was, first and foremost, a city. A big, loud, dirty city. A well done reconstruction, with dingy buildings, cook fire smoke, traffic and (simulated with actors) noise could bring the heart of the Empire back to life. Rome stops being an unchanging image and becomes- well, a mess. But a living, realistic mess much closer to the truth.

Nevertheless, the strength of the Digital Map lies in our ability to change it’s scope at a moment’s notice. Whether an event with worldwide significance or a local car crash, the Digital Map can focus on it- and provide us with the information we need.

Stuck on Street View,

Scott W. E. Dickinson




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