Author Archives: Phil Agee

“Map a Timeline” Experiment

Image of a geographical map of data stored in a Google Sheet.

Image of a geographical map of data stored in a Google Sheet.

Map a Timeline is an experiment in three inter-related areas of digital humanities education:

1. Using visual maps to apprehend and elicit temporal and other relationships amongst a given series of events, texts, persons, or things which share a date as one attribute. The sample series for this experiment is a set of readings from a syllabus.

2. Constructing a map visualization which can serve as one of several pedagogical tools in a toolbox of supplemental open access utilities for instructors and learners. The principal technologies enabling this capability are the Javascript mapping library Leaflet, the reverse geocoding service Here, and Google Sheets as the data source for the mapping visualizations.

3. Incorporating critical inquiry of the data as a fundamental practice for the display of visualizations. The primary features enabling this critical inquiry are annotations for every item in the series and a listing of the provenance of the information technologies and data used.


The work undertaken to construct the tool involved an iterative process of researching the Internet for example code for libraries, frameworks, and components; wiring them together using Javascript; and customizing them to address the three areas of assessment. As an experimental proof of concept, the effort set aside critical considerations, including: accessibility for people with disabilities (at least 16 issues were discovered by the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool), rendering on mobile devices, the use of non-proprietary technologies and data sources, and compatibility with standard browsers and operating systems. Each decision carried a “social cost” related to the larger context of the the relationship between the use of technology and social responsibility, which could arguably be compared to and associated with notions of “technical” and “environmental” debt.

As the mapping library chosen for this experiment, Leaflet offers a free and simple programming interface following the software design of Google Maps and older mapping software and describes itself as “the leading open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps”. In the same way that rendering libraries are made available at no cost while data services are offered for a fee, Leaflet promotes and integrates with the corporate-for-profit service Mapbox. Since Leaflet more easily integrates with services other than Mapbox, the library is more open than Google Maps. This serves as an example of the paradoxical entanglements of proprietary and open source technologies. For-profit corporations leverage non-profit labor, as is clearly demonstrated by the encouragement on Leaflet’s website to contribute to the open source project. These efforts benefit both for-profit and non-profit constituencies. The entanglement raises the question of how to evaluate the long and short term socio-political and socio-economic benefits and liabilities of “free” technologies and software.

In terms of using geographic maps to elicit relationships amongst works based on the place of work of the authors, the viewer can discern a general sense of the geographic scope of the series within the larger context of global and continental academic institutions, including regional dispersions and concentrations. The spacial placement together with the underlying geography offers the possibility of entering into comparisons of the authors and the texts that would not be as easily imaginable in a textual list. Spatial representations arguably provide an artificial mediation that “synthetically” animates relationships, perhaps along the lines of popular board games such as Risk, Monopoly, and Pandemic. Filtering by date displays contemporaneous readings as well as interactively elicits a chronology amongst the readings in the series. However, without additional visual controls, imagery, or cartographic features, the pedagogical benefits would seem to quickly run their course. A list of enhancements to further draw out the nature of relationships might include: a sliding control on a horizontal timeline displaying labels of “dates of interest” pulled from a combination of the readings, references, and online encyclopedias; arrowed lines connecting the place markers to indicate references amongst the readings; images in the marker popups associated with each item; using color and other visual codings to create sub groups. Problems of this approach include: the imposition of cartographically-based ideologies and associated iconographies onto the subject matter; inadvertent anachronisms resulting from applying a dynamic temporal perspective to a temporally static geography; for series which have weak temporal semantics, the association of temporality that is irrelevant to the relationships amongst the items.

In terms of map features that offer affordances for critical inquiry, the mouse overs on the markers that trigger textual annotations displayed next to the map would seem to point to opportunities. Interactive maps enable quick comparisons based on the content of the annotations, suggesting the use of maps as substitutes for a table of contents. Adding additional logic to interpret more data attributes opens avenues for more semantically rich and critically directed annotations. Spatial network maps would add supplemental visualizations of frequently used words in the readings along with networks maps of the works cited. Incorporating a list of technologies used to construct the utility offers an understanding of the social context of technology construction, that point to the potential for the explicit display of the supply chain of labor processes.

Challenges (to be resolved)

Challenges from a user experience (UX-visual and interaction design) perspective include: the placement of more than 2 markers in the same location; the placement of markers for works by multiple authors.

From a data relation and visualization perspective, a challenge is to identify relevant spatial attributes and effectively elaborate critical annotations that reveal assumptions about the data.

From a software development perspective, a challenge is the secure storage of API keys using Github Pages ( The code for sites on Github Pages are generally stored in a public git repository. Storing API keys in a public git repository exposes the keys to the public.


The spatial placement of temporally categorized information offers a range of opportunities for exploring relationships and interdependencies. Effectiveness depends on both the kind of information and the incorporation of additional visual features. Experimenting with a syllabus of readings yields insights regarding the value and irrelevancy of chronologies and temporalities. In so far as this experiment fails to effectively address its areas of assessment or argues for the impracticality of spatial rendering of temporality for certain kinds of datasets, the effort may nevertheless offer value in terms of the limits of maps in the development of visualizations for new conceptualizations of critically informed web books and historical web atlases.

Of models, measurement, the multi-interpretive, and the plurinational

The diverse range of concerns reflected in discussions pertaining to data and visualization speak to the importance of humanistic reasoning which in the best case scenario forms an integral part of the practices of producing data sourced and digitally mediated understanding. Whether the concerns relate to the material consequences of data and visualization for specific audiences and populations or to more abstract implications of data and representation, humanistic reasoning takes us further along the continuum toward data and visualization literacy. While the notion of literacy is not without risks and dangers, such as socially divided in-groups and out-groups, the tremendous consequences of different levels of awareness and understanding of the hidden implications and life-altering consequences of data and digital representation argue for dedicated and specialized education and research.

Johanna Drucker’s powerful proposal for the development of interpretive expressions based on “information about subjective user-dependent metrics, subjective displays of information, and subjective methods of graphical expression” builds on Lev Manovich’s descriptive analysis of the reductive nature of graphic primitives. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s cautionary critique of the myriad constraints, farfetched analytical frameworks, and “the power relations of financial actors or the social construction of race in computational models or analytical frameworks” embedded in big data underscores Drucker’s theory of the observer co-dependent nature of value-laden data and phenomena. Jennifer Guiliano and Carolyn Heitman’s conceptualization of “difficult heritage” helps to contextualize the consequences of colonialist harm in relation to both indigenous data and the representations of enslaved peoples’ experiences in digital story telling.

Are there unaddressed implications of the roles of models and measurement in Drucker’s systematization of factors and functions in interpretative analysis? To the extent indigenous nations and communities favor plurinational states (now built into the Bolivian and Ecuadorean constitutions), multi-interpretive approaches might include a variety of models of time and space, such as cyclical views of history developed by indigenous cultures. What are the limits of the use and display of measurements and counting and can old-fashioned narrative and textual explication play a critical role in the exposition and explanation of what might be inherently difficult and troubled data and visualization in and of themselves? Fundamental to any understanding are the questions about who originates and creates data and visualization, for whom, for what purpose, and who ultimately benefits.

The power, potential, and danger of maps

Given the pernicious uses to which maps have been put throughout the millennia, perhaps in the long run they are more of a liability than a benefit. It is one thing for map makers to abuse the inherent distortions resulting from reducing a three dimensional space onto a two dimensional surface, which Mark Monmonier argues in How to Lie with Maps necessitates a basic competency in map literacy. It is another thing for people to use maps in the project of violent empire building and the wielding of power though hegemonic ideologies that naturalize otherwise strange notions of empire, nation-state, national sovereignty, and territorial nationalism. Was not the map a key tool, along with seafaring technologies, in the establishment of the Madeira sugar plantations by the Portuguese during the early 1400s, setting the stage for 400 years of arguably the gravest loss of life and human suffering ever experienced in the history of the species? Yarimar Bonilla, Max Hantel, and Mayukh Sen address the painful consequences of map making when placed in the hands of either brutalizing conquistadores of the Caribbean, fixated on territorial obsessions of self-serving sovereignty, or 21st century tech companies which, while offering globally available satellite-to-street-level detail to the privileged, supply blurry ground-level images of regions inhabited by a large part of the world’s population.

Yet despite the risks and the dangers, also shared with many if not all technologies, maps continue to be a part of the pursuit of collective emancipation, personal autonomy, and the flourishing of human beings. As a way of understanding and organizing geographical space, arguably the most fundamental of all dimensions of this particular universe (at least), maps have enabled the increase of knowledge of the world and as a result the expansion of the human mind. Perhaps in the same way Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell argue that computers represent conceptual models, maps similarly help us model relationships arising from spatial experience, resulting in topologies of geographic knowledge that serve as gateways to unbounded understanding (Ramsay and Rockwell 2012). The world mapped as a globe with its imaginary representation of humanity must count as a key image of the humanistic tradition. Perhaps the emancipatory power of maps is greater than the power of information itself, reflecting a mental computer in which spatial algorithms execute logic that translates scale, projection, and symbolization and resolves generalizations of point, line, and area symbols.

While maps help to enforce ideologies and the world-making experiences of dehumanizing difference, they offer–despite significant omissions, over simplifications, and distortions identified by Bonilla and Hantel in “Visualizing Sovereignty”–important moments and opportunities for counter hegemonic resistance (Bonalla and Hantel 2016). A look at a map of México before the 1846 US Intervention (La Intervención Estadounidense en México, known in the US as the Mexican-American War) evokes irony-laden chistes (jokes) that the gringo not only invaded lands inhabited by Spanish speaking people, but that even today those lands are still culturally bound to Mexico and Spain regardless of any imperial promulgations to the contrary. Similarly the ease of making maps with map making software has helped community historians remap, recover, and decolonize indigeneity. Maps now abound throughout the Internet of Native American homelands labeled by their indigenous names, such as maps of homelands of the Lenape who lived in Lenapehoking, an area later labeled New Jersey, southeastern New York State, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and southeastern Connecticut. Perhaps because the ontological and performative act of naming, labeling, vocabulary building, and semantic marking (space and territory) in some sense represents the most powerful act of authority before the use of physical force, digital maps could very well be the most powerful of all digital technologies. Maps arguably enable the complete colonization of the mind once the colonizer succeeds in expropriating mental labor to make semantic inventories. The emergence of mind maps and mind mapping software and their incorporation into agile software and organizational “brainstorming” processes suggests that mapping in various ways continues to enable the opening of markets and channels of resource and wealth extraction begun by map making and empire building Renaissance Europeans.

How can we make digital maps and engage in digital map making in ways that do not recapitulate processes of exclusion? As with other practices in digital technologies, an adherence to the values enumerated by Lisa Spiro (openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, experimentation) offers a starting point (Spiro 2012). The self-assessment, self-reflexivity, and auto-critical analysis of Bonalla and Hantel, in which they delineate the shortcomings and the iterative, fail-fast processes of their map making of the Caribbean, offers a path toward the prevention of harm (Bonalla and Hantel 2016). Perhaps most importantly of all would be the process discussed and experienced in our last class: a commitment to a digital praxis of care that takes into account transgressive imaginaries, assemblages, fragmentary pasts and futures, diaspora-recovery, rescue, the violence of the academy, and the communication of already known understandings to the rest of civil society. Less importantly in terms of theory, digital theory perhaps finds a caring path not so much through Vincent Leitch’s Renaissance of Theory (Leitch 2005) as through an extension of Marquis Bey’s Black and ungendered fugitivity, in which safe refuges are built by academic fugitives in the diasporas of interdisciplinary borderlands where the neoliberal university does not dare venture (Bey 2019).

Works Cited

Bey, Marquis. 2019. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Bonilla, Yarimar and Max Hantel. 2016. “Visualizing Sovereignty: Cartographic Queries for the Digital Age” in sx archipelagos, International Small Axe Project. Accessed September 12, 2020.

Leitch, Vincent B. 2005. “Theory Ends” in Profession, 122-28. Accessed September 12, 2020.

Monmonier, Mark S. 1991. How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramsay, Stephen and Geoffrey Rockwell. 2012. “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Accessed September 12, 2020.

Sen, Mayukh. 2017. “Dividing Lines. Mapping platforms like Google Earth have the legacies of colonialism programmed into them” in Real Life. Accessed September 12, 2020.

Spiro, Lisa. 2012. “This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Accessed September 12, 2020.

DH epistemologies and the PhD interdisciplinary system

From the perspective of a small tech startup mindset, the ever looming burn rate of funding and the ever pressing need to demonstrate market share potential and traction mean that any time spent on ways and methods of knowing and understanding is by and large a recipe for disaster.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the university earns its keep by devoting time and attention to matters that have consequences beyond the viability of a market dependent enterprise under neoliberal capitalism.   

As soon as questions of power arise in the examination of the hows and the whys of knowing within a given academic field, the university itself rightfully becomes a site of critique, debate, and contestation.  Questions about academic labor and funding–including which kinds of labor and which kinds of funding, and how ways of knowing perpetuate racialized, gendered, and other forms of exclusion–rightfully become subjects of research, shape the directions of research, and serve as successful or failed theories and models for social institutions in the broader society.

Some questions regarding valid forms of knowledge in the DH might include:

  • How and why might some individuals assert that DH threatens the kind of PhD system that has held sway over the last 200 or so years?
  • How might academicians, faculties, and PhD committees be ready to open up spaces that rely on other ways of demonstrating worthy contributions to knowledge and understanding?
  • Does not interdisciplinarity imply the “potential” relevance of any question, theory, or claim, depending at the end of the day on definitional boundaries established by the lineages of program heads or department faculty who determine the scope of the discipline in terms of the relevance of questions for ongoing and future research?
  • If language itself is arguably a (social) technology, might technology questions at virtually any level or from any domain “potentially” pertain to the production of knowledge and understanding within any given interdisciplinary field?
  • How can digital technologies and digital data be used by and within academic communities in ways that defend higher education from the neoliberal assault and the subversion of humanistic values that often accompanies capital in its seemingly unending drive toward self-expansion?  (This last question was prompted by a piece I stumbled across recently while searching for “socially engaged” scholarship that amounts to a full scale and categorical critique directed against the digital humanities.  Entitled “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” and published in 2016, the authors, two of whom identify themselves as having “long histories as digital researchers”, reject and attack DH for being part the “neoliberal takeover of the university”.   In what must be by now a bygone artifact of earlier DH debates, there is a considerable amount of nuanced academic politics.  Whether or not their argument is valid, it has been instructive to consider a markedly critical, if not negative, perspective.  It points to the importance of being very clear and transparent about the goals, commitments, values, and epistemologies of the field.  While digital humanities as a field is clearly not part of a “neoliberal takeover”, I do think digital scholars are more likely to succeed than not by being aware of the ways in which funding can end up subverting the potential of DH within the broader humanities and higher learning.)

Approaching the Digital Humanities

Each of the digital scholarship projects under review (Torn Apart/Separados, The Early Caribbean Digital Archive, Colored Conventions Project, and Reviews in Digital Humanities) exemplifies particular aspects as well as the general spirit of the field of Digital Humanities as described and presented in articles by authors Matthew Gold, Lauren Klein, Lisa Spiro, Kelly Baker Josephs, and Roopika Risam in Debates in the Digital Humanities (DDH). From an information technology perspective, the projects demonstrate a close alignment between implementation and a general analysis of requirements for the development of digital projects and social infrastructure whose goals are arguably the extension and enhancement of research, teaching, and social engagement within the humanities and higher learning.

In Torn Apart/Separados, the Mobilized Humanities team demonstrates its commitment to social and political engagement identified in the 2019 essay “A DH That Matters” through data mining and a series of hard-hitting data visualizations that expose the financial links between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and elected officials and corporations.  With the Colored Conventions Project the team led by co-founders Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey also carries out its commitment to social justice by combining access to free and open source databases and digital exhibitions–that document African American conventions organized in the years before, during, and after the U.S. Civil War–with crowd sourced digital scholarship activities and community support for contemporary civil rights activism. Through the online journal Reviews in Digital Humanities, the journal’s editors offer a fast-track model for peer review of digital scholarship that contributes to needed academic reform in peer review processes discussed in the DDH’s 2012 essay “The Digital Humanities Moment”. Leveraging  technology opportunities for curated digital content preservation and memorialization, The Early Caribbean Digital Archive self-consciously centers the public memory of history-from-bottom-up through primary sources of early Caribbean cultures that speak to the truth in the African proverb “until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

While the digital projects implement only a small subset of the new techniques and applications identified in the DDH’s “Expanded Field” of 2016, each of them contributes to a digital culture-sphere reflected in the growing number of conferences (such as the recently held Virtual DH2020 conference of the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO)) and associations making up and constituting an expanding world-wide-web of digital humanists. Of all the issues mentioned in the DDH’s “state of the field” essays, perhaps the least explicitly addressed are the “controversies over tenure and casualized academic labor” identified in the DDH’s 2012 initial essay “The Digital Humanities Moment”. As a potential avenue for filling this gap, the interdisciplinary (and transdisciplinary) field of Critical University Studies would seem to offer possibilities for cross-fertilization between conceptualizations of academic labor and power in higher education and applications of the Digital Humanities.

As a contribution to Lisa Spiro’s call to establish a set of core values for the Digital Humanities, in which she argues for the core values of “openness”, “collaboration”, “collegiality and connectedness”, “diversity”, and “experimentation”, I would emphasize the “self-reflexiveness”  discussed in the 2012 “The Digital Humanities Moment” and “multilingualism” as secondary and supporting values to the core values of “openness” and “diversity”. Self-reflexiveness and multilingualism offer a path to the consideration of long standing efforts in University reform outside of the United States, including for example aspects of social engagement with civil society formulated in the Third Mission initiatives in European Higher Education and the Extension movement in Latin American Higher Education that traces back to the 1918 University Reforms initiated by the students and faculty of the University of Cordoba, Argentina, in alliance with Argentine labor unions. These formulations are historically grounded in the hard-won recognition of the autonomy and social responsibility of the university as an institution critically situated along side (and as an agent of) government, business, and civil society. To the extent Digital Humanities in the United States can participate in and learn from efforts outside of U.S. institutional geography, the field of global DH might arguably find fuller sails and a more assured trajectory.

One additional contextual reference prompted by the digital scholarship under review is the experience of universities with modern authoritarian regimes and associated technologies and cultures of repression and resistance. While the histories of modern authoritarian regimes are very different and any comparisons are arguably problematic, U.S. universities and digital humanists at the current juncture stand to benefit from recalling the ways in which universities in such regions as Latin America (and in other areas of the Global South) responded in dark times to the impact of authoritarian regimes on civil society.  In particular, the role many universities played during the period of Latin American military dictatorship (1920–1990) offers a historically grounded reference for universities facing regimes that are implementing increasingly similar programs of brutality, trauma, and erasure of the truth.  Universities in Latin America responded by offering themselves as sanctuaries and informal social networks of resistance that addressed in various ways the need for connectedness and community as a means of coping with an unprecedented scale of trauma and violence directed at civil society. While the nature of repression in Latin America during this time was different than the brutality and trauma of the current moment, digital spaces organized, curated, and maintained by digital humanists offer one of many kinds of similar havens and avenues of resistance for civil society during a time of the resurgence of authoritarian brutality, repression, and trauma.