May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Patricia Seed, University of California-Irvine


Since human relationships with the environment usually involve constant change and adaptation on both sides, only similarly dynamic three-dimensional visualizations have the potential for portraying that interactive past of humans and their environments. Increasingly complex, three-dimensional computer visualization in meteorology and oceanography has vastly improved our knowledge and understanding of complex dynamic processes such as weather and ocean currents. These models contain an unrealized potential to contribute to understanding why agricultural settlements emerged in one area, while a pastoral economy developed nearby. They can also show how environmental factors such as wind and water patterns might have influenced where people near a coast would have chosen to reside. Their potential also exists for understanding other interactions with the environment.

Several obstacles hamper the task of conveying the complexities of ocean going travel before the age of steam and the screw propeller. Boats do not climb up and down as people do on land, unless of course they are heading to the bottom of the sea and hence to the end of the story. At sea, winds blow from 360 degrees, buffeting ships sideways; boundary currents pull vessels in giant curving arches away from the edges of oceans and towards their center. The frailty of life at sea, the continual vulnerability to the natural world, remains difficult to convey through the customary smooth depictions of the surface of the sea on maps.

More complex visualizations offer the opportunity to portray three-dimensional relationships including the movement of ships in nearly all directions. Representing the dynamic dimension of humans operating in space would allow us to understand historical events. Beyond this, such representations have the potential to allow denizens of the present to more closely identify with the human fate of long-deceased individuals from around the globe.

One of the most shameful episodes of modern history occurred with the forced mass deportations of Africans on board slave ships destined for Europe, the Atlantic Islands, and eventually the Americas. As the earliest slaves boarded ships bound for harsh lives in an unknown world, they would have seen the coast of Africa for the last time. In order to re-envision these last glimpses of Africa, which likely would have remained with them, I have been combining the historical information from the first maps of the region during the fifteenth century, with contemporary data on the heights of hills and the paths of rivers to create an image of West Africa as it would have been seen for the last time.9 Employing additional information on the patterns of winds and currents, I can also depict the course most likely taken by a fifteenth-century sailing ship, thus recreating the angle and speed at which the African coast would disappear from sight. Such re-creations will allow scholars to see how different the fifteenth-century landscape appeared, and permit others to empathize with the human dimension of the tragedy for themselves and others.

Recent advances in scientific, three-dimensional visualization can significantly improve our ability to immerse ourselves in the geographic environment of a faraway past and a culturally distinct environment. Because of their accuracy, these models are likely to receive a warm welcome in history. And these representations, especially the dynamic ones, remain far preferable to those visualizations more familiar to this generation of students, those dreamed up in the game studios of Blizzard, Ensemble or Fireaxis.

1 Morse, R., Morse, B. “Oral Tradition and Rawang Migration Routes,” Artibus Asiae. Supplementum, Vol. 23, Essays Offered to G. H. Luce by His Colleagues and Friends in Honour of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday. Volume 1: Papers on Asian History, Religion, Languages, Literature, Music Folklore, and Anthropology. (1966), pp. 195-204. links.jstor.org/sici?sici=1423-0526%281966%2923%3C195%3AOTARMR%3E2.0.C...
2 The US Geological Survey’s site (www.usgs.gov/features/lewisandclark.html ) shows an elevation map of the western United States that offers a tantalizing glimpse of the difficulties Lewis and Clark faced. A hard to access map in the David Rumsey collection (www.davidrumsey.com/) illustrates the steep terrain with an overlay.
3 Culloden (1746) was the last major battle fought on English soil, destroyed Stuart pretensions to the throne, and many of the Scottish highland clans.
4 Only English language textbooks costing hundreds of dollars can one find maps distributed throughout the book. Maps rarely appear in Spanish historical texts, and appear erratically in histories composed in the remaining Western European languages.
5 Kulhavey, R., Stock, W. A. “How Cognitive Maps Are Learned and Remembered,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86, no. 1 (1996): 123-45. links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00045608%28199603%2986%3A1%3C123%3AHCMALA%3E...
6 www.gutenkarte.org/map/8001
7 Taha, P. “Fluvial Response to Base Level Change: A Case Study of the Brazos Incised Valley,” Unpub. Phd. Dissertation, Rice University 2006; Peter Bol’s China Historical GIS, a major study of the relationship of settlement to the historical river pathways in China.
8 www.avs.com/software/soft_t/geospat.html
9 The project is being generously supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Digital Initiative Start-Up Grant Program.

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Reference this article
Seed, P. "Flat Maps in a 3D World: Visualizing the Past," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/flat-maps-in-a-3d-world/

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