Unintended consequences: GPS and digital creativity

The story of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), like all phenomenal technological success stories, is one of unintended consequences. GPS is now with us everywhere. It guides our driving and finds us the restaurant nearest to us. It aids mountain rescuers, and it helps ships stay on course. The digital world would be a very different, and less interactive, place without it. A phenomenal success story it certainly is. But its origins are more complex.

Also like most phenomenal tech successes, GPS was not born of any Eureka moment. Rather it came from a hotchpotch of technology, politics, fear and expedience. The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on 4th October 1957 was a point of enormous disruption for the West in the Cold War. Not only had Russia pulled ahead in the space race, it was now clear that it had the rocket technology to strike the US homeland. Western experts sprang in to action. MIT scientists found they could track Sputnik’s location using Doppler Effect principles, whereby sound waves vary in frequency according to the direction and velocity of an object reflecting them (imagine standing by a long straight road, and a car passes you at 80 mph). This in turn gave traction to the methods which would enable Earth-bound receivers to precisely triangulate their positions using satellites. For years this locative capacity was tightly guarded by the US military: under the process of “Selective Availability”, the signal, which allowed receivers to pinpoint their positions, was scrambled except for military users, so that its accuracy was all but useless except for the smallest-scale navigational purposes.

It took another Cold War flash-point to shift this thinking. On September 1st 1987, Soviet air defence mistakenly shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 to Seoul with the loss of 269 lives, thinking it was a hostile aircraft after it strayed into Soviet airspace. This bought the need for real-time geolocation in to sharp focus. In the grief and outrage that followed, then-President Ronald Reagan – amid the blood-curdling threats of retribution flying between East and West – accelerated the process of making GPS available for civilian use. And then on May 1st 2000, as the dust from the falling Berlin Wall was settling, his successor (bar one) Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order ending Selective Availability. Combined with the World Wide Web (invented 11 years earlier), this action helped set the Internet on its path from our desktops to our pockets.

[graph]
The moment Selective Availability ended on the night of 1st-2nd May 2000. Image from https://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/modernization/sa/data/

We are marking this event’s 20th anniversary in DDH with a series of events. Last week, we hosted a quadruple headed set of talks by myself, Cristina Kiminami and Claire Reddleman of DDH, and the GPS artist Jeremy Wood, who presented an overview of how he uses GPS receivers to craft linear sculptures of human motion through the world. In his words, “[W]e are the data. We are the map.” This raises a whole set of practice-led research questions for Digital Humanities: how does GPS help us explore “annotative” approaches to the world, where movement can be captured and imbued with further meaning through the process of associating and linking further information with it, versus “phenomenological” approaches, which stress the subjective lived experience of creating a trace (Cristina’s work); and how an entire place, such as a penal colony can be reproduced (Claire’s work).

Jeremy Wood presenting at “Walking with GPS”

The work we all presented last week represented showcases of how a technology born of the unintended consequences of the struggles, crises and flashpoints of the last century’s Cold War is now open to new ways of exploring relationships between the human/physical and the digital/ephemeral. We are much looking forward to exploring these questions further throughout the 20th anniversary of the end of Selective Availability. Next in this will be a conference on May 1st – the actual anniversary of Clinton’s order – organized by Claire and Mike Duggan of DDH entitled “20 years of seeing with GPS: perspectives and future directions”. This conference will surely have a rich seam of theory and practice to build on.

Red Posts

For a number of years, I’ve driven from Berkshire (and before that, was driven as a child from London) to Dorset, south west England, to visit various family members. An intriguing feature of the drive is the “Red Post”, at Bloxworth, near Wareham. It is an otherwise ordinary rural finger-post but painted red, with the placenames picked out in white lettering.

There are other such posts dotted around Dorset and the south west of England (possibly elsewhere as well), including one which, when I went that way last year, had been vandalized, on the road between Beaminster and Evershot (below).

One theory I have head is that they mark the sites of gibbets/gallows, although I haven’t been able to find any documentary verification of this. Also, it seems a bit unlikely and impractical to bring felons to the middle of nowhere to execute them.

Some are marked with the legend “Red Post” on the nineteenth century OS six-inch series maps, but some (including the Bloxworth post above) are not. I’ve come across a general public Act of Parliament of 1753 consisting of

A BILL for Repairing, Amending, and Widening the ſeveral roads leading from the Red-Poſt, in the Pariſh of Fivehead, where the Taunton Turnpike ends, through the Pariſh of Curry Rivell, the Towns of Langport and Somerton, to Butwell … etc

This suggests some considerable antiquity to the phenomenon; and that in the eighteenth century, Red Posts were well known and visible as waymarkers. So I am digging a bit more. I have a few ideas, and I hope that 2020 will bring a slightly more formal publication on the matter, on one platform or another.

This is a plea, in the meantime, that if anyone familiar with the English countryside knows anything about its Red Posts/Poſts , then I’d love to hear from you…

New posts at DDH

 

King’s College London is recruiting Lecturers and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities. Lecturers are the UK equivalent of Assistant Professors and Senior Lecturers correspond to Associate Professors in the US system.

King’s College London is in the fourth year of making a significant investment in the Department of Digital Humanities as part of an ambitious programme of growth and expansion in existing and emergent research areas and student numbers across its five Master programmes and the BA Digital Culture.

King’s College London has a long tradition of research in the Digital Humanities, going back to the early 1990s. King’s is one of the few places in the world where students at all levels can pursue a wide range of inter-disciplinary study of the digital (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ddh/about/about).

We are seeking to recruit exceptional candidates to join the Department no later than 1st September, who can enthuse and inspire our students, conduct world-leading research, and contribute to the life and reputation of the Department through academic leadership and public engagement.

We are hiring for

Closing date: 28 April 2019

Lecturer candidates will be on their way to becoming scholars of international standing with a research and publication trajectory that illustrates this ambition. They will contribute to the further development of the Department¹s research strengths, provide high-quality teaching and supervision, and work collaboratively within the Department and beyond.

Senior Lecturer candidates will be scholars of international standing with a strong research and publication record and evidence of or potential for research income generation. The successful applicants will play a key role in leading work across the Department to enhance our research strengths, to develop new and emergent research areas, to innovate in teaching practice and pedagogy, and to contribute to our underpinning values of co-research and collaboration.

A History of Place 1: Authorship and Teaching

This is the first of a series of posts to follow the recent publication of my book, A History of Place in the Digital Age. My aim with these is to look at various topics on the theme of what it means to write a book in the Digital Humanities (DH) as a means of reflecting on what I got out of the process as (I guess) a “Digital Humanist”, partly to capture such reflections for posterity (whether or not posterity has any interest in them), and also in the hope that they might be of some sort of value to others considering such a course. Here, I look at the links between writing a book at teaching, in both the undergraduate and postgraduate taught classrooms.

A prosaic problem is, of course, accessibility. Even the most committed student would balk at the cover price of a History of Place, and inevitably it takes time for an institutional library to place orders. It is therefore worth exploring in detail what one can and cannot do to make your work available under the terms of one’s contract; and, where possible, expediting library acquisitions by (for example) encouraging purchase of the e-edition. I don’t think I have any searing insights to offer on this subject, rather I see it as part of a much broader and more complex set of issues on Open Access in Higher Education which, I am sure, others are far more qualified to comment on than me.

It’s a tenet of major research universities such as my own, that our teaching should strive to be “research led” (see e.g. Schapper, J. and Mayson, S.E., 2010. Research‐led teaching: Moving from a fractured engagement to a marriage of convenience. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), pp.641-651). Most, I guess, would interpret this as meaning that the content delivered in the classroom is sourced from one’s own original research, in the context of one’s Department’s research profile an strands, conveyed via various pedagogical tools and techniques. Most of the latter are based on conventional scholarly publications, notably journals and, of course books. In the future, I would like to consider particularly the implications of writing a book – and thus complicity, for better or for worse, in that environment – for student assessment, and the kind of culture the act of authorship encourages. In this, one needs to bear in mind that the traditional essay is perhaps not best suited to the delivery of all kinds of DH content. To transcend this truth (which I think most DHers would accept) I plan to use some of the cases discussed in my book – for example mapping references to Cypriot places in texts, (the subject of much of Chapter 7) – to encourage students to test and challenge observations I discuss on the construction of imperial identities, for example by using practically the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus. Ideally, I would like to accompany this with screencast videos to accompany the institutional lecture capture (the desirability and ethics of this are a story for another day); something I have already started to do to assist students with the Quantum GIS exercise they learn.

The text of my book is structured around a postgraduate module I have taught for three years now, Maps Apps and the GeoWeb: An Introduction to the Spatial Humanities. I think it is fair to say that there has been a great deal of cross-fertilization between the two activities, certainly at the design stage. The chapter structure of the book partly, but not entirely, reflects the weekly lecture programme for Maps and Apps, a conscious decision I made when drawing up the book proposal, figuring that there could be economies of scale in terms of the effort involved in both tasks.

Writing chapters which correspond to classes was a great opportunity – and impetus – to update my own knowledge and scope of understanding of those topics, and numerous new insights have found their way in to the lectures this year as a result. This has also given me a richer context to include, where appropriate, examples from contemporary life, something I feel greatly helps students engage with complex concepts, relating them to their own experience. For example, my class on neogeography, delivered towards the end of the Semester, was updated this year to include a discussion of commercial appropriation of passive neogeographic material by transport service companies, something which I explore at a theoretical level in Chapter 5 in A History of Place; but which (I think) also points students towards much broader contemporary issues which they see in the news, such as the appropriation of user data by platforms such as Facebook. Teaching this class, I have found that students react creatively and imaginatively to a task where they are asked to find actual instances, based on their own local knowledge and spatial experience, of omissions of features in OpenStreetMap, of the kind described by Monica Stephens in her 2013 paper Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic data; an important text both in this class’s reading list and in Chapter 5.

Another thing I found interesting to reflect on is that other chapters, somewhat counter-intuitively, emerge from reading, research and conversations I conducted during the process of setting up other modules I teach, in which I had relatively little previous grounding, and which were seemingly of limited relevance to the topic in hand. Chapter 2, for example, seeks to place the spatial humanities in the context of its long history. This includes the emergence of the Internet and WWW in the twentieth century, and a discussion on how these impacted human perceptions and experience of space and place. As one might expect, I draw heavily on Doreen Massey’s A Global Sense of Place in this section (a core reading for Week 1 of Maps and Apps, as it happens); but much of the literature I use to do so is drawn from my undergraduate History of Network Technology module. This was a course I began teaching in 2015/6, on quite a steep learning curve (if that sounds like a euphemism, that’s because it is). But a couple of years’ reflection on, for example, the work of J. C. R. Licklider, Paul Baran and Vanevar Bush – readings I expanded and consolidated for the book – bought me to realize that one can’t really understand the methodologies which underlie the spatial humanities without reference to the implications of the mid-twentieth century’s struggles with post war information deluge; for example Licklider’s vision, expressed in Man Computer Symbiosis (1960), of

[A] network of “thinking centres”, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system, the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided by the number of users.

In my view, this expresses a “de-spatialization” of human knowledge that directly foresees the kind of interactions and data transactions now familiar to users of OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, and indeed any other kind of geo platform.   This seems to me to be fundamental to the epistemology of the spatial humanities, helping to explain the emergence of the GeoWeb in the broader context of the information age. I therefore have to admit – with a little trepidation – that as well as my teaching being research-led, my research is, to an extent, teaching-led. This is of course before I factor in discussions with the students themselves, in tutorials, seminars and questions after lectures (which do happen occasionally); and more than once my mind has been changed on a particular issue by an excellent student paper.

Of course, it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. A History of Place is quite a broad-brush consideration of the history and impact of GIS, and related technologies on the humanities, which is analogous to the module design and learning outcomes of Maps and Apps. It is therefore logical to expect a rough, although not necessarily comprehensive (see above) correlation between the class topics and chapters. It would of course be different in the case of a highly specialized book dealing with a particular topic in depth. But even then, I feel sure there would be similar crossovers even in such cases.

So, to summarize: Obviously we must aim to pass on our original insights as scholars to students. However, it is also very well worth considering, in as detached a manner as possible, what new insights your teaching might contribute to your book. This, in turn, will help you to strengthen and improve our teaching, and the curricula of your courses – especially when (as many Digital Humanists do) you teach courses across disparate subject areas. A careful mapping of course reading lists to your own bibliography can be very helpful for the same reason.

 

A History of Place in the Digital Age

There’s an interesting tension between writing a book with a title like A History of Place in the Digital Age, while in the process engaging in a massacre of trees to produce a paper book. Anyway, it’s now out, and available from my wonderful publishers at Routledge.

I’m going to try to blog here a little more in (the rest of) 2019, especially offering some ideas on the spatiality of scholarly communication. A central premise of the book is that communication through different media has always both fractured and shaped our ideas of place, and that we can trace this back in to the distant prehistories of the Internet, to the origins of print media, and perhaps even further. This surely applies to the communication and consumption of scholarly ideas, where digital media are rethinking what it even means to have scholarly ideas. One thinks of the work of scholars such as the Classicist Sarah E. Bond, whose ground-breaking work on scholarly outreach and public communication puts Classical ideas into contemporary social, cultural and political contexts, thus (surely) inviting audiences, both inside and outside the academy, to revisit the substance as well as the communication of those ideas. Linking to my own more recent work in digital art history, one can begin to see parallels with recent arguments which suggest that it is not so much the distinction between “digitized” versus “digital” art history (i.e. the use of digital imagery and resources versus the use of computational analysis to understand individual works of art) which is important, as much as what the role of art becomes in a society in which the Internet is ubiquitously and fundamentally integrated.

Here, anyway, is the table of contents:

1 Spatial humanities in the digital age: the key debates

2 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part I: Communicating place

3 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part II: The case of archaeology

4 Text and place

5 Spatial humanities and neogeography

6 Spatial narrative

7 The structure of geodata

8 Motion in place

9 Conclusion

And there is still some room at the launch on 9th May.

Cleaning up chorography

I’ve been at the Spatial Humanities conference, hosted by the Lancaster Digital Humanities Centre these last two days. It’s been a terrific trip, like the best conferences, introducing me to new ideas and occasioning reflection on, and reappraisal of, old ones. I gave my paper, (slightly grandiosely), entitled The Eye of History: Chorographic Prologues and the Origins of the Spatial Humanities on day 1. In this, I attempted to set out some research I’ve been doing over the summer into how we might approach the writings of antiquarians such as John Leland, William Camden, Peter Heylyn, and William Stukeley as expressions of place. The eye of history bit of the title comes from the translated preface to Abraham Ortelisus’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and – I argue – represents a key moment in the historiographical development of the spatial humanities, in that it recognizes that in order to understand the ancient world and its events, it is necessary to first have an appreciation of its geography. So rather than understanding the Roman world by reading the accounts of Livy or Tacitus, say, or the Greek world by reading the works of Thucydides or Herodotus, we need to understand the settings and the landscapes in which the events they describe occurred. Ortelius was seeking to help the educated classes of the sixteenth century do this by producing the Theatrum. My argument – and this is all in the The Book, out next year – is that the observational narratives of Leland et all plug in to this way of thinking, and apply it to understanding of the contemporary (English) landscape. The observational narratives oftentimes bore the titles of “chorographies” – first-hand accounts of that landscape preserved in memory and written record; and communicated through the then-new media of movable type. Sure, they had their own motivations, and their own agendas – Anglo-Catholic spirituality in the case of Heylyn, muscular pan-English nationalism in the case of Camden, a desire to resurrect the glories of the Arthurian past in the case of Leland – but this, I think, represented a new genre of spatial description, framed and enabled by the printed medium.

This blog post seeks to offer a brief elaboration of this argument, largely as a result of a question asked afterwards by Karl Grossner of the World Historical Gazetteer (which Karl also presented at the conference). Karl, nailing (in my view) the overlap between the thought processes of geography and gazetteer technology, pointed out that the types of spatial communication I presented were all descriptive. They thus negate the kind of critical and exploratory deployments of GIS which are necessary for any success in its use for exploring any humanities research question, a fact highlighted by numerous other speakers (especially Paty Muretta-Flores in her excellent opening keynote). Expanding on this point, Karl tweeted:

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I couldn’t agree more – and it highlights that the material I was presenting are primary historical spatial artefacts (and yes they are descriptions of place, driven by some of the motivations described above), not analytical vehicles or interpretations. The challenge henceforth is to identify the critical frameworks needed to understand and interpret those spatial artefacts – frameworks which will be mixed-method, involving both GIS and more discursive, qualitative means of reading. Thanks Recogito, I was able to give a high-level hint at what this might look like, by overlaying places referred to in Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum with Ellis’s 1777 Compleat Chorography (kindly snapped by Valeria Vitale):

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So I would agree that while chorography might indeed be a dirty word, we can, perhaps, clean it up a bit.

Call for members: Major new Institute opens at King’s College London with Getty Foundation support

The Project

The 18-month Institute in Digital Art History is led by King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) and Department of Classics, in collaboration with HumLab at the University of Umeå, with grant support provided by the Getty Foundation as part of its Digital Art History initiative.

It will convene two international meetings where Members of the Institute will survey, analyse and debate the current state of digital art history, and map out its future research agenda. It will also design and develop a Proof of Concept (PoC) to help deliver this agenda. The source code for this PoC will be made available online, and will form the basis for further discussions, development of research questions and project proposals after the end of the programme.

To achieve these aims we will bring together leading experts in the field to offer a multi-vocal and interdisciplinary perspective on three areas of pressing concern to digital art history:

●       Provenance, the meta-information about ancient art objects,

●       Geographies, the paths those objects take through time and space, and

●       Visualization, the methods used to render art objects and collections in visual media.

Current Digital Humanities (DH) research in this area has a strong focus on Linked Open Data (LOD), and so we will begin our exploration with a focus on LOD. This geographical emphasis on the art of the ancient Mediterranean world will be continued in the second meeting to be held in Athens. The Mediterranean has received much attention from both the Digital Classics and DH communities, and is thus rich in resources and content. The programme will, therefore, bring together two existing scholarly fields and seek to improve and facilitate dialogue between them.

We will assign Members to groups according to the three areas of focus above. These groups will be tasked with producing a detailed research specification, detailing the most important next steps for that part of the field, how current methods can best be employed to make them, and what new research questions the participants see emerging.

The meetings will follow a similar format, with initial participant presentations and introductions followed by collaborative programme development and design activities within the research groups, including scoping of relevant aspects of the PoC. This will be followed by further discussion and collaborative writing which will form the basis of the event’s report. Each day will conclude with a plenary feedback session, where participants will share and discuss short reports on their activities. All of the sessions will be filmed for archival and note-taking purposes, and professional facilitators will assist in the process at various points.

The scholarly outputs, along with the research specifications for the PoC, will provide tangible foci for a robust, vibrant and sustainable research network, comprising the Institute participants as a core, but extending across the emerging international and interdisciplinary landscape of digital art history. At the same time, the programme will provide participants with support and space for developing their own personal academic agendas and profiles. In particular, Members will be encouraged to and offered collegial support in developing publications, both single- and co-authored following their own research interests and those related to the Institute.

 

The Project Team

The core team comprises of Dr Stuart Dunn (DDH), Professor Graeme Earl(DDH) and Dr Will Wootton (Classics) at King’s College London, and Dr Anna Foka of HumLab, Umeå University.

They are supported by an Advisory Board consisting of international independent experts in the fields of art history, Digital Humanities and LOD. These are: Professor Tula Giannini (Chair; Pratt Institute, New York), Dr Gabriel Bodard (Institute of Classical Studies), Professor Barbara Borg (University of Exeter), Dr Arianna Ciula (King’s Digital Laboratory), Professor Donna Kurtz (University of Oxford), and Dr Michael Squire (King’s College London).

 

Call for participation
We are now pleased to invite applications to participate as Members in the programme. Applications are invited from art historians and professional curators who (or whose institutions) have a proven and established record in using digital methods, have already committed resources, or have a firm interest in developing their research agendas in art history, archaeology, museum studies, and LOD. You should also be prepared to contribute to the design of the PoC (e.g. providing data or tools, defining requirements), which will be developed in the timeframe of the project by experts at King’s Digital Lab.

Membership is open to advanced doctoral students (provided they can demonstrate close alignment of their thesis with the aims of the programme), Faculty members at any level in all relevant fields, and GLAM curation professionals.

Participation will primarily take the form of attending the Institute’s two meetings:

King’s College London: 3rd – 14th September 2018

Swedish Institute at Athens: 1st-12th April 2019

We anticipate offering up to eighteen places on the programme. All travel and accommodation expenses to London and Athens will be covered. Membership is dependent upon commitment to attend both events for the full duration.

Potential applicants are welcome to contact the programme director with any questions: stuart.dunn@kcl.ac.uk.

To apply, please submit a single A4 PDF document set out as follows. Please ensure your application includes your name, email address, institutional affiliation, and street address.


Applicant Statement (ONE page)
This should state what you would bring to the programme, the nature of your current work and involvement of digital art history, and what you believe you could gain as a Member of the Institute. There is no need to indicate which of the three areas you are most interested in (although you may if you wish); we will use your submission to create the groups, considering both complementary expertise and the ability for some members to act as translators between the three areas.

Applicant CV (TWO pages)
This section should provide a two-page CV, including your five most relevant publications (including digital resources if applicable).

Institutional support (ONE page)
We are keen for the ideas generated in the programme to be taken up and developed by the community after the period of funding has finished. Therefore, please use this section to provide answers to the following questions relating to your institution and its capacity:

1.     Does your institution provide specialist Research Software Development or other IT support for DH/LOD projects?

2.     Is there a specialist DH unit or centre?

3.     Do you, or your institution, hold or host any relevant data collections, physical collections, or archives?

4.     Does your institution have hardware capacity for developing digital projects (e.g. specialist scanning equipment), or digital infrastructure facilities?

5.     How will you transfer knowledge, expertise, contacts and tools gained through your participation to your institution?

6.     Will your institution a) be able to contribute to the programme in any way, or b) offer you any practical support in developing any research of your own which arises from the programme? If so, give details.

7.     What metrics will you apply to evaluate the impact of the Ancient Itineraries programme a) on your own professional activities and b) on your institution?

Selection and timeline
All proposals will be reviewed by the Advisory Board, and members will be selected on the basis of their recommendations.

Please email the documents specified above as a single PDF document to stuart.dunn@kcl.ac.uk by Friday 1st June 2018, 16:00 (British Summer Time). We will be unable to consider any applications received after this. Please use the subject line “Ancient Itineraries” in your email. 

Applicants will be notified of the outcomes on or before 19th June 2018.

Privacy statement

All data you submit with your application will be stored securely on King’s College London’s electronic systems. It will not be shared, except in strict confidence with Advisory Board members for the purposes of evaluation. Furthermore your name, contact details and country of residence will be shared, in similar confidence, with the Getty Foundation to ensure compliance with US law and any applicable US sanctions. Further information on KCL’s data protection and compliance policies may be found here: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/terms/privacy.aspx; and information on the Getty Foundation’s privacy policies may be found here: http://www.getty.edu/legal/privacy.html.

Your information will not be used for any other purpose, or shared any further, and will be destroyed when the member selection process is completed.

If you have any queries in relation to how your rights are upheld, please contact us at digitalhumanites@kcl.ac.uk, or KCL’s Information Compliance team at info-compliance@kcl.ac.uk).