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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Designing and Displaying Historical Information in the Electronic Age
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 1998

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Source: Designing and Displaying Historical Information in the Electronic Age
David J. Staley

vol. 1, no. 1, June 1998
Article Type: Article
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Designing and Displaying Historical Information in the Electronic Age

David J. Staley

Department of History
Heidelberg College

I remember my first laser-printed student essay very clearly. During my first year as a teaching assistant, a student submitted a beautiful, book-quality essay, at a time when most students still used typewriters or dot matrix printers. I remember the boldness of the type, thick and substantial, deeply black, not dot matrix grey. The title page used a different sized font and shape than the rest of the essay, providing a striking contrast. The paper was heavy bond, and thus felt weighty and meaningful, not like the temporary, fleeting quality of thin typing paper. Needless to say, when I placed this essay next to the others in my stack, I was certain this was an "A."

Until I read the essay. I was profoundly disappointed to discover that this essay read much the same as any other: weak introduction, poorly worded sentences, undecipherable syntax and grammar, limited use of the sources. I was compelled to give the student a C-. Only sometime later was I able to make verbal the cause of my disappointment: this student was thinking in terms of fonts, not words. The student assumed that scoring well on the essay meant using her computer to manipulate the shape and appearance of the letters, not the syntax of the words. I had learned an important lesson, one that has shaped my understanding of the value of electronic technology as a teaching tool: do not confuse procedural with cognitive skill, for to do so leads to poorly designed information.

A significant part of my pedagogy involves teaching students to distinguish these two types of skill. "Procedural" skill refers to the steps needed to operate a tool. "Cognitive" skill refers to higher-order thinking skills, such as linguistic, or spatial ability. Thus, fingering a keyboard or strumming a lute or striking a drum are procedural skills; "musical intelligence" reflects a higher-order ability needed by the user to perform each of these procedures. [1] A useful rule of thumb when distinguishing the two is: tools and their procedures must enhance cognitive skill.

The four principle cognitive skills are written, oral, visual and kinesic ability; they form the cardinal points of my map of cognitive skill. [2]

Figure 1

Depending upon the specific combinations of cognitive skill needed to create and interpret it, any cultural artifact--oral epic, tapestry, written history--can be located somewhere within this circle.

Figure 2

Tools and their procedures have come and gone in human history; however, these cognitive skills have persisted, albeit expressed through different channels.

In the case above, the student believed that I was evaluating her procedural skill, when in fact I was interested in her cognitive abilities, in her use of written language. Rather than using the tool to compose several drafts, and thus fine-tune her composition, the student used the word processor to produce an eye-catching--if linguistically empty--essay. Procedural skill is a necessary but insufficient step toward information design; awareness of these archetypical cognitive skills is the path to elegance.

Laser printers are now common, and because of their ubiquity we are less likely to be as overwhelmed by their results as I initially was. However, confusion between procedural and cognitive skill continues to persist; this confusion is a leading cause for the baroque electronic landscape we are swimming in. Many students and their teachers still assume that eye-catching procedural wizardry reflects an effective use of electronic tools. While these digital artifacts are sometimes mesmerizing, thoughtful historians should sensibly ask "Is it any good?" If students who use computers are seduced by procedural skill, they are likely to produce results that appear as cognitively depleted--and as poorly designed--as the above-mentioned essay.

If ours is in fact an "Information Age," it would seem wise to teach students the meaning and connotations of the term "information," especially since computer manufacturers promise to provide more of it, delivered in even more novel ways. Neil Postman has suggested that students study "information" in a formal course. Such a course would raise such issues as the different symbolic forms of information, how ideographs are different from letters, and how images are different from words. [3] Historians would do well to have our apprentices reflect on such questions before they embark any further down the Information Superhighway.

As a first step toward a thoughtful study of information, we should make definitions and connotations clear. We usually speak of information as if it were a disembodied object: information is an object waiting to be gathered in by our senses; or information is data, sometimes useless data which overloads us like pollution; or information is the reduction of physical reality to bits and pixels which can be handled, configured, distributed like a raw material. Sometimes we view information as a weapon that, when turned against the wicked and unenlightened, wipes out ignorance, or, when given to the virtuous, is "empowering." Those who employ such metaphors unconsciously assume that the study of information is a technical rather than a humanistic problem.

I prefer to ground the concept "information" in its source: our bodies. Information is a representation of our ideas which emanates through our bodies, filtered through cognitive skill. The tool--be it a pencil, a microphone, a canvas, a computer--makes material this information, but should not be mistaken for that information. Far from being disembodied and alienated, information is our shell, our web. To study its properties, then, is to study ourselves.

Since information is not disembodied, humans control its shape and destiny via design. "Design" is usually reserved for discussions of engineering projects or fashion, but design refers to any "conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order." [4] In thus organizing how our ideas will be communicated--in deciding how these ideas will emanate--humans design information; we "impose meaningful order" upon our ideas.

This process might be expressed in the form of a formula.

Figure 3

I have arranged these elements of information design in a hierarchical, logarithmic fashion to emphasize that ideas drive the process; tools and their procedures are at the bottom of this scale. I do not wish to suggest that tools have no influence on the nature of information; in fact, since the tool offers the surface upon which information is made material, that surface shapes the resulting information. Changes in tools, therefore, change the nature of information.

However, tools and their procedures must be subordinated to ideas and cognitive skill. There are moments when the information designer must carefully craft the shape and appearance of the written language (think of Chinese poetry); however, my student did not choose an appropriate moment, allowing the attributes of the tool to drive her ideas, rather than allowing the ideas to drive her use of the tool. Confronted by new electronic tools, teachers of history must not allow our students to lose sight of ideas or the cognitive skill needed to express them.

Most historians automatically and uncritically teach their students to value written cognitive skill. Many historians believe that "history" begins only with the appearance of written sources. Even if some of us draw from non-verbal primary sources, our secondary sources are almost always written in print form. Historians often do not reflect upon the fact that we could construct our secondary works differently, and that choosing to print is an information design decision.

Written language shapes the information historians create. Consider word choice: I may write of Columbus' voyage as a "heroic venture" or I might choose to call it a "genocidal tragedy." Written words convey historiographic focus by shaping the reader's understanding of the event. If the reader does not feel comfortable with the historiographic nominalism described here, think of how our view of the past has been shaped by the words "industrial revolution" or "renaissance."

The filter of printed language, therefore, plays an important role in how we define the "past." When we choose to record events of the past through the medium of written language, the attributes and features of that cognitive skill and the tools which make it manifest cannot help but to shape our understanding of that past. Printed writing is linear and sequential, enabling historians to think of the past as linear, sequential, event-based, ruled by cause and effect, and teleological.

The computer--and specifically, hypertext--reflects a change in our tools that will have an effect on our information. Is this a change we desire; that is, does this change conform to our ideas? Hypertexts posses features which distinguish them from printed texts. Should historians desire to use hypertexts both to record the past and to share information with apprentices, we should be aware that this design decision could alter our understanding of the very nature of "the past."

Hypertext is an associative web of linguistic elements through which the reader must navigate. Hypertext theorists, especially, have understood the implications of this associative web of text: that a hypertextual, non-linear, associational writing mode challenges the linear thought process imposed and enhanced by printed writing. This fact has clear ramifications for history. [5] If a hypertext has no beginning, middle or end, as these theorists claim, if our traditional notions of linear plot are in fact overturned, if students learn about the past through hypertext, will these students one or two generations hence continue to believe the past to be linear? I am concerned that if we uncritically allow these tools to dominate our teaching, we may become boxed into a historiographic position which we did not intend.

Printed writing works well when recreating an event- based, linear account. What if we wish to inquire into a process such as "civilization" or "the industrial revolution" that exhibits asymmetrical variation across time and space? A linear account of these processes might appear as awkwardly jumbled as the drawing of the narrative in Tristam Shandy. [6] One way historians might think of these processes would be with the aid of spatial, rather than linear, metaphors.

The psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim has distinguished the properties of visual thinking and linguistic thinking. According to Arnheim, humans visualize reality as a "four- dimensional world of sequence and spatial simultaneity." Language, in contrast, is a one-dimensional medium; when employing language, the mind "cuts one-dimensional paths through the spatial landscape...[dismantling] the simultaneity of spatial structure." [7] Stated another way, visual thinking means connecting elements as in a network; linguistic thinking means connecting them in a chain. There are moments when a linear, chain-like narrative is necessary; there are also moments when a network-like visual display is needed. Elegant design comes from a thoughtful decision to employ one or the other.

For inspiring examples of such visual thinking, consider Joseph Minard's diagram depicting Napoleon's march to and retreat from Moscow, popularized by the graphic designer Edward Tufte. [8]


This diagram conveys five variables of information simultaneously: size of the army, location, direction, temperature, and chronology. Or reflect on the research possibilities opened when isotopes of the elements were charted out with the number of protons on one axis and number of neutrons on the other axis. Consider how the location of these elements on the periodic table has shaped chemist's understanding of their properties, and provided a map for the discovery and creation of new elements.

Something like these "low tech" visual displays strike me as a more appropriate way to think about a process such as industrialization. I could create a diagram with three dimensions: location, energy use, and production mode (from household to factory). If I choose a place in time, I could map out the position of any point within this representational space. If I add more points to reflect different areas, their energy use and production processes, I would get an irregular shape. If I add all these shapes together to reflect the movement of time, I would produce a structure that, like a sponge or a cloud or a flock of birds, would be solid in some areas, but also filled with "nooks and crannies." I might also assign colors to each of these points reflecting varying degrees of market orientation. The resulting display would be as intricate as a coral reef, and just as interesting to explore.

Historians could learn a great deal about the industrial revolution by creating and studying such shapes. We could examine the "edges" to learn the characteristics of a society transforming toward industrialization. I imagine that such a shape would exhibit the self-similarity--similarity at a variety of scales--evident in structures like trees. We might "zoom in" on a region of the volume and find patterns that look like the whole. We could, therefore, try to understand the characteristics of the whole at the same time we are seeing the local variations.

Imagine the new historiographic vistas opened to us by this spatial display of the past. Such a structure could become the standard way historians think about this phenomenon, in the same way that a seminal text shapes our thoughts. Regions of the shape then become the locations for new studies, which delve deeper into the complexities of the information organized by the shape. An historian may offer a new interpretation by altering one or more of the variables, resulting in a new shape that will similarly have to be explored. I would accord the same professional credentials to creators of such visual displays as I would to writers of dissertations.

Structures of sound offer another non-linguistic means for historians to meditate on significant issues. Suppose we wish to explore the periodization of a particular period. Is periodization strictly a fiction created for the convenience of the historian? Or does a periodization reflect real patterns in the fabric of time and events? When historians debate these and similar issues, we almost always do so through the medium of written words. What if we were to use organized sound as a way to think about temporal concepts like periodization?

Time refers to the iteration between events. These iterations vary according to the type of events being considered: the iteration between political events, for example, differ in "frequency" from geological events. Fernand Braudel distinguished various scales or waves or rhythms of time in the human past: conjuncture, long duree, secular trends, events. The iterations these scales represent are like "vibrating surfaces;" for example, Braudel contended that "the world-economy is the greatest possible vibrating surface, one which not only accepts the conjuncture but, at a certain depth or level, manufactures it." Further, changes in prices or other variables of the world economy depend on the vibrations of other surfaces. "The secular vibration" he argued, "opens, closes and opens once again the gates of the complex flow of the conjucture." [9] Rather than operating independently of each other, Braudel argued, "the contrasts between the realities observed on different time scales makes possible history's dialectic." [10]

As is usually the case when reading him, Braudel's choice of terms is very thought-provoking. Instead of thinking of these rhythms and vibrations as written metaphors, what if we were to instead think of these waves as actual sounds? In thinking about and listening to the contrasts between the frequencies, we could learn something about how "history's dialectic" produces patterns such as eras and epochs, patterns that historians distinguish through periodizations.

Those who study the organization of sound provide one way of thinking about this problem. In 1968, composer Steve Reich wrote that:

if a number of single tones were all pulsing at the same tempo, but with gradually shifting phase relations, a great number of musical patterns would result. If the tones were all in phase (struck at the same instant), a pulsing chord would be heard. If the tones were slowly shifted just a bit out of phase, a sort of rippling broken chord would be heard which would gradually change into a melodic pattern, then another, and so on. If the process of phase shifting were gradual enough, then minute rhythmic differences would become clearly audible. A given musical pattern would then be heard to change into another with no alteration of pitch, timbre or loudness, and one would become involved in a music which worked exclusively with gradual changes in time. [11]

Historians, it seems to me, deal with a "music" that works with changes in time. Listening to aural patterns could provide historians with new ways to think about and display our ideas about periodization. If we were to assign pulses to levels of historic time, to the many vibrating surfaces of the past, then "play" these pulses simultaneously, we would produce aural patterns, like those described by Reich, which could yield new and intriguing periodizations. Such patterns of sound could reveal new ways to think about perennial historiographic questions such as how societies move from one period to the next. We could ask "what would this transition sound like?" Questions such as whether or not the Renaissance represented the last gasp of the Late Middle Ages or was in fact the beginning of the modern world could be freshly interpreted and displayed. In thinking through sound, we might also learn something about the nature of the boundaries and thresholds between periods. What would it sound like to be in the midst of such a transition? Do transitions between epochs have a characteristic "sound" that would allow us to compare and contrast them? Is our own time one of transition, and is that sound present? Note that I am not suggesting that historians use sound as a primary source: I am suggesting that historians use sound as a secondary source, a way to think about and display our ideas of the past.

Some might argue that studying a shape or sounds is not really studying the past but rather abstractions. To them, I would point out that a textual rendering is also an abstraction and should not be confused with the "past." An historian choosing a written account would need to make decisions about the historiographic focus--a political or social or economic history--similar to deciding which variables to map out or which pitches to use. A written account requires the choice of appropriate names and terms to convey this focus; a similar process would involve the assigning of positions on the axes or frequencies. In fact, I can envision both nuanced and heated debates between future historians concerning the position and color of these data points or the timbre and loudness of the sounds.

Note that in these scenarios, I began with an idea: how can I think about a process like industrialization or civilization, or historiogrpahic questions about periodization. I then decided to use a spatial or aural or linguistic mode of thinking. I have yet to consider tools, but clearly the capabilities of the computer would aid these projects. Computers have generated complex geometric shapes such as the Mandelbrot Set, which continues to be explored by mathematicians. Musicians are creating digital "dataworlds," featuring the "spatialization of music in cyberspace," in effect, "translating" aural structures of sound into visual structures in space. Not surprisingly, these configurations are drawing the interests of architects, intrigued by the spatial form. [12] "Computer-driven cartography" is opening new areas of research in fields such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, geology and sub-atomic physics. [13] Reich noted that actually performing his "phase music" would prove technically difficult for musicians; electronic devices could more easily and unconsciously play the piece. [14]

In short, the sensorium is much fuller than professional history recognizes. In addition to our linguistic worlds, historians could also explore such visual and aural worlds. However, I would urge caution before we travel down this path. Ideas and cognitive skill must drive our decisions, not the availability of a machine whose procedures we must "incorporate" into our teaching and research. If digital devices ease our explorations, so much the better.

I am not suggesting that historians abandon words for data points and sounds, only that we think about expanding our repertoire of cognitive skill. Cliometricians once argued that one could assign numbers to historical variables. Many useful studies came out of this approach; however, the cliometrians also argued that the use of numbers and mathematical techniques produced a "better, truer and more rigorous" view of the past than that conveyed by words. I do not share this view. Indeed, numbers do not behave like words; although related to written language, numbers represent universal--and decontextualized--quantities. Thus, although different, numbers are not cognitively superior to words, and vice-versa.

I would like to see historians more cognitively flexible: displaying our ideas of the past through words and pictures and sounds and numbers. Visual and aural secondary sources would allow us to "see" and "hear" new patterns in the past. Each abstraction--whether constructed out of words, pictures, sounds or numbers--has its historiographic strengths and its blind spots. Good teachers guide apprentices through the historiographic and cognitive choices they must make.

I intended this exercise in speculative historiography as both a guide for the use of new education technologies and as a call for a new type of "digital rhetoric." Rather than studying the procedural requirements of the tools now at our disposal, I call for a rigorous study of the methods of composition needed to communicate with those tools. Thus, the role of the teacher is (in this order) to have students 1) explore ideas, 2) think carefully and critically about the properties of words and pictures and sounds and numbers, and only then 3) worry about the tools and procedures that might make this information material. Otherwise, students may continue--as my student did 10 years ago--to confuse novelty of procedural application with originality of thought. [15]

* A version of this paper was presented to the "Envisioning the Future: Creating the Humanities Classroom of the 21st Century" conference at Michigan State University, September 1997. For their comments and ideas, I also wish to thank my students as well as David Cress and Alexa Marie Reck.


1. David J. Staley, "From Writing to Associative Assemblages: 'History' in an Electronic Culture," in Dennis Trinkle, ed. Writing, Teaching and researching History in the Electronic Age (M.E. Sharpe, 1997):forthcomming.

2. David J. Staley, "Visualizing the Relationship Between Speech, Image and Writing," Comparative Civilizations Review (Spring 1997):77-98.

3. Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995):190.

4. Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1984):1

5. See Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1991); and George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

6. Laurence Stern, Tristam Shandy (Everyman's Library, 1991):347.

7. Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (University of California Press, 1969):246.

8 Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press, 1983):41.

9. Fernand Brudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century vol. 3 (Harper and Row Publishers, 1979): 83.

10. Fernand Brudel, A History of Civilizations (Penguin Books, 1993):34.

11. Steve Reich, Writings About Music (New York University Press, 1974):17.

12. Elizabeth Martin, ed. Architecture as a Translation of Music (Princeton Architectural Press, 1994):64-67.

13. See Stephen Hall, Mapping the Next Millennium (Vintage, 1992).

14. Reich, 18.

15. The structure of this sentence--but not its meaning--is borrowed from Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany (Macmillan, 1966).

David J. Staley can be reached by email at