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Lake Como and Old-Newness

30 Apr 2016

Lake Como and Old-Newness

Lake Como is beautiful.

In late February a colleague of mine asked me if I’d be interested in attending a week-long conference on humanities data visualization in Como, Italy. The answer was an immediate and resounding “yes,” for who turns down such an invitation? I’d never been to Italy, and I had started to develop keen interest in data science and information visualization (despite not knowing exactly how these fields interacted with the humanities). We rallied to transform our unstructured data (Word and Excel files, loose-leaf notes) into structured spreadsheets, and we made a case for why our project was vitally important to Renaissance historiography, information visualization theory, our parents, the world, and the galaxy. The application was thorough enough to warrant an invitation.

In trying to articulate Como’s appeal and charm I’ve realized that I’m awful at describing beautiful places. But I will try. Como is an old-new place, and it depends on it’s old-newness for survival. Old buildings and less-old buildings serve as orientation points throughout the narrow streets of Como’s city center. “Turn left at the old house. Yes, the 13th century one that’s now a bookstore.” New money walks its cobblestone streets; new boutiques sell new, expensive articles of clothing to newcomers; new cars squeeze through tight cobblestone roads interrupting everything. Outside the city center – and you know it’s the city center because the original walls still stand to remind you – Como is rather pedestrian. It could be any place, so long as that place was surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges and was adjacent to a lake.

In retrospect, Como was a perfect location for a conference that brought together data visualization and the humanities. An old-new place hosting a conference on old-new things. The conference itself was not really a conference but a workshop. After a few hours of preliminary talks to set the pace, we were divided into groups of humanists, designers, and programmers. We were given five days (9am – 6pm, with intermittent coffee breaks and a prolonged lunch ‘hour’) to develop a proof-of-concept for a tool that would visualize the data that we had provided. At the end of the week historians were capable of asking critical questions about design theory, and designers and programmers could ask questions that were influenced by historical thought; in other words, each group became literate and could “read” each others’ discipline. It was an absolute blast, and a perfect example of how fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation can be.

Despite all of the talk of interdisciplinary in the humanities we have yet to really immerse ourselves in it: What is interdisciplinary about a group of scholars that subscribe to disparate disciplines getting together and feigning interest? What is interdisciplinary about embedding the word “interdisciplinary” in your funding application just because? Since attending this conference I’ve grown ever skeptical of “interdisciplinary work” in the humanities, and I encourage you to think critically about your own work, and the work of your colleagues, as well.

But for this early career researcher, the most striking result of the workshop is that it demonstrated, categorically, that the humanities and information science/design and technology could collaborate and produce remarkable things. And as I awkwardly navigate the liminal space between history and information science, knowing that there are groups that respect this type of work to such a degree is refreshing and inspiring.