Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2015
Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 216 pp.; 75 color ills. Paper $24.95 (9780674725348)

Hypercities is an unruly book that does not want to behave. With its attendant website, it is neither fish nor fowl, for it is simultaneously a scholarly book, an introduction to a digital mapping platform, an extension of web-based projects that use the platform, and an activist text. Yet, rather than a lack of organization or rigor on the part of the authors, their intent is clearly to present the reader with a mash-up of genres and points of entry that strive for multiple users along a spectrum ranging from coders, to academics just getting their feet wet in the digital humanities, to the web public at large. As such, Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano extend the well-established tradition of striving for the most open access possible for digital-based scholarship. At the same time, though, their compelling defense of digital spatial visualization nevertheless shares some of the same pitfalls with previous arguments for the radical democratizing potential for the production and distribution of digital knowledge. To their credit, these authors are keenly aware of exactly such issues and thematize them specifically in their texts. This makes their introduction and explication of HyperCities and the critical potential of digital mapping both satisfying and yet also a text that points to the need for further debate.

Digital mapping—or, more broadly, spatial visualization—has become an established sub-category of digital humanities work, including in art history. HyperCities is a digital platform based out of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), that allows a user to build spatial narratives, although it is also a community of scholars and activists who are interested in exploring any and all ways of visualizing space. Given that every historical event exists in space, they see mapping as fundamental to understanding the contemporary and historical world. Or, as put in the preface, “It is not a book about ‘maps’ per se but about exploring, participating, and listening, something that transforms our conception of mapping into a practice of ethics” (7). Clearly, the authors set the bar for the significance of digital mapping impossibly high; what is impressive is that they still manage to achieve this goal at times as they demonstrate in the case studies, or “windows,” described in the text.

The book is structured as follows: an introduction to key terms, three main chapters, four “windows,” and a final “gallery” of coauthor Kawano’s trip to sites in Japan related to the 2011 earthquake and the ensuing Fukishima Nuclear Plant disaster. The introduction, entitled “Lexicon,” focuses on giving the reader a common vocabulary by describing the derivation of HyperCities, the concept of “thick mapping,” and a brief discussion of the broader issues at stake for the digital humanities. Authored by Presner, his emphasis is on the “hyper” in HyperCities, which goes back to media theory emphasizing nonlinear modes of communication. Mapping in this sense exists not only at the level of the physical or demographic landscape but also in the past, present, and future events, ideas, and possibilities for experience in a particular space. Interpreting the multiple dimensions of such physical and social spaces involves constantly constructing, correcting, and expanding new layers to the map, a process which the concept of “thick mapping” summarizes. This introduction will be particularly useful for those art historians and artists unfamiliar with the HyperCities project and the role of mapping in the digital humanities.

The main chapters cover both a description of what HyperCities is and can do as well as specific thematic problems and issues in digital mapping to which the project contributes. The first such substantive chapter covers the development of HyperCities, starting with the initial attempt in 2000 to construct the digital “Berlin: Temporal Topographies” project at the Stanford Humanities Lab (one assumes the project was by Presner, as the author of this section and also well known for his work on German and German-Jewish history and visual culture). The subsection ends with the launch in 2013 of the HyperCities API (Application Program Interface), which releases the data contained in HyperCities to be reused by the site’s users, whether in Google Maps or another mapping program. This brief history complements a further discussion of thick mapping and what a truly spatial historical practice might mean. The second substantive chapter focuses on Google Earth and how HyperCities builds off of it but also attempts a critical distance from this platform. Undertaking an analysis of the epistemology of Google Earth, the authors discuss both its cultural use in private and military sectors as well as the technological norms it produces, such as the practice of zooming in and out. The authors engage in a particularly interesting analysis of the problems of mapping in Google Earth, which forces the square, flat grid in Google Maps onto the elliptical, rounded surface of the globe, a problem with deep roots in the history of cartography as well as more recent discussions of georeferencing historical maps to “accurate” base maps like Google Earth. Here, too, Berlin comes in for some interesting treatment, for example in a discussion of intentional distortions in the georeferencing of a city map by the former East German government. The final substantive chapter discusses the use of HyperCities in conjunction with social media, such as the mapping of Tweets during the Egyptian uprising in 2011, an application the authors call HyperCities Now. In between these large sections are the four windows and the final gallery, which illustrate the variety of ways that HyperCities can be used for critical work. The windows cover both community activists who have “published” on HyperCities (e.g., the Mapping HiFi project that was designed to “deepen a sense of place” (76) and community for the Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles) along with scholars who have used it to further their work. In the latter category, Diane Favro and Chris Johanson’s scholarship on the mapping and 3-D reconstruction of the Roman Forum will be particularly useful for and well known to art historians. The book concludes with a personal and poignant account by Kawano of his work on the Bishamon team, a collaboration between UCLA and Nigata University to record and map remnants of radiation from the Fukushima tragedy and make the data useful and accessible to local governments for action.

In spite of this summary of chapters and subsections, the challenge for any reviewer of this book and website is to capture not only the content of the whole but also its cacophony, or what is labeled in the preface as a “choreographed argument” (7). True to the digital ethos, it is meant to be read either in a linear fashion or as a series of parts that can be selectively arranged. This is indeed emphasized in the design of the book itself. The three authors use different typefaces to indicate their individual contributions, which are further fragmented visually with overlapping sections. For example, while Presner is “unmasking the constructedness” of Google Earth on the top of the page, Shepard has an inspired summary of “nowhere,” i.e., the zero degrees latitude/longitude point in the Atlantic Ocean from which all other coordinates are measured but also at which Google Earth puts your points if it does not understand your input numbers (98–99). Shepherd’s asides in general are excellent discussions of some of the philosophical conceits behind bits of code and the technology, while Presner’s contributions not surprisingly tend toward examples such as Berlin but also literary-theoretical interpretations of the implications of knowledge in HyperCities and digital mapping more generally. Kawano’s sections are mostly in the last chapter and the gallery, and are more practical and applied in nature. All of this is signaled not only in the typeface but also in different colored pages and completely distinct layouts, like the first use in the last chapter of separate borders with records of Tweets related to the main body of the text. Such intended complexity and contradiction is furthered on the website, a series of tiles that change order every time the page is reloaded. Some of these tiles are links to content directly related to the book, as in the Filipinotown project, but others are distinct uses of the HyperCities platform, including a study of Vancouver or an analysis of Holocaust survivor testimonies. The site also includes the source code for HyperCities, a tool for downloading Twitter feeds, a historical map library, and a HyperCities toolkit, among others. In general, as in the book, the code end of the project is available but not emphasized at the expense of discussions of the use of the platform and its humanistic implications; as a result, the project sticks to its philosophy of aiming at the broadest audience possible, and it should have wide appeal.

And yet, such open-endedness in the book in particular has its downside and raises some questions about the argument. In particular, there is an obvious disagreement in theory between the authors: Presner tends to emphasize a more poststructuralist approach to the unrepresentability of truth in digital space (with a liberal use of Walter Benjamin and occasional references to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, among others); Shepard seems to forward a more social-scientific point of view that certainly includes an awareness of the problems of “truth” yet also asserts a more confident approach to the utility of maps; and Kawano appears to have little time for either of these positions, as he is interested in using mapping for the very urgent matter of helping to trace radiation in Japan, a project for which it is clearly suitable. On the one hand, these very positions, which also reference different relationships to technology, make the point of the “polyvocal, multilevel form” (9) that the book is meant to take; on the other, however, they project a utopian pluralism that corresponds neither to the actual use of maps nor the broader advance of digital humanities. This becomes evident, for example, when Presner discusses Google Earth as a “product of warfare” (94) while Shepard argues a few pages later and in the same section that Google Earth’s developmental connection “to surveillance and national security are questionable” (102) given that the profit motivation seemed to be initially in local applications. It is admirable that the authors allow these tensions to surface, but one wants a bit more; whether Google Earth was or was not developed as a direct result from and interest in military applications is an important point, regardless of its subsequent use, and as historians we should be able to answer this question more definitively. Furthermore, the ending of the book with the concrete application of Kawano’s gallery seems to confront the overemphasis on maps as mere fabrications of truth earlier in the text. It has long been established in art history and in geography that maps are representations. Nevertheless, they are representations that most often refer relationally, sometimes indexically, to real events and experiences. This social-historical approach cannot be so easily reconciled with a poststructuralist concept of the play of signification, for example. As such, one wishes for a round-table conclusion to the book where all three voices are brought into dialogue to discuss these apparent contradictions.

On a broader but related level, it seems to me that the strengths of the book (which are many) still ignore one of the fundamental problems in the digital humanities: these debates about the value of digital scholarship cannot and will not exist merely side by side with other academic discussions, each ever broadening into a democratic world of diverse opinions and/or digital applications. Rather, as the above implies, the irreconcilability of intellectual positions overlaps with the diverse market pressures on academia as large funders attract and thus push specific research agendas over others. In this regard, the digital must be acknowledged not as a democratic or authoritarian tool, but rather as a market intellectual force that can have either authoritarian or critical ends. This means being open about debates and discussing the strength and weaknesses of approaches and realizing that not all approaches are tolerated (i.e., supported) in a market. Such discussions run against the utopic projection that the ever-expansive world of the digital is or will be an equal among other equals on the academic playing field. The best of Presner, Shepard, and Kawano’s book does this very thing, as it describes and models how digital mapping and HyperCities in particular contributes to a critical analysis of spatial events. But with this example also comes a harbinger, signaled in its own text and format, of debates to come, as the disjunctions of the digital also reveal fault lines of real intellectual, political, and economic consequence. This book helps immeasurably in many ways to push to the surface the debate on these important problems.

Paul B. Jaskot
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University