Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mapping My Work

Last week I had the chance to sit down for several hours with the library's new GIS librarian, Michael Page, to learn the inner secrets of Google Earth. This was all related to a talk I was giving for the Emory Psychoanalytic Studies Program on the last chapter of my dissertation. To sum up very briefly, I did a reading of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition that shows how the novel depicts both trauma and technology in terms of speed. I wanted to make an argument about how fast communication technology works to enable information to move from one character to another, but in order to do so I needed to know how far the characters traveled within the environs of London, specifically Camden Town. (On my pitiful stipend, I couldn't afford the research trip to London.) I at first turned to Google Maps, but then tried Google Earth to get a better idea of what the area looked like. I wrote the argument into my chapter and thought I was done.

When the talk suddenly loomed on my horizon, I wondered if I could bring the pictures of Camden Town in with me to help make the argument more convincing. People wouldn't have to take my word for how little time elapses in the particular passage I was concerned with, but could see it. One thing led to another and spilled over from some other research I'd done in connection with New York City (where, again, I've never been) for the chapter, and I decided to map four different parts of the novel: Camden Town, Tokyo, and New York on 9/11 and on 9/19/01. Michael helped me learn how to use paths, fly throughs, and other tools to dress up my maps. You can see the results here. Just download the .kmz files and open them in your own Google Earth application.

I was very pleased with the results of the talk. At first I thought the technology would help to keep people's attention from what I was saying. ("Ooh, pretty 3D renderings!") In actuality, I think that it helped me to make my arguments effectively and to also help those who were unfamiliar with the novel and its plot have a better, more concrete, if you will, sense of what happened in the novels. I was no longer simply reading a paper at people; instead they were watching the areas of the novel come to life. A prime example of show, not tell. Finally, I think interacting with the computer forced me to go off script and to talk more like a human. This is always a plus when doing a presentation like this. For this reason, I don't think I would ever turn these presentations into movies, although Google Earth Pro offers that functionality. It seems to me that it was important for the audience to see me interacting with the software--even changing the settings--so they got a sense of the tactility, for lack of a better word, of the environment I was using. And hopefully it gave them a sense that this was something they could do themselves.

I'm really interested in continuing to think how our reading of novels would differ if we use mapping techniques like this. I'm going to lay the blame squarely on Franco Moretti's shoulders.

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