Manuel Schramm, Digitale Landschaften, Stuttgart 2009

Review with respect to digital humanities

Historians have (re)discovered space as one of their issues. This has been manifested in the great response to the topic “borders” at the Swiss Congress of Historical Sciences 2010 in Basel or to the exhibition The Mastery of Space about the Swiss pioneer for US Surveying and Mapping, Rudolf Ferdinand Hassler, 2007 in Switzerland, for instance. The history of cartography is anything but an issue on the margins of history. This is also witnessed by the historical publication of Manuel Schramm, comparing the cartography in the United States and Germany in the second half of the 20th century (See my separate post to the The place in the Digital Humanities).

Schramm is Professor for Economic and Social History at the Technische Universität Chemnitz, Germany. In his book, he is primarily interested in the “construction of space and landscape” through the scientific practice of surveying. It combines issues of the history of environment with the history of technology. But this review highlights only those parts of his book, which can be subsumed under the Digital Humanities.

Schramm describes the different institutional settings dealing with the technological change that threatened the key skills of Engineers. This change  joined much resistance especially in Germany. But also the expansion of the production of maps from experts to laymen contributed to a radical change in the perception of space and landscape. Due to new and easy handling tools, laymen take over tasks now that once used to be reserved for specialists.

For the cognitive perception of space the American study “Image of the city” from the sixties is famous. Volunteers were asked to draw an imaginary walk through their neighbourhood. They identified five elements that structure their perception of space: the path, edge, district, node and the landmark. Such “cognitive maps” contradict common geometric concepts, Schramm says. So most people focus on (subjective) visual landmarks that seem to structure space most effectively. This makes it quite difficult to develop digital navigation systems for everyday use, for instance.

The electronic data processing was used in cartography, as elsewhere, to save costs, presumably. It led from automatic map production to the Computer mapping and from there to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), common today. As mentioned above, their applications in part enable even laymen to do cartographic work nowadays.

Too bad for us, that Schramm doesn’t elaborate further on that point. His book suggests a promise in the title that it doesn’t keep entirely. An incentive for researchers to draw the “digital landscape” and to analyze its consequences in the context of the Digital Humanities. As elsewhere, it seems to give in cartography a Pro-Amateur-Revolution which will define the relationship between institutions and their users entirely new. Apparently, this is, in addition to encyclopedias (Wikipedia), newspapers, magazines, music industry, archives and libraries, another area that is completely revamped by digitization. Charles Leadbeater, the proponent of the pro-am revolution would have loved it (see Link for review).

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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