When I was younger, my dad would always have an atlas in the car when we went on family vacations. Then, he started printing off Google Maps directions. A few years ago, he finally relinquished directional control and learned to trust a GPS device. Now, I constantly have a phone handy that has these navigating capabilities (and more) at the touch of a finger, or a spoken command to Siri.
While reading Presner, Shepard, and Kawano’s “HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities,” I reflected on the evolution of maps over even the last 20 years and what these changes mean for academia. These writers are describing the idea and process of “thick mapping.” This process would be ongoing (and never ending) as these maps could be continually updated with new information as it’s discovered. These digitally-stored maps capture the past, present, and project the future of one city or place. They have depth, almost like a vertical timeline, in a sense. What these mappers are trying to accomplish is a noble effort, one that can be used and replicated by musicologists (but should it be?).
Powerful tools like this are extremely helpful for historians of many disciplines, including music historians. These technological devices are great for sorting through data and displaying it in various ways, making it easier to understand. Are they practical for use by students? I think so. It’s nice that so much thorough information about a specific place can be collected in one spot. However, as a student who needs to do research, I don’t know that the first place I’ll run to for information will be a hypercity. (Not saying this might change in 5 years…or 2.)
Despite these digital advantages, the book also touches on the limitations and dangers of this mapping process. No matter how much data is displayed on these maps, a human still has to use their own reasoning power and outside (unquantifiable) knowledge of history (in this case) to interpret the data and apply it to current situations or whatever is being researched. When these mappers begin selecting from history to create these maps that can be used in a number of unchecked ways, there are numerous ethical issues that arise that the book mentions. No matter how many layers or embedded videos these hypercities have, it’s important to remember that these technologies will never be able to fully capture the essence of the human beings who lived and breathed in these thickly mapped cities.