My laser focus this Spring 2020 semester was to work on an actual honest-to-Gods’ Digital Humanities mega-project that will encompass all my Spring 2020 courses, which also included CSI 703: Scientific and Statistical Visualization / CSS 739 – Human Centered Data Science and CSS 610: Agent-based Modeling Economics (and other Social Sciences).
I began with finding out how other Digital Humanists got started on their project:
- Paige Morgan’s How to get a digital humanities project off the ground blog post on HASTAC
- Adrian Linden-High’s Launching Digital Projects from Scratch – Some Advice
DH = STEAM research?
What’s the difference between Digital Humanities research and Humanities research vs Software development?
Traditional humanities research is remarkably varied, but they all are based on close reading, critical inquiry, focused on interpretive insight gathering, and understanding a specific topic in its entire depth. The software development life cycle is a waterfall model of each step adding onto the its subsequent pieces. From gathering requirements, understanding the design process, negotiating with various stakeholders, before an ideal prototype is built for problem-solving implementation, to finally, maintenance.
Digital Humanities projects differ from regular traditional humanities research, as well as common tech-based applications or software developments. While Digital Humanities borrow from both the disciplines’ techniques, there is a marked uniqueness in the process. As a graduate student working on her first-ever large-scale Digital Humanities research this semester, here’s my experience with my Ancient Silk Road Trade Visualization and Simulation work. This blog post documents my tales and travails from the conception of the idea of visualizing and simulating the silk route, to its eventual execution and submission for very healthy helping of A and A+ grades. I discuss the research strategies that worked for me, and the options I would have liked to explore further with more time at hand.
To my immense chagrin, I do not have an academic background in history, anthropology, archaeology, economics, sociology, and such. So, I set to work on understanding my research topic, in an effort to narrow down the research question to sizable, do-able, chunks. I had a clock tick-ticking and plenty of assignments, readings, Graduate Research Assistant work, and of course, there was that COVID-19 uncertainty blip as well as mourning my international college experience being cut short.
Ah well. We soldier on.
Once I finalized the topic, my immediate course of action was four-fold.
For the data visualization:
- Find Silk route data
- A network graph
- A map visualization
Simultaneously, for the agent-based model project:
- How did the goods travel?
- What was the demand-supply ratio for the goods?
- What was the proportion of the most popular goods?
Finding Primary Source
I had to contend with speed-reading a lot of the material I would have liked to pore over for days. I could have been the crazed MI-6 agent uncovering a greater conspiracy that goes beyond the upper-echelons, but I only turned into an armchair time-space traveler instead. I tried to consider from a historian’s perspective
Then I tried to find existing research and similar projects to draw inspiration from. I used Google Scholar, Google N-gram, Project Gutenberg, etc
I went through the usual suspects for finding data on the Silk Road.
I asked for help. A lot.
I always saved to Zotero. Even if I couldn’t get just the right citation I wanted out of it, I had all my research in one place, and that is the real life-saver in the eleventh hour just before submitting your paper and all you have left to do, is format those references.
I always tried to find the primary source for an article linked or paper cited and do my best to find the publishing date and yes, believe it, the author’s name.
Knowing how and what to Google is the superpower I came away with from my brief stint as a Content Creator and Digital Marketer and oh am I glad for it!
My organizational skills have also become top-notch, if I do say so myself. My programming related files were in a separate drive from the folder with the theory, my own notes material, and everything was downloaded from a similar sectioned system on Google Drive. I had my data files in different stages ordered by the date modified to keep track and had a backup, just in case.
Behind-the-scenes action included taking a mini-crash course on all of Silk Route regional history by way of:
- Practically all-inclusive medieval trade map by Martin Jan Månsson, a graduate student in Spatial Planning at the Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden
- Online Exhibits of Maps on Google Arts and Culture
- This post on Art and Aesthetics blog by Tulika Bahadur
- Reading Marco Polo and Kublai Khan fictionalized in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as artistically visualized by Karina Puente.
- Listening to The Silk Road History Podcast by Nathan Cherry and associated reading list
- Listening to Echoes podcast by Anirudh Kanisetti
- Listening to Yuddha podcast by Anirudh Kanisetti and Aditya Ramanathan
- Listening to The History of Philosophy without Gaps by Peter Adamson
- Watching Great Adventures along the Silk Road
- Watching The Silk Road Documentary
- Watching THE SILK ROAD I – NHK’s documentary
- Watching Let’s Cook History: The Medieval Feast (Medieval Documentary)
- Watching China History Podcast
- Listening to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
- Reading list by Silk Road University
- Playing Age of Empire 2:
- Silk Road is a technology in Age of Empires II: The Forgotten that is unique to the Italians (? Excuse me but??? Age of Empire 3 tried to make me play as East India Company with a British Colonel and an Indian Sepoy. Excuse me?)
- This Reddit post on an idea for an in-universe Silk Road map.
- The Age of Empire 2: The Rise of Rajahs campaigns Gajah Mada, Suryavarman I, Bayinnaung, and Le Loi. Yes, quite exoticism is rampant in the gameplay but it was still quite immersive and educational, especially with the game play storylines.
- An immersive playlist of music from historical show tunes, obscure instrumental Central Asian folk music, anything that YouTube could serve up.
As is evident by the list of material, this was an unorthodox and completely subjective methodology. Needless to say, I enjoyed every moment of it. It was an absolutely enriching task; making copious amounts of notes on the world that was, that could be incorporated into my own creation.
I tried to keep my research as Asian focused as possible, but the material readily and easily available was more often European. The reason for my methodology is representation, inclusive research, and diverse stories in my own interpretation of the historical events. I want to be able to learn more, beyond the popular narrative and that is possible only by going beyond what is researched so far. That is not to say, that the works were accessible. There is room for improvement. I have since found many more articles, books, artworks, manuscripts, stories, and other research from the era which I hope to include in future iterations of HERMESs.
Spring 2020 had me working on my R programming language learning curve, given the STAT 515 course. I went from making bar graphs with ggplot2 to plotly and finally displaying them on shiny over 6 months.
Similarly, I got around to Python for Computational Economics. From different activation levels of Zero Intelligence Trader models to Game Theory models like Prisoner’s dilemma, Hawk-Dove Game, I worked on the NetLogo versions but became better with the Python versions of the code. (I’ll put them up on my Github soon.) Creating a population of agents who – yes, who – interact based on some coded in parameters, giving them unique characteristics? It was another way of world-building, outside of fantasy literature, or gaming. I was slightly more used to NetLogo for the visual part of agent interaction, transaction, and dynamics so I developed this first. I plan to eventually combine the agent characteristics with the visual side itself.
I have previously tried to wait until I build up my skills before working on a project, but for this Ancient Silk Route visualization simulation project, I went with the flow of what was required. This is less structured and comforting than a regular capstone project, I admit. However, getting my hands “dirty” with data was much more realistic, even in a workplace setting, especially I supposed. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with everything that can be done, I could focus on what needed to be done. The deadline also gave me the incentive / motivation to keep these learning curves short and sweet.
Here are a few of the courses I would have liked to pick apart more, besides my own standard George Mason University courses.
Computational Social Sciences
Sneak Peak at the Dashboard:
Coming up: The actual works of a Digital Humanities project…
Bahadur, T. (2016). Book of the Marvels of the World. Retrieved 21 June 2020, from https://onartandaesthetics.com/2016/10/06/book-of-the-marvels-of-the-world/
Fahringer, A. (2020). InfoGuides: Text & Data Mining Sources: Get Started. Retrieved 21 June 2020, from https://infoguides.gmu.edu/text-mining
Frankopan, P. (2018). Silk Roads. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Gibson, M., & Babaie, S. (2017). The Mercantile Effect. Art and Exchange in the Islamicate World during 17th 18th centuries. London: Gingko Library.
Hobsbawm, E. J. (1987). The age of empire, 1875-1914. New York: Pantheon Books.
Kanisetti, A., (2019) Echoes of India. IVM Podcasts. Retrieved from https://ivmpodcasts.com/echoes-of-india-a-history-podcast
Kanisetti, A., Ramanathan, A., (2019) Yuddha The Indian Military History Podcast. IVM Podcasts. Retrieved from https://ivmpodcasts.com/yuddha
Kristiansen, K. 2018. “Theorizing Trade and Civilization.” Pp. 1–24 in Trade and Civilisation: Economic Networks and Cultural Ties, from Prehistory to the Early Modern Era, edited by K. Kristiansen, T. Lindkvist, and J. Myrdal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Linden-High, A. (2018). Launching Digital Projects from Scratch – Some Advice. Retrieved 21 June 2020, from https://blogs.library.duke.edu/blog/2018/08/21/digital-projects-from-scratch/
Morgan, P. (2014). How to get a digital humanities project off the ground. Retrieved 21 June 2020, from http://www.paigemorgan.net/how-to-get-a-digital-humanities-project-off-the-ground/
Munro, J. 2002. Spices and Their Costs in Medieval Europe. Serve It Forth: A Periodical Forum for Historical Cooks. Vol. 7. Retrieved from https://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/SPICES1.htm
R Core Team (2017). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. https://www.R-project.org/.
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. (2016) Zotero [Computer software]. Retrieved from www.zotero.org/download
Sievert C (2020). Interactive Web-Based Data Visualization with R, plotly, and shiny. Chapman and Hall/CRC. ISBN 9781138331457, https://plotly-r.com.
Wickham H (2016). ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis. Springer-Verlag. New York.
Williams, T. 2014. “The Silk Roads: An ICOMOS Thematic Study.” P. 152 in Working Paper. ICOMOS. Charenton-le-Pont, France.
Yang, Liang Emlyn, Hans-Rudolf Bork, Xiuqi Fang, Steffen Mischke, Mara Weinelt, and Josef Wiesehöfer. 2019. “On the Paleo-Climatic/Environmental Impacts and Socio-Cultural System Resilience along the Historical Silk Road.” Pp. 3–22 in Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road, edited by L. E. Yang, H.-R. Bork, X. Fang, and S. Mischke. Cham: Springer International Publishing.