vol. 25 no. 2, June, 2020

Book Reviews

Dunn, Stuart. A history of place in the digital age London: Routledge, 2019. ix, 162 p. ISBN 978-1-13822-357-8. £140.00. (Digital research in the arts and humanities).

Today, we are all used to whipping out our phones and using GPS to navigate the world. And yet spatial humanities is a young field. As this new book by the archeologist-turned-digital humanist Stuart Dunn notes, the term first appeared in 2016 following spatial turns in both history and literature. Even after the establishment of this field, understandings of space and place have been slowed by assumptions that new technologies such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and GeoWeb are primarily tools for the representation of location that can be used to answer research questions. Questioning this utilitarian, highly individualised and project-specific approach, Dunn places current spatial technologies within a longer history of human attempts to understand, document, and communicate space and place, involving a variety of media produced across time and by different communities.

The first chapter functions as an introduction to the major themes and arguments of the book. Here, Dunn highlights the importance of understanding place as constantly in flux, experienced and communicated over time and highly perspectival. Digital technologies have altered these processes, as well as the ways in which media communicating place can be read, structured, and analysed for research purposes. The second chapter provides a longue durée history of spatial representation, examining cartographers and chorographers (chorography - systematic description and mapping of particular regions) from Classical Greece forwards. The chapter underlines the long historical relationship between technological change and the representation of space and place; digital technologies are just one more development in this process. Dunn delves into the distinction between geography and chorography here, exploring the historic separation between the highly rational logic of graphic mapping (geography) and attempts to communicate the experience of place that emerged largely in the period following the invention of the printing press. Part of Dunn’s argument is that this distinction between chorography and geography is collapsed for the first time with the GeoWeb.

The next six chapters focus on the ways in which new digital technologies affect the experience and analysis of space as constructed and enacted. Looking at the field of archeology as a case study, chapter three analyses how digital technologies have allowed for the study of space as produced through social objects, including text. The chapter also introduces the concept of neogeography, a way of using GPS technology to capture people’s experiences of space and place in real time, as part of the research process. The fourth chapter addresses literary GIS, arguing that spatial methodologies impact on the reception of text in three broad ways: as means of communicating, of organizing, and of reading (p. 55). These methodologies are difficult to enact with current web technologies, which largely rely on binary geographic data like the World Geographical Survey coordinates and have trouble with detailed description and narration. In all three cases (communication, organization, and reading), the possibilities of new digital technologies lie in their ability to process large volumes of text – allowing scholars to analyse public, collective understandings of place in a more comprehensive and systematic way.

The fifth chapter deals with neogeography, which is typically defined as the creation and use of geographic data by the public. This is an area easily exploited by commercial interests, as noted by Dunn. But crowdsourcing is becoming an important part of how many disciplines increase their empirical bases, and the spatial humanities are no different. While not open and democratic in the fullest sense – Dunn points to biases of sex and race embedded in this data (and here I would add class) – neogeography offers an opportunity to collect locally embedded experiences of space from people who know those spaces best. This is one area in which digital technologies can be used to understand limited spaces in a deeper, more inclusive way that mines local knowledge. But, as Dunn notes, this is also an area dominated by 'shallow' mapping and commercial interests, in opposition to 'deep' mapping, which captures the layered, multimedia experiences and use of a place over time.

This balance between the opportunities and limitations of digital GIS and GeoWeb given spatial narrative’s trans-media character is explored in the sixth and seventh chapters. Dunn notes that spatial media such as maps often defy traditional cataloguing and curatorial conventions, making them difficult to process and analyse with digital technologies. What is also clear are the current restrictions of digital methods, which have trouble capturing space as inhabited and altered through individual and collective use. More easily translated to digital data are the more traditional and cataloguer-friendly documents like gazetteers, which are bibliographical in structure. The penultimate chapter addresses digital remediation and its complications. Place as experienced requires that its digital iteration distinguish between rational, objective definition and the conclusions that can be drawn about how a space or object might have looked or been used, based on large collections of like materials or research on local community practices.

At times, the text collapses the boundaries between representation, communication, and the analysis of space and place, making it difficult to discern precisely what digital technologies enable and what the limitations of digital methods and information are. Much of this has to do with the general nature of A history of place in the digital age, which attempts to address the broad and evolving field of the spatial humanities, an area without clear boundaries at the moment. For the same reason, the book also has some interesting threads that would benefit from further development, including the extent to which networked power is less accessible to some groups, affecting both the data generated through digital platforms and applications, and the ways in which this data can be used by scholars.

Overall, this is a good book to start for those who want to know more about spatial history and the new approaches to this subject made possible with digital, networked data science. The chapters work together or alone (cited texts appear at the end of each chapter), allowing for flexibility as an assigned course text. Some of the examples may require some background reading for non-British readers (p. 107-108), and the assumed audience is university scholars and students already familiar with the field of digital humanities. Most obviously, the book would benefit from more maps and other attempts to illustrate some of the discussions. Perhaps Dunn has had his illustrations cut for exactly the same reason as 17th century map scholars – cost (p. 28). But in terms of general usability, A history of place in the digital age offers an interesting overview and set of arguments that can serve as the basis for further inquiry.

Rachel Pierce

University of Borås
May, 2020

How to cite this review

Pierce, R. (2020). Review of: Dunn, Stuart. A history of place in the digital age London: Routledge, 2019. Information Research, 25(2), review no. R691. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs691.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.