Map of Early Modern London

I’m glad to see the Map of Early Modern London is getting a fair amount of coverage. Spearheaded by Janelle Jenstad at the University of Victoria, the project “maps the streets, sites, and significant boundaries of late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century London. You will see many of the theatres and landmarks of Shakespeare’s time, and learn about the history and culture of the city in which he lived and worked.” In order to do so, they have created two interfaces of the Agas map of London. One is an old-school format of breaking the map into a basic grid with 32 boxes – clicking on one zooms in to that section and shows starred points of interest, such as taverns, theaters, etc. Hovering your mouse over the star gives you the name, and clicking on it takes you to more information about the location. This format is okay, but limited. For someone who has become completely accustomed to GoogleMaps, it is frustrating not having the quick and easy control of zooming in and out, panning, or finding information while remaining “in” the map.

They attempted to address this with an experimental map, which has a much more complex and interactive interface:

This really puts you in the driver’s seat in determining how you want it to appear, maneuvering through the map, and accessing its information. Jenstad designed the project as a pedagogical tool, and I think it would work really well for the classroom. It allows students to find information while also exploring the city and being able to observe geographical patterns or relationships. Interesting assignments could be looking for patterns in establishments, comparing and contrasting different wards and their contents, or designing a “walking tour” based on a theme of their choosing. I wish they would also make it possible to create a mash-up that incorporates present-day multimedia, such as clicking on a location and having a photograph or video appear.

The site does have its share of bugs and problems – broken links, buttons that disappear or don’t do anything, etc. Maneuvering within the map (even the experimental one) still feels kind of clunky. This is a general problem with interactive maps that aren’t based off an already-existing structure (such as GoogleMaps, ArcMap, etc.) Independently created maps can often seem amateur in comparison to standard, powerful formats we are used to utilizing. Nevertheless, I admire the project and the way it was carried out. It is immensely collaborative, with a long list of student contributors, and general guidelines for contributing information and plans to create an editorial board that will use a “refereeing process” of evaluation.

The Literacy Debate Rages On

As of right now, the most-emailed article on the NYTimes.com is “Literacy Debate – Online, R U Reading?”, written by one of their publishing reporters, Motoko Rich. Like most articles of its sort, it touches a nerve with me.

Much like Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, the title of “R U Reading” carries an inherent value judgment. Meant to be a clever imitation of how these whippersnappers write without grammar nowadays, it is a direct appeal to older people who see this kind of digital lexicon as uneducated and, well, stupid.

To be fair, Rich does a passable job of presenting both sides. And the vast majority of the arguments on the anti-digital reading side made me irate. Some examples:

“Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories.”    – So, if I’m reading a series of online articles and exercises about quantum mechanics, it’s “empty calories”? And conversely, if I’m reading a trashy mystery novel, it’s a crucial learning process? Come on. All of that traditional book-learning doesn’t seem to have taught much about making generalizations.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”   -This one made me go off the wall. Three points: 1. McCullough is often chastised within academia for a lack of serious, in-depth historical analysis. There is an implied after thought of “great books – such as my own John Adams.”  2. You mean to tell me that someone who has made millions of dollars through book sales telling a group of young people they need to read (cough, buy) more books is not in the least bit conflicting? 3. This implies that anything you “learn” outside of a book is probably not really “learning.” Like, say, math. Or painting. Or music. Or foreign languages. Unbelievable. I lost a lot of respect for McCullough with this quote.

Rich took a particularly patronizing tone in her portrayal of fan-fiction as a poor substitute for reading. It would be like excerpting the vitriolic, racist sections of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to portray the entire canon of American political theory. It made me want to sic Henry Jenkins on her.

“What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,”   – Again, traditionalists seem to take it for granted that a “sustained, focused, linear” style of learning is the apotheosis of scholarship. The early 21st-century world couldn’t be LESS “sustained, focused, linear.” As Rich acknowledges at one point, enthusiasts of digital literacy rarely, if ever, deny that the traditional method of reading and learning is not important – it is just that the digital kind is rapidly growing in importance.

Finally, Rich barely touches upon the real potential for digital literacy. She quotes some perspectives that champion the ability to gather and synthesize information more quickly, but basically glosses over the enormous intellectual power of things like collective intelligence, collaboration, and innovation. Just like reading is not all about Dr. Seuss or Anne Rice novels, digital reading is not all about gossip blogs and Facebook. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. Traditional and digital literacy can and should coexist as fundamental skills necessary for navigating today’s world.