I’m reading a book called Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past by David J. Staley. This is how the book is summarized on the back cover:

book “For hundreds of years, historians have used prose and narrative to convey history. This is about to change thanks to new technology, digital scholarship, and computerized ‘visualization.’ Text itself has inherent limitations: the very use of words — their meaning and the connections among them — shapes and restricts how historians think and communicate ideas. The rise of the computer is radically altering how human beings receive and process information. Digital environments and virtual reality are adding a third dimension to communication and creating a new visual language.”

Angkor

This new “visual language” of the past is being produced now in various ways. Tom Chandler at Monash University, for instance, is developing 3D representations of the Angkorean empire, and is attempting to be as accurate as possible in doing so, by relying, for instance, on the work of archaeologists to determine how tall people were at that time, and by relying on texts, inscriptions and murals to determine what they wore.

pearlharbor

Other people, meanwhile, have tried to replicate exactly what the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor would have seen that morning, by determining what exactly the terrain would have looked like at that moment in time, where the sun was, what the light would have been like, etc.

While these types of visualizations are attempts to see what the real world looked like at various historical times, other scholars are trying to find ways to visualize data or information. When we have a large of amount of data or information that we want to be able to make sense of, finding ways to visualize that data or information is one way to do this.

data

Recently I was thinking that finding ways to visualize what it is that we “know” about Vietnamese history would be a good way for us to test our knowledge. Take, for instance, our knowledge about Daoism.

I sometimes hear people talk about “Trần Dynasty Daoism” or “Daoism during the Lý Dynasty period” etc. Well, what do we actually know about Daoism during the period when the Trần Dynasty ruled?

We know that on some occasions the emperor wore a cap that had Daoist origins. We know that there were Daoist ritual specialists who prayed for rain. We know that there was at least one Daoist ritual master who came from Fujian and who went off to live in a cave. And . . . that’s about all we know (of course I’m exaggerating here to some extent).

cave

If we just think about how limited our information is, we can already get a sense of how difficult it is to talk about “Daoism” during the Trần period, but if we had a way to visualize this, then I think this point would be even more obvious.

If, for instance, we could find a way to take from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư examples from the Trần Dynasty period that refer to practices that we associate with “Confucianism,” “Buddhism,” and “Daoism,” and then visualize that information, what would we see?

vis

My guess is that we would realize that when we talk about “Trần Dynasty Daoism,” we are actually basing that idea/concept on very little information.

Instead of there being some teaching or tradition or institution that we can label “Daoism,” what we would realize is that all we really know about is that the emperor had a cap, someone prayed for rain, and that there was a guy who lived in a cave. Can we really call this “Trần Dynasty Daoism”?

Again, I’m exaggerating things here a bit, but my point is to say that some of the things that we say about the past would probably stop making sense if we could visualize what it is that the words we are saying actually refer to. Because the things we say, and the information we base those statements on, are often quite different from each other.

If we tried to visualize what it is that we talk about, I think we would “see” this, both visually and intellectually.