Hypercities evaluation

Jordan Nissensohn and Martin Benn

Digital Humanities

Hypercities. The term emanates a feeling of futuristic-modernity mixed with the current reality, a very intriguing juxtaposition. There is nothing more exciting than the prospect of bringing imaginative thinking together with advanced technology, and, currently, it is these types of projects that inspire the creativity, fuel the innovation, and make possible our acceleration into [a more] modern age.

So what is Hypercities? According to Wikipedia, the prefix “hyper” means “existing in more than three spatial dimensions”3.  Hypercities is a project that aims to create a database of cities that exist in more than regular x, y, and z coordinates. For all intents and purposes, Hypercities is Google Earth equipped with a timeline as an additional mode of specification. The dimension of time adds a fourth dimension allowing for the insertion of time-specific quotes, statistics, architecture, etc. that reflect the realities of different time periods.

Hypercities’ mission statement (on the “about” page) explains the project is “built on the idea that every past is a place”1 and strives to help answer the incredibly complex question of “Where are you from?1. In order to do this, the developers took Google Earth, and for several major cities (“Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Rome, Lima, Ollantaytambo, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Saigon, Toyko, Shanghai, Seoul, with many more (big and small) to come”)1 layered in maps, videos, documents, pictures, or as it says on the main website, “a rich array of geo-temporal information”1 over variable time periods. This is an incredible idea to have all of this information in one place! The project, as a whole, addresses the often-overlooked concept that physical locations do change over time.

The concept of change within a physical location is an extremely important concept to understand, especially as an academic, because everything is contextual. One can’t hope to accurately learn about a culture, an event, a city, etc. without an understanding of each focus’ specific and highly individual context in both space and time. Without context, empathy is impossible. Previously, this was only possible through the study of analog resources. With computers and the internet came mass-digitization of resources, forever changing the ways in which everyone can research the context of historical questions.

We were really excited to start using Hypercities because the mission statements and explanations geared the imagination towards something revolutionary. Take a second and imagine a map of high quality (or any quality really) animations of the geo-physical transformations undergone by the world’s major cities or chronological manipulations of topography on a never-before-seen level. This is what we imagined when first discovering Hypercities. We hoped for something unprecedented, simple in theory, and revealing of a highly fundamental reality.

John Unsworth argues that all scholarship must allow for discovery, annotation, and comparison4. The digital nature of this project allows for collaboration amongst a large body of disciplines within the professional world. Due to the open source nature of the material, one can discover new maps, theories, or explanations of events, while also comparing previous examples of maps made by others on the project, and eventually creating their own map for the project. However, annotation is difficult for those who are not completely involved in the creation of a specific map on the project. It would seem rather rude to change someone’s plot points on a map project you had zero input on previously. This facilitates interaction between groups about their contributions and increases another important facet of digital humanities that Mark Sample speaks about, sharing and collaboration.

Despite facilitating scholarship, Hypercities doesn’t really offer us anything new. Unlike the visually stimulating geo-physical transformations we hoped to see, instead, the program uses the current satellite image of Earth, and when scrolling back in time, brings up old maps, documents, anecdotes, video stories, and news stories relating to the specific place and time. This is very similar to the work that we all put in as we modeled the outline of the city for Mrs. Dalloway; for those groups with old maps layered on for their presentations it is even more similar. Instead of modeling software, Hypercities is more like an information database. Instead of Google searching for relevant information about a place in a certain year, Hypercities uses a world map for selecting a location and an adjustable timeline for selecting the desired time period.

The biggest problem with Hypercities is that as members of the digital generation, we don’t like to search for information in a time-inefficient way. After launching the program (accessible on the main page: http://hypercities.com/), picking my desired city, zooming in, selecting the time period, browsing through available information from the given time, and finally selecting a piece of media, We honestly feel that we would be better off Google searching, for example, “Tokyo 1930 through 1950”, and browsing through the exponentially greater (in terms of quantity) list of resulting information. Possibly exploring a partnership with Google could make an exponentially quicker and thereby easier process.

Perhaps these issues with Hypercities stem from the fact that we did not get what we expected out of the project. We expected to see the physical changes of cities over time as opposed to time-specific information. However that is not to say the project has no purpose or importance. For those less biased towards general search engines like Google, Hypercities brings together valuable information in a not-so-overwhelming way and makes this information accessible without the overly-misinterpreted nature of search engines. Further, this project establishes a great platform for undergraduate students, graduate students, and teachers alike to create mapping projects (similar to our Mrs. Dalloway mapping project) with the added dimension of time. Hypercities also allows participants to create projects and upload these projects to a publicly accessible collection. Such projects include the “digital curation project on the ‘2009 Election Protests in Iran’” and the “Ghost Metropolis” which attempts to document Los Angeles from 13,000 B.C.E up to the present. But the truth is, the project still has a long way to go. The amount of information available in the database is, at this time, too insufficient to fulfill the project’s goal of describing places in time.

It would be wrong to claim Hypercities gives nothing new to the digital humanities or even the humanities as a whole. Hypercities give us a newly invigorated series of questions for us to ponder: how cities change, when they change, what forces drive change, and what does change look like. Hypercities is an intriguing example of the ambitious nature within the field of Digital Humanities and where the field can and will eventually go. Alas, this “body of knowledge” is so broad (the study of places in time), Hypercities will not be able to make substantial contributions until it adds enormous amounts of additional media to its databases.

The true obstacle holding Hypercities back is its currently limited audience. It is a very useful tool for students and professors looking to create or review something specific. In order to make the monumental impact on humanities that it is capable of making, Hypercities needs to increase the scope of its target audience to anyone looking for time-specific information about a city. The only ways it can achieve this audience is by making it easier to access desired information, greatly increasing available information, and providing previously unavailable media (such as geo-physical animations of topographical changes to cities over time). Once it develops and makes these changes, Hypercities will not only attract the scholar making an interesting class project, but also every knowledge-hungry web surfer and can facilitate cross-field examination and additions. With such advancements, Hypercities will be able to achieve their mission statement to the fullest, making a long-lasting mark on scholarship and the way people answer the question, “Where are you from?”.




Sources (endnotes):


1) “Hypercities ABOUT.” Hypercities. UCLA, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.



2) Presner, Todd. HyperCities: A Case Study for the Future of Scholarly Publishing.                           Connexions. 14 May 2010 <http://cnx.org/content/m34318/1.3/>.



3) “hyper-.” Wikipedia. N.p., 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.


4) Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?”.<http://www3.isrl.illinois.edu/~unsworth/Kings.5-00/primitives.html>

Comments are closed.