Reflective Essay 2

I’ve chosen to critically evaluate Timeline JS because I think it’s an interesting tool that will be very useful for me but one that I will have to use very carefully. There are certain aspects of Timeline JS that seem very effective and well put together, but with everything created by humans there are inherent assumptions made that I must watch.

One of the best aspects of Timeline JS is that it is open source. This allows many people to use it and is not only a tool for the wealthy. When I looked on their website they also seemed to have impressive documentation. The instructions for use were straightforward and easy to understand. You could probably figure it out on your own if you had to. There was also a technical documentation section where they had further instructions. Lastly, there was a clear FAQ section just in case problems arose or there was still confusion on the part of the user. From their website it really seemed as though they wanted this tool to be accessible to all people of all technical abilities and make everything as easy as possible. This was further demonstrated by the fact that one only needs the website and excel to use this tool. They also made it clear that you are able to put many types of media in the timelines you create so it supports all different types of visuals and styles of presentation. There are many ways in which the creators of Timeline JS have attempted to be conscientious and create a good experience for their users.

Because of the nature of this tool, there are inherent assumptions that the makers have made. The first one that comes to my mind is the nature of time itself. Time is a human construct, and we use it to measure things to make more sense out of them. But what if these things are not measurable by time? When we use time for things like this, we often end up attempting to fit something into a box that perhaps shouldn’t be fit into a box. This is especially important to me because I am working with eras, which are by nature, time bound, and yet there is great disagreement as to what these boundaries are. Many people think that the modern and postmodern eras are not really measurable through time because their ideas endure past the era and came into being far before. We are attempting to measure the flux and change in people’s beliefs through time and yet that assumes that people’s beliefs are time bound in a way.

A tool like this is also difficult because when we have a timeline we are choosing which events to put in this timeline and inherent biases come along with those choices. Which markers in history are we choosing to use? Whose history are we using? When we place certain events next to each other, is there risk that we are creating the guise of correlation when in truth they may have not been related at all? The problem with timelines are that they create a certain narrative that we want to make by using a strong rhetorical device that can easily be manipulated negatively. We must be very careful to choose our markers carefully and to not introduce correlation where it does not exist.

Nevertheless, I will use this tool for my project because, while these terms are difficult to place in time, it does make them easier to understand. They are products of and influencers on the times in which they were situated and so placing them into those physical years and events in those years will help.

2 Replies to “Reflective Essay 2”

  1. Thanks for being thoughtful on the nature of time as a human construct. You may find the short interview “On Segmented Sleep” interesting as it talks about how humans have changed how we think about time:

    TimelineJS is very good for things that are hard and fast dates, and works less well for fuzzy dates or approximate dates. There’s no real good way to render an approximate date, so you have to pick some sort of hard start/stop year or date to make it work right. So I wonder how well it works sometimes when thinking about non-historical events and more related to how we remember things. As humans, we can negotiate the “oh it was around such-and-such date” or “that was 20-ish years ago,” but computers aren’t great with ambiguity.

  2. I, too, love that particular episode of Backstory – thanks for sharing it, R.C.!

    I find myself trying to visualize a timeline that visualizes fuzzy dates. I wonder if bubbles that span multiple years might be one way to show that (as opposed to a dot that goes with a very specific date). Some bubbles could be bigger than others.

    Sometimes the FIRST best way to visualize data is on paper with pencil. Draw what makes sense, then try to find a tool that does it (or hack one). I think Sharon will be covering this more in the Data Viz session next week.

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