I have had an idea on visualization of cultural contexts, for quite some time now (for years, actually).
The idea is something like this: Using software, plot geographical maps, say, of nations, and show their evolution in space and time as a dynamically evolving series of pictures (perhaps suitably faded in/out). … In short, animations or movies depicting nations… The idea can be extened to many cultural contexts as well…
For a simple implementation, think of a world map in a 2D window and a slider for the time variable. The slider can be moved up or down manually, or it could progress on its own once put in the auto-mode. Maps of all kingdoms or nations existing at a given time appear on the world map. (With software, you can easily zoom in/out and handle a lot of data simultaneously.) As the time-slider moves, geographical extents of the nations also move, creating a movie of sorts in the process. The movie visually shows how the kingdoms or states originated, expanded, contracted, or got absorbed in other kingdoms, empires, etc.
In short, something like the evolution of soap bubbles (dynamically collapsing, growing, changing shapes, etc.), but on a geographic and historic scale.
In case the description appears too impersonal, then think of providing links from cities or locations on the maps to important historical personalities—their pictures, movies, speeches, ideas, etc.
What I said above for political maps can also be implemented for maps of regions of influence of cultures and ideas. … How different cultures spread from their points of origin outwards… For instance, think of the Greek culture, the Roman culture, the Indian culture, etc.
You can also have evolving history of the spreading of languages. Also, of technical know-how, gadgets and devices in daily use, mathematical ideas, calender systems, art, literature, games of sports, coins, units of measure in daily use, myths, religions, philosophic ideas, political systems… Almost anything big and small characterizing people, societies and cultures. … Why, even manners of dress and of culinary practices!!
Also, movements of people (individuals or groups) could also be superimposed on these evolving maps. (Good print illustrations, say in coffee-table books, do show such things, say using thick arrows. The point here is, all such things can now be dynamic.)
You can have a globe-based (i.e. 3D) visualization for the geographical base too. (Thereby removing all argumentation related to distortions in maps etc.)
The whole thing could be provided as a Web-based service. If so, it could link good informative Web sites together.
The evolution of political landscapes (just as an example) could be provided as standalone animated GIFs (or Flash movies, etc.) too.
Another feature: On such a map, it should be possible to choose a particular location (say, an ancient city like Rome, or Varanasi, or Cairo), and, upon right-clicking on that location, the software will pop up a window giving a detailed scyscraper kind of visualization of the “layers of history” of that particular place, rather like geological layers in appearance, each layer being depicted using a different color. Each layer would correspond to a certain time period at that geographical (spatial) point.
This will help one realize the “depth of culture” of the place, so to speak. (That is, depth, as measured by time alone, which is not a very good way to measure the “depth” of an idea… Things related to conceptual linkages like extent of abstraction, scope of referents subsumed… these are the real issues in gauging the depth of an idea..)
Not all ideas are equal and not all cultural influences are equally strong. Some are stronger of influence than others. Some periods are brief but leave a far more lasting legacy than others. (Just think of the century-odd period of Socrates-Plato-Aristotle.) Some influences persist over short areas but for too long a period. (Consider the worship traditionally done in a North Indian village, of Ravana—not Rama.)
All such things could be brought out by directly depicting not just the layers of history but also the processes of diffusion (of languages, religions, arts, food, cultural influences, ideas, etc.) over time and space.
The software will prove to be far more instructive than merely timelines.
I kept the idea to myself because I thought someone or the other surely must have thought of it. (Esp. after I saw the timeline and other multimedia features in Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its 2000 CD edition.) However, apparently none has.
I don’t subscribe to the altruist-collectivist philosophies that often ride on movements like “open source,” “wiki-this” and “wiki-that,” “anti-patents-movements,” etc. I think ideas like these (altruist-collectivist) are destructive of all culture.
However, I also am not always interested in taking out a patent on every patentable idea that occurs to me. That’s how I am sharing this.
Written (in an email) on July 23, 2008. Revised and published here on August 10, 2008. [And yes, I sure will post my thoughts on water availability in India real soon, as promised a couple of posts earlier or so…]