Story as Genealogy & The Power of Data Narrative #EmotionalMapping #CulturalAnthropology #journalism
“All these primary impulses, not easily described in words, are the springs of man's actions.”
~ Dr. Albert Einstein
The quest for renewed context.
The data visualization space is exploding, and for good reason: we are constantly seeking the meaning of our interactions in order to express their value in ways that evoke new thought, and often through a range of contextualized emotions.
There is an even deeper layer to this, which is the ability to map our histories. Bloodlines and archetypes now have memetic value that can be woven into narrative tapestries. The really powerful thing about this is that we can rebuild our pasts to better understand our futures.
Emotional mapping or “EmoMapping” developed as a data narrative construct introduced more formally by colleagues Marc Masurovsky and Erik Steiner; Marc was the curator of the USHMM (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) and Erik ran Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab. The core precept of emotional mapping is to expose the gaps in time and space testimonials, using emotional variants as a means to bridge those gaps, and then rebuild the communities around those variants. (Note that “community” in this sense is used to describe the formal nodes connecting people through story.)
I developed a personal fascination with emotional mapping as my own bloodline started to reveal itself; my father is a holocaust survivor of German, Polish and Finnish descent. While he has recounted his escape from Upper Silesia through Siberia, then into China and eventually the United States, there are quite a few gaps in the details surrounding this journey, as well as the details of his own origins. Much of this resides in a stretch of time and space between 1938, when he arrived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and 1948, when he came to San Francisco as a student.
[My father, Dr. Gunther W. Sonnenfeld M.D. at the age of 15, after leaving Shanghai with my grandmother and my uncle; headshot at 16, when he arrived in San Francisco; later at 19, beat writer-ish pose; with friends in medical school, circa 1958.]
[My grandfather, Dr. Hans Sonnenfeld, as goalie of the German national team, around 1910. He was also a high-ranking officer in the German army during WW1; his Polish passport that was later cancelled – many of these records were either destroyed or archived by the Nazis, and many Jews were killed in an attempt to keep them or access them.]
[A letter from Dr. Albert Einstein, circa 1925 – an inquiry into known resources for research; this precipitated a rash of inquiries around understanding new approaches to medical science, especially as debates raged regarding “health concerns” amongst different socio-economic classes. Einstein hoped that this might thwart Hitler’s efforts to substantiate and support widespread hatred by the working classes towards Jews. Unfortunately, it was too late, especially as more and more Jews were forced to evacuate their birth areas.]
As you might deduce from looking at this map, there are core questions one can immediately raise:
What is my true nationality?
Where do my cultural affinities actually lie?
What are the ethnic and genealogical threads binding me to these affinities?
What are the circumstances that contextualize these affinities?
How does geography play a definitive role?
Mapping the emotional coordinates.
As fate might have it – and what has become a framework with some direct and lateral context for my dad’s own story – Marc and Erik put together an amazing narrative detailing the emotional journey of Polish Jews who evacuated Auschwitz in January of 1945.
[A cold, bitter landscape that would be the only route of escape for many Polish and German Jews...]
First, Marc and Erik referenced a thematic map focusing on The Red Army advance as a way of approximating the regional evacuations. These initial approximations took into account soldier testimonies and disparate army records of the advance itself.
A new thematic map is reconstructed from the approximations, and those relational values are then used to validate or debunk space/time assertions both from the perspective of army officers and those forced to relocate.
Now, the testimonies from Jewish prisoners are indexed. The details that unfold will expose both overwhelming commonalities and distinct inconsistencies.
The testimonies are then mapped together along a non-linear timeline, so as to account for any inconsistencies in time and space.
Here’s where things start to get really interesting. The aggregated testimonies themselves form language clusters that can be used to weight the relational values against the timeline. This is how consensus begins to prove out the historical facts.
Now parallels are drawn between the clusters, individual testimonies and the timeline, in which new distances are proxied.
With dates, times and distances mapped out, we can now extract the values associated with the different experiences described, as well as new relational values that start to underpin the range of emotions that will ultimately formalize as specific points in the escape. We can also see very clearly the role that archetype plays in shaping these experiences, from officers in high command, to non-Jewish bystanders and Jewish prisoners.
Those new relational values – extracted from these experiential points – form new clusters of emotion that are then weighted against the testimonies themselves and the word clusters. Various colors express the range of emotions; the darker shades represent feelings associated with imminent danger or death, the lighter shades leaning more towards comfort or a sense of safety.
Those clusters are then mapped, and we start to see the basis of emotional variants between people. Using these variants as “degrees of influence”, we can also look at how different testimonies are affected by anthropological trees.
The new clusters are then aggregated and weighted against specific and non-specific events within the timeline. We can also see the formation of communities based on their emotional ranges.
As the communities gather as “whole clusters”, the gaps in time and space ascribed to “we” as the “historians” begin to take on new meaning: not only do the individual testimonies become succinct, but they also form a new timeline that has renewed context.
A new map can be created from these communities; the communities actually represent both the physical and emotional time/space relational values, as well as the factors that define, or pre-define, genealogy.
Coming full circle.
What’s important to take away from this approach is the way emotional affinities give language renewed context, and how communities use consensus to ground these accounts in “fact”. Cultural anthropologists and investigative journalists have employed similar methods for years in their quest to rediscover certain truths, or to establish new uncertain truths, but the difference here is in the use of testimony: we go from making a “statement as recollection” to making a “statement around recollected facts”. This is a critical and revolutionary distinction.
The Auschwitz journey is only one of thousands of aggregated accounts that are being developed to reweave the meta story of the European holocaust. My dad’s own story is one of many that is being investigated using an emotional mapping methodology. The hope is that we can revise history in such a way that we no longer have to validate or substantiate facts, but leverage communities to build new stories around consensus-based emotional and semantic values. To build, more so than deconstruct.
Looming even bigger in the near future is what we will co-create merging social technologies and these innovative new methods for reweaving historical quilts.