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October 5, 2017

Different kinds of distance: some thoughts on maps

October 5, 2017 | By | No Comments

This is my second blog post for the CHI fellowship. Today I’m thinking and writing about digital maps, and how those let us see cultural and social divides in the present and the past.

Africa’s a Country, a website whose purpose is to counter that old mistake Western people make about Africa, recently published a piece about Johnny Miller’s aerial photographs of contemporary South African inequality. Miller’s photographs are taken from the air (what he called the “nadir zone”). The purpose of the photos is to highlight the spatial proximity of highly unequal communities, but also to show the powerful-but-narrow infrastructure barriers that divide them (highway ramps, fences, ditches).

I’ve also spent a lot of time recently looking at South Africa from the air, but through maps – usually Google maps, sometimes a historical map of the Eastern Cape region in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Some of my research is about the history of migration – of people and commodities – in the Eastern Cape. A paper I’m currently working on investigates the circulation network of a particular newspaper, through the postal address information given by people who entered prize competitions in the paper. As I find addresses, I plug the town name into Google maps, to see how far away the place is from East London where the newspaper was published.

But Miller’s aerial maps of inequality got me thinking about how my Google maps don’t show all the types of distance and difficulty that existed historically – the economic or infrastructural distances that might inflate the physical distance from point A to B. Some historical maps do this, by showing old road networks and political boundaries. But even they can’t show the degree of difficulty it takes a person to cross a boundary – a particularly salient problem in South African history when black people’s movement between urban and rural areas depended on a pass.

One of the potential projects that I came to the CHI fellowship with was to map consumer/newspaper subscriber networks in early-twentieth century South Africa. But how would you create a map that showed not just physical distance, infrastructural barriers, and political borders, but also degrees of difficulty that it might take for a person or object to cross even a very short distance?



September 13, 2017

CHI Fellow Introduction: Katie Carline

September 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

Hello everyone, Katie Carline here. I’m a student of South African history in my second year of PhD studies in the Department of History at Michigan State. I look forward to blogging about my experiences in the CHI Initiative as I learn the tools of digital cultural heritage, apply them to my own research interests (consumer culture in early twentieth century South Africa), and reflect on my position within the wide network of South African digital history scholarship.

And a wide network it is, too! South African history has a diverse representation in the digital sphere. At MSU I’ve learned from digital scholarship produced by my supervisor, Peter Alegi, and colleagues like former CHI fellow Liz Timbs, as well as many digital Africana projects by MATRIX. In South Africa itself, numerous digital projects aim to make history accessible to the public – from the independent volunteer-based encyclopedia South African History Online, to the massive digitization project at the University of Witwatersrand’s Historical Papers. Moreover, the Digital Humanities Association of Southern Africa recently established itself as a member of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.

However, there’s no simple equivalence between the digital and the public/accessible. For one thing, not everyone has equal access to the internet.[1] As I begin the CHI fellowship, some of the questions I’m reflecting on are: who is the audience for the digital project I create, and how will my work relate and compare to the many established digital presences in the world of South African history?

Ambrosia Tea Advertisement, Umlindi we Nyanga, 15 November 1939

My plan for the CHI fellowship, as it stands now, is to explore advertisements in black newspapers of the 1930s and 1940s. In this period, South African companies stepped up marketing campaigns targeted directly at black consumers. I’m especially interested in testimonial-style advertisements, where “real customers” had their photographs or addresses printed to advertise a product, like Mrs. Ntisana’s endorsement of Ambrosia Tea in the picture here.

I think there are many interesting questions to be asked about this genre of advertisement – what sorts of people and products are advertised in this way? What does this tell us about consumer culture? About advertisers’ perceptions of black South African consumers?

I look forward to exploring these questions, and thinking about digital cultural heritage answers to them, over the next year.







[1] Just one example of how, in South Africa, internet access shapes access to information and education: Toks Dele Oyedemi, “Digital Inequalities and Implications for Social Inequalities: A Study of Internet Penetration amongst University Students in South Africa,” Telematics & Informatics 29, no. 3 (August 2012): 302–13.