Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Modeling Time

The ruler of history

Daniel Rosenberg

At a glance, there isn’t much to a timeline, a simple line marked at regular intervals with dates. Timelines are everywhere—in newspapers, textbooks, websites, anywhere that diagrams are used—and for good reason: they are powerful and intuitive. The timeline is debugged, as data theorist Theodor Nelson might say.

Yet, in the long history of data graphics, the timeline is still relatively new. Ancient empires inscribed tablets with their rulers’ names. Early Christian scholars composed chart books that aligned the histories of different civilizations. Medieval monks painted scrolls bearing elaborate family trees stretching to Adam and Eve. Measured lines, too, have been common since antiquity. But the simple convention equating historical time with measured space did not become common until the middle of the eighteenth century, and its emergence, in works such as the 1765 Chart of Biography by the natural philosopher and theologian Joseph Priestley and the 1786 Commercial and Political Atlas by the economist William Playfair, goes hand in hand with modern ways of thinking about history. In the twenty-first century, it is common to think of ourselves as postmodern, but if the continuing power of the timeline is any indicator, modern may still do the trick.

The world of contemporary art is crowded with timelines, too. They grace the walls of exhibitions and the pages of catalogues, sometimes with beautiful results, as in the famous cover diagram from the 1936 MoMA exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” Chronologies of various sorts have even insinuated themselves into the work of artists, including Ad Reinhart, George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke, On Kawara, Ant Farm, Paul Chan, and Sarah Fanelli, who splashed a timeline of artists across the entry walls at Tate Modern. Yet for all the vibrancy of these artifacts, none presents a thorough challenge to the simple, linear form. The timeline is powerful in part because it is inconspicuous. In another context, you might call something like that culture.

But timelines are not as uncomplicated as they appear. Consider a timeline with no qualities, one found in a common university history textbook from the United States. A thin vertical line runs from top to bottom of a printed page. A whisper below the top, a small perpendicular hatch crosses the main line with the label 3000 BC. Below that at regular intervals, ten more bold hatches labeled with dates: 2500 BC, 2000 BC, and so on, ending at 2000 AD. Between each pair of bold hatches are four fine ones indicating centuries. There are no events on this timeline, only a title: “A Chronological Context for Western Civilization.” That’s all there is to it. It is intentionally blank; students are meant to fill in facts from the textbook.

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