Back to the Future

ChronoZoom is an attempt to conceptualize the entire history of, well, everything in a way that is accessible to the average person while incorporating multiple different disciplines, including biology, astronomy, geology, anthropology, economics, cosmology, natural history, and more. Utilizing a fairly intuitive “point and click” interface, it combines video, text, graphics and other forms of multimedia into a presentation that shows the interconnectivity of these different fields in a comprehensive “grand unified theory” of creation.

In addition to being visually compelling, the interface is easy to navigate and provides a readily accessible sense of scale for events. The upper-right hand corner of the screen includes a navigational tool that also serves as a constant reminder of the totality of the project. Changing from one section to another provides  a compelling sense of motion.

Despite the cleverness of the interface, however, there are certain things that stood out to me when I dug a little deeper. Even though it is presented as a straightforward history of the universe, there is a point of view and a narrative contained within, and certain elements are highlighted over others, which became more apparent as I clicked around the site. This was especially obvious once I considered the source of the project.

There is a distinct point of view contained within the narrative, one that is dictated by the disciplines that are used as the source material. Whether you believe them to be accurate or not, they shape the narrative, and present the material contained therein as fact. Considering that even astronomical and historical facts are sometimes disputed, it is something I believe should be approached with a certain amount of skepticism.

Setting aside any questions about creationism versus evolution or other issues of science fact, there are certain sections that seem out of place in what would otherwise be a straightforward depiction of the history of the universe. For example, is the Microsoft Corporation so significant in the history of the universe that it truly deserves its own section? Why are there seven data points for the major releases of Microsoft Windows, but no data points in the entirety of Greek History? It should be no surprise considering these facts that, upon reading the “Behind the Scenes” section, I learned that Microsoft was instrumental in the production of the project. The only larger section in the area dedicated to “United States” was “University of California, Berkeley”, where the project originated. Both were larger than the section on U.S. Presidents, and dwarfed the section on World War II. The visual representations are therefore more than a little suspect in terms of both timescale and relevance.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Future

  1. While I understand your point on evaluating the groups that create this stort of historical reference tool and how that may shape/inform the narrative surrounding what is included and what’s left out, I did appreciate the relative smallness of the human footprint on this timeline. Perhaps because this program is still in beta (and the video introduction seems to suggest the hope that this becomes a Wikipedia-like tool for academics in terms of scope and depth of coverage), I’m willing to forgive the omission of a more detailed history of World War II (for the time being at least) in favor of the ability to visualize those six years of global war in comparison to the entirely of Earth’s 4.5 billion year existence. There is something oddly comforting in our temporal pinpoint relative to the whole. Also, if we’re really taking into account the source, I’m not sure I want a bunch of geophysicists at Berkeley trying outline American history for me. It’s not exactly their wheelhouse.

  2. I see your point, and it is well taken. However I stand by my position, especially in light of some of the other things that exist. For example, why is there mention of the Great Depression… of 1873, but I couldn’t find any mention of the one in the 1930s? Why does Guttenberg deserve a mention in the History of Science but not Archimedes? Choices were made, and I assume it wasn’t just by geophysicists (at least I hope they weren’t writing about the history of the Iberian Peninsula).

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