The Message from the Medium

Experimenting with new tools for presenting information should be a required activity for any digital humanities course. For a presentation I recently gave at the University of Minnesota, I experimented with a presentation tool that was new to me: Prezi. To learn what it can do, just watch one of the very short videos on their website.

Very briefly: the basic idea is that you can lay out your presentation (text, embedded images, videos, PDFs, etc.) on a seemingly limitless canvas, on which you can seemingly infinitely zoom in or out (nothing is truly limitless or infinite with web applications, but the range is impressive). Once you’ve carefully placed everything in relation to everything else, you pan around the canvas, zooming in and out on various images and text to make your point. You can set up a predetermined “path” so that during your presentation, you just click from one “screen” to another and all the necessary zooming and panning happens for you. It’s really hard to describe–just watch the video.

My point here, though, is to report how working with Prezi brought into stark relief how much my typical mode of expression–the traditional narrative–had shaped my own thinking of my own research (poison and putrefaction, in this case). But when i had an expansive, virtually three-dimensional canvas to play with, i got some rather new perpectives, literally, on how I could, or should, relate ideas to each other.

Putting together the presentation wasn’t all revelation and excitement, however. I had learned to use slides to good effect–using meaningful (and non-nauseating) transitions between slides, and fading in and out and resizing on the same slide to build a point. These are not really possible/applicable with Prezi, so i found myself repeatedly reaching into an empty toolkit. At least for the purposes of assembling the presentation, I kept wanting to do the thing i knew how to do. But when forced to think in new terms, i realized that i wasn’t just thinking about my presentation in new terms, but reconceptualizing some aspects of my project, too.

Of course people have been doing this kind of reorganization forever, or at least since the early modern period. For example, the industrious sixteenth-century Italian physician Girolamo Cardano (who, incidentally, wrote an important treatise on poison) argued that cutting and pasting can help organize notes for a book and save the author a year of transcribing. So I don’t mean to suggest that somehow new technology makes visualization possible for the first time. But especially when you have the opportunity/necessity of a presentation, Prezi is an interesting tool to encourage some rethinking, and to illustrate your ideas with a bit more dynamism. And you won’t get paper cuts.