HyperCities: An Unrealized Dream

Forever a dream?

HyperCities, created by Todd Presner, is built upon a platform of digital research and education. The project has been sponsored through UCLA, USC and CUNY. However, the response from public organisations has also been substantial.The project is centrally based around history, the history of a given place, whether it be academic or social, personal or cultural. The depth of knowledge is integral to the project which provides a “digital narrative crisscrossing place and time”(Presner, 12). The project began very centrally around the city of Berlin, where Presner had been teaching in a university. Presner’s original idea was to use Berlin as a prism which would lead to a broader scope of Europe. The involvement of his students in UCLA allowed the project to grow further and with very accessible and academically intuitive content it would seem HyperCities had no ceiling.

The project had originally spread across the world to various colleges in Europe and Asia. The European market has used the project to plot the course of Holocaust survivor stories specifically in German Universities. Asian universities have also used the project in a more personal sense, ensuring that a person’s own personal history can remain in a place forever. A South American community has used the project to show the change of land over time to benefit the appeals for grants. The changes in landscape and buildings over the past ten years has been documented and overlaid on the Google earth platform.These are all available through the collection process on the project itself. This proves that there has been an impact, however the result has been a lot less fruitful than the premise. However, the important aspect of the impact, to remain aware of, is that it is far reaching while making use of a Wikipedia type model of authorship and written content, it maintains a tiered, authorship model for evaluating and publishing scholarly research(“Teaching Learning at a Distance, 174).

The unrealized nature of the project ensures that it’s contribution to Digital Humanities cannot be fully tested. However, thus far the project has been proving its contribution in both a public and a technological way. The use of the Google Earth platform is far ahead of the many Digital History projects which work on the basis of Google Maps. The use of Earth ensures that a real life image of the world can be given alongside the older maps which are overlaid in certain projects on the site. This forward way of thinking is much more modern than previous projects and catches the public eye. Presner notes that the public eye is brought and sustained by a number of important aspects related to the project; its nature as a learning environment, evaluation of data and ideas, trans-media literacy, collaboration and collective knowledge, quite similar to Wikipedia and the deep lying trans-disciplinary nature of the project(“Teaching Literature at a Distance, 178). Many of the these terms are quite simple but they all emerge with a weighted meaning. Trans-media literacy was described perfectly by Henry Jenkins as “consumers becoming hunter gatherers, pulling together information from multiple sources to form a new synthesis”(85).

The idea of thick mapping is the main focus of this ten year long program. HyperCities delves further than other history projects, such as Digital Harlem . HyperCities is an amalgamation of mapping technologies, instead of being focused on the quantitative aspect of gathering large amounts of data or focusing primarily on Geographic Information Systems(“HyperCities: Thick Mapping in Digital Humanities” 51). Hyper is described by Todd Presner, in a non-geographical way, as the linking of history to a certain area so a place can have sustained layered history(6). The term which is sometimes coined deep mapping, proves the argument that maps are not a static object, they are varied with time and can hold strong historical influence. The problem which this approach is that the project does not have a concrete end point. If data can be constantly added to a map and thus forwarding the knowledge of a certain area, then when is the project endpoint?

The problem of an unfinished project has just been mentioned in the previous section. HyperCities has no real end point at the moment, which is a problem because it has become slightly stagnant and static itself. A book has just been released by the Harvard Press which has pushed the public gaze fixedly towards Presner’s dream. However, the project needs some severe updating and funding to ensure any kind of future. Many of the images and videos are no longer supported by web browsers. The original history of the project which was based strongly around history and not social aspects has changed. There is a focus towards a more social aspect, such as reviewing your favorite restaurant or where you got engaged. However, how can HyperCities compete with such social heavyweights as Twitter or Facebook? An amalgamation would prove costly to the original focus of the project because the academic side would be lost. Presner released a system which allowed these social media sites, along with Picassa and Flickr to be linked into HyperCities in an attempt to heighten popularity. If the project wants to survive it needs to push for updating and spreading the idea across further schools and universities. The saving grace for HyperCities thus far has been the projects which use its template as a basis, the original real purpose in theory. Universities and Colleges can produce their own projects and allow it to be seen by a wider audience.

The HyperCities project has the potential to be the biggest social, academic and research history project on the internet. The ability to upload scholarly and socially meaningful content in the same area raises its scope. The modernized way of using maps is one of the most impressive aspects of the project. However, the sheer scope of the project hampers its ability to be complete. The correct amount of funding and initiative place towards academic institutions may propel the project further, but at the moment it remains stagnant and incomplete. Presner summarizes the idea importantly, linking the idea of a Utopian world and digital humanities whereby the core notion of participation without condition is integral(140). HyperCities definitely has the potential to be a Utopia the future may present Presner’s realized dream


Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009

Kayalis, Takis, and Anastasia Natsina. Teaching Literature at a Distance: Open, Online and Blended Learning. London: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2010. Print

Presner, Todd Samuel, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano. HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.