Chris Harrison

Bible Cross-References & Biblical Social Network (People and Places)

This week I looked at the work of Chris Harrison, a CMU professor for Human-Computer Interactions. I took one of his intro classes last semester and really enjoyed learning more about the history of computer science and how both hardware and software have evolved. While I’ve always understood him to be an impressive researcher and a highly regarded computer science professor, I never knew that he worked in art and design. Of his work, I was particularly intrigued by his work with the Bible. Once I began to look into this piece, I began to understand the dimensionality of professor Harrison.

Created in collaboration with Christoph Römhild, a Lutheran Pastor, the work illustrates the range and complexity of the connected network of information in the Bible. The first piece shows a rainbow of connected verses, where the colour of the arc is determined by the distance between the two chapters. With 63,779 cross reference, the piece is fairly illegible, but communicated the detail of the Bible superbly. I admire Harrison and Römhild for taking the artistic and aesthetic route to data visualization rather than the practical. While religion, and specifically Christianity and the Bible have lead art through the centuries, I think that this piece creates an interesting tensions where the beauty has to due purely with the quantity of the information, and has little religious connotations. While the western christian idealism has been brainwashing the art world for centuries, it has begun to reach the point of being boring and overdone. Yet this work is a refreshing reminder that the Bible can be appreciated for its power, even if you don’t agree with its message or its messengers.

The second piece, Biblical Social Network (People and Places) is equally fascinating and impressive. The graph contains over 10,000 connections and handles the quantity elegantly with the appropriate line weight and opacity. This piece offers for more legibility than the last and can be served to some degree as an information tool. However, the usability is still limited, with only about a couple dozen names legible without zooming in. I think the most interesting part of this was the fact that “Jesus” was so small. While I was surprised at first that “Israel” was the largest, it is perfectly logical.  I also enjoyed the play in figure and ground based on the font/background colour. There’s a luminosity to the information web that taps a bit more into the religious/christian aesthetic.

I think there’s also a quiet elegance to this work that is seen anytime technology is used to create religious art. I believe there’s something interesting to be said about humanity after the fact that we can take this book that is thousands of years old, and translate it in our modern ways to be completely reinterpreted. Even more, this reinterpretation repurposes the Bible from being used as a preaching tool of conversion, to a display of a vast quantity of information. It allows for a new appreciation of just how big the Big Book is. Since the work is largely artistic rather than practical, it doesn’t seek to even inform the reader of the information in the Bible. It simply displays the levels of vastness, complexity and detail for what they are.