Colors, Shapes, and Information: Finding “Meaning” in Large-Scale Digital Data Presentations

“yesstairway”, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, reflects on some of the readings provided by Professor Mundy for our upcoming discussion on Data Visualization and Graphics Scripting:

The readings Professor Mundy has provided to orient our discussion next week are illuminating and thought provoking. Two main trends dominated the overall through-line: how to organize and present large scale information in an meaningful way to the “average” user, and (especially considering Prof. Mundy’s project) how the access to and use of said information will affect the way we live and view ourselves on a macro scale.

The most striking realization about the We Feel Fine and The Dumpster projects is their similarity in format. Both projects archive statements from blogs, online articles, and other websites that mention feeling or breakups, respectively. Both projects organize the data by us balls whose color and size depended on the prevalence of their corresponding data. Finally, both attempt to present a representation of the state of mind of certain demographics (depending on how the user searches the database) or humankind in general. In their overview, Kamvar and Harris stressed how users were emotionally impacted by using We Feel Fine because they saw how many other people in the world experienced the same emotions and thoughts as they. The projects represent an overall interest in finding meaning in the intangible aspects of the human experience (such as feelings and interpersonal relationships); they assume that chronicling and archiving relevant information is a step toward this higher comprehension.

However, as Whitelaw points out, the assumption is not totally correct:

Both aim to visualize and portray not merely data, but the personal, emotional reality the dataset refers to. […] This approach begs a dull (but necessary) critique: that these works do not provide an interface to feelings, or breakups, but texts that refer – or seem to refer – to them. […] These works rely on a long chain of signification: (reality); blog; data harvesting; data analysis; visualization; interface. Yet they maintain a strangely naive sense of unmediated presentation.

Of course it is not the feelings themselves being represented, but the texts which speak about them. In this sense, programs such as these are great tools for not only contemporary sociological data pooling, but historical analysis and archiving as well. Take, for example, Dr. Hanley’s presentation to our group two weeks ago. In it he discussed his difficulties in (among other things) finding a way to effectively record and consider census information of 19th century immigrants to the Mediterranean region. A visualization tool such as that used by We Feel Fine would be an interesting way for him to look at disparate data locate trends. And, just as these modern programs do, uploading historical information would allow us to think about historical persons’ deeper socio-cultural mindset rather than simple quantifiable data. As the other projects discussed in Whitelaw’s article demonstrated, by forming abstract art by inputting data into an algorithm, there is is the potential for meaning to be gleaned deeper than what the data literally says.

Mundy’s rumination on Johannes Osterhoff’s Google showcase, in which individual’s search queries are archived, brought the issue of privacy into the equation. He made a point that, especially online, we make decisions based on how we want to be perceived – yet in studying this desired perception, we inadvertently learn a little bit about how we really are. Perhaps that is the benefit of our information, with all of its insecurities and imperfection, becoming available to the world to see. Through showcasing the aggregate of a population’s online presence and production, a broader community can be formed. We sacrifice privacy for emotional security and empathy.

Works Cited:

Kamvar, Sepandar D. and Jonathan Harris. “We Feel Fine and Searching the Emotional Web.” Web Search and Data Mining 2011. Hong Kong, China. 9-12 Feb. 2011.

Mundy Owen. “The Unconscious Performance of Identity: A Review of Johannes P. Osterhoff’s “Google.” Rhizome. 22 Aug. 2012. Web. 16 May 2015.

Whitelaw, Mitchell. “Art Against Information: Case Studies in Data Practice.” The Fiberculture Journal 11 (2008): n. pag. Web. 16 May 2015.

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