“Data” are a mediation of actual phenomena – an immaterial material – a contradictory trajectory of abstract points or numbers and producing phenomena. Data comprise a set of organized measurements created by instruments that calibrate quantifiable qualities of original source or sources (natural, artificial or recombinant).
The act of design – a fundamentally subjective act creates the interface between these forces– whether created by designer, animators, computer scientists (or bioinformatics scientists) or artists create the interfaces that allow interaction with data. In this sense data visualization can be compared to any other creative practice that works with a material that has specific structural qualities and manipulates it within a limited context. The materiality of data (its semiotics) could be compared to the materiality of text – its structure, syntax forming meaning as much as content, but always acting as an abstraction of actual experience. Yet both act back on the world. Given that sensory expression – most often visual, sometimes sonic or tactile – is the only means to perceive many contemporary data sets aesthetics are fundamental, not additive to the emerging field of data visualization. Aesthetics play out within mediation. Aesthetics structure experiences in formal perceptual ways and provide interpretive tools fundamental to constructing meaning. The field of Data Visualization contains aesthetic practices that draw from art, design, computer and information science and the sciences.
Data visualizations carry with them the aesthetics and assumptions of their contributing technology. Data visualization technologies absorb aesthetics of 2D and 3D graphics and animation systems, with their formal styles and malleability. In the past decade a new set of graphics tools - some viable for online visualization, others only available through super computer networks or in the laboratory - are available, as either open source (such as Processing) or proprietary software. The more finished the tool the more that styles and capacities are embedded. Each new source of data adds its structure, aesthetic properties and limits.
Understandings of how to treat data as a material play out in the making of visualizations. For example Edward Tufte argues that data visualization requires choosing data sets that are of value to the researcher, mining the data, creating a structure for the data, analyzing that data set to find meaningful ways to represent it, analyzing patterns, translating the analysis through aesthetic representation, refining the representation to better communicate, and creating means of manipulating the data. In Tufte’s view, data enunciate their own structures. There is no base case with data; it is inductive reasoning that pulls out knowledge. Through this process they find form, and sometimes also find metaphor or narrative. This may be viewed as data naturalism, structuralism, bearing a truth to materials approach, or, in working with large-scale data sets representing phenomena that cannot be viewed, data-driven design.
This talk will discuss data visualization aesthetics within a history of scientific realism, design teleology, disclosing tensions in representing the empirical world and its structures with experimental and revelatory practices. The potential of instrumental and intrinsic expression are presented through contemporary examples of an emerging field. It will end with an overview of my current research in visualizing large bodies of text data, searching for influence and emotional expression.
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