Monthly Archives: November 2012

Data Visualisation – Anaesthetic or Aesthetic?

In my last blog post I discussed “The State of the digital Humanities: a report and a critique” by Alan Liu. In his article, Liu argues that the digital humanities is missing what he calls “Data aesthetics” (27). The list, line or bar graphs and tag clouds, Liu contends, reflect “the near-total imaginative poverty of the field in crafting an aesthetics of data” (27). Despite Liu’s claims that there is more focus in the digital humanities on metadata than “the look-and-feel of data” (27), however, the “availability and democratization of data” has brought about a vast increase and popular demand for data and information visualization (Lang n.pag.).

Data visualization can be defined as “the use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of data to amplify cognition” (Card 1). Data visualisation, however, not only amplifies cognition, but it also helps one deal with the “Data glut (McCandless),” by reducing “the mental load” on the user (Cawthon & Moere 2). David McCandless maintains that using our eyes is one way of coping with information overload because sight is the fastest of our senses. Eyesight has the same bandwidth as a computer network. Using aesthetic visualisations, therefore, facilitates knowledge compression and increases the speed of knowledge digestion because it stimulates the visual cortex of the user’s brain. In a sense, data visualisations resemble works of art to infiltrate the mind of the user. As McCandless notes, visualisation creates a new language that alters our perceptions. The interactive component of data visualisation allows us to participate as “data detectives” in the search for hidden clues exposed by the visualisation process. As Jer Thorp observes, visualisation makes data human by putting it in a human context. When data is sewn into the fabric of the real world, it gains meaning and weight. Realising this fact alters our dialogue with the information we are attempting to transform into knowledge.

Having said that, however, data visualisation is not a fool proof endeavour because a picture is not worth a thousand words if the viewer cannot decipher it. Nick Cawthon and Andrew Vande Moere observe, “the notion of beauty is not a normative element”. Perception of aesthetics is highly subjective. Therefore, an object cannot be viewed in isolation to its social environment and socio-cultural context because of the cultural and cross-cultural differences in visual language interpretation. The pitfalls of visualisation, Bresciani and Epplen claim, are “due to the fact that the meaning of symbols and colours are not universal” (11). This is evident from the foreground-background preferential differences in art of Western and Asian cultures, the cultural differences in the meaning of the colours red and green, and the way some eastern countries display time in a right to left format. As well as the problem of cultural bias, both the data visualisation user and designer require visual literacy and previous knowledge and experience with interpreting graphical displays. The psychological and aesthetic restrictions of data visualisation can confuse the user if the inherent meaning of the visualisation is ambiguous, but ambiguity may have a positive effect by effectuating new insights through creative interpretation of graphical depictions of data.

Questions to consider:

(1): Is data visualisation an aesthetic or anaesthetic? Does it enliven or numb the mind of the user through the graphical representation of abstract data?

(2): Why is aesthetics an important factor in information visualisation?

(3): Is visualisation a technology, a science or art? Does it have aesthetic value or merely aesthetic pleasure? Does data visualisation dilute perceptions of art or broaden its conceptual boundaries? Does data visualisation have to be artistic to be effective?

(4):  Data visualisation could be considered as an interdisciplinary subject? Do you think it flawlessly integrate science, art and design?

(5): Does data visualisation distract from the main goal of knowledge transfer? Is it more than a form of decorating or aestheticising dull data?

Works Cited

Bresciani, Sabrina, and Martin J. Epplen. “The Risks of Visualisation: A Classification of Disadvantages Associated with Graphic Representations of Information”. 2008. PDF.

Card, S. K., et al. Readings in Information Visualisation: Using Vision to Think. San Diego: Academic P, 1999. Print.

Cawthon, Nick, and Andrew Vande Moere. “Qualities of Perceived Aesthetic in Data Visualisation”. 2007. PDF.

Lang, Alexander. “Aesthetics in Information Visualisation”. PDF.

Liu, Alan. “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique”. SAGE 11.4 (2012): 8-41. Web.

McCandless, David. “The Beauty of Data Visualisation”. TED. 2010. Presentation.

Thorpe, Jer. “Make Data more Human”. TED. 2011.

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A Liu-cidal Massacre of the Digital Humanities!

In “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique,” Alan Liu discusses the advances made in overcoming the past short comings of the digital humanities, but despite these progressive developments Liu argues the field (not yet a discipline in Liu’s eyes) still posses major inadequacies that drastically reduces its potentiality — its inherent capacity for growth, development and expansion into a future representation of the Humanities.

In juxtaposition to Liu’s claim, however, some digital humanists contend the digital humanities will never represent the Humanities, but will in fact be an entirely separate discipline, or semi-separate discipline as Willard McCarthy proposes. McCarthy says:

But let me offer a different criterion for success: simply to be accepted as one of the community, to sit at the table among equals and talk, then to go back home to a department of the digital humanities, with its students, programmes, seminars and so on, and get on with educating and being educated.” (McCarthy 2009)

Akin to Liu, Patrik Svensson disagrees with the view that the future path of digital humanities will diverge from the Humanities. Svensson states, “it seems quite unlikely that the digital humanities would ever become a fully separate field” (para. 18). Similarly, Katherine N. Hayles warns that it would be “a tragic mistake” if a “radical divergence” occurred. In relation to the assimilation-distinction agenda of the digital humanities, Hayles states:

The kinds of articulation that emerge have strong implications for the future: will the Digital Humanities become a separate field whose interests are increasingly remote from the Traditional Humanities, or will it on the contrary become so deeply entwined with questions of hermeneutic interpretation that no self- respecting Traditional scholar could remain ignorant of its results? If the Digital Humanities were to spin off into an entirely separate field, the future trajectory of the Traditional Humanities would be affected as well. Obviously, this is a political as well as an intellectual issue. In the case of radical divergence (which I think would be a tragic mistake), one might expect turf battles, competition for funding, changing disciplinary boundaries, and shifting academic prestige (qtd. in Svensson para. 17).

Having said that, however, Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s preoccupation with the digital humanities’ disciplinary assimilation or distinction negates the total point and purpose of digital humanities scholarship. The essential nature of digital humanities is its ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and facilitate interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research. Digital humanities achieve this through the utilization of computational tools and methodologies, which establish an open-access virtual platform where information is not located or designated by disciplinary boundaries because these knowledge walls become soluble when submersed in a digital solution. It is for this reason that attempting to predict whether the digital humanities of the future will represent the Humanities or become its own discipline could be viewed as a futile endeavor, which appears to be fueled by a subconscious, technophobic fear of rapid change and development, and nostalgia for the simpler time when print culture was dominant in society. Knowledge unification and dissemination, however, is the intrinsic nature of digital humanities research, which is irrelevant to Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s fears of an inter- or intra-disciplinary divide with digital humanities and the Humanities on the basis of a print-digital binary. Even though it is attached with the prefix of ‘digital,’ the digital humanities is still in many respects ‘humanities,’ albeit in an alternative form. Therefore, the focus of concern should be on what digital humanities can do to compliment, advance or transform the Humanities, regardless of whether it has a symbiotic or aposymbiotic relationship status with the Humanities.

Moving away from this debate and returning to Liu’s article, the following will be a summary of some major points Liu mentions.

(1): Scale

Considering the sheer size of Liu’s article, it is rather ironic that he highlights ‘scale’ as one of the shortcomings of digital humanities. Liu criticises early digital humanities websites and projects, such as the William Blake Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive because of their difficulties with scalability (18). Liu compares early digital humanities projects to the “Tardis in the BBC Doctor Who television series” because “they were larger on the inside than they seemed on the outside” (18). However, due to the large scale of digital projects being developed at present, Liu argues, “that scale itself has snapped into focus as one of the field’s constitutive concepts”(18). Subsequently, “scale is a new horizon of intellectual inquiry,” but scale will always remain a mountain where the fruits of intellectual inquiry flourish at the summit (21). For large-scale projects such as the Linguistic Atlas Project, the fruits of intellectual inquiry are perpetually unattainable and out of reach of the plucking fingers of curious scholars involved. As William A. Kretschmar, Jr. states in relation to the (American Linguistic Atlas Project):

We cannot come to an end of the work because we are witnesses and archivists of how Americans talk, and they keep talking differently across time and space. Neither do I think that our humanities-computing representation of our research is capable of being finally perfected, of achieving some perfect state, because technology keeps changing and the demands placed upon our research keep changing. If we view the entirety of the Linguistic Atlas Project as a “large-scale humanities computing project,” the word “finish” is just not part of the deal. And we are not alone. While the creation of, say, a variorum edition may seem like a project that can be finished in both senses, actually we need to make new editions all the time, since our idea of how to make the best edition changes as trends in scholarship change, especially now in the digital age when new technical possibilities keep emerging.

The computational tools and research inquires of digital humanities scholarship is inconstant — continuously evolving and changing with time — which fuels project-scale growth. Therefore, scale is an irreducible, inevitable and (for the most part) and unavoidable constituent of digital humanities research.

(2): Form

Liu argues, “the field has so far largely lacked a considered focus on new media forms, whether in terms of genre, rhetoric, or style.” (24) According to Liu, digital humanists are “theoretically inattentive to the formal […] differences between the “static page” and “template-driven websites,” and “‘born-digital forms’” and “digitized-print forms” (24). Therefore, Liu contends, “digital humanists tend to understand new-media forms as residually print-centric” (24). To say that, however, digital humanists perceive the likes of Google Books as merely books and Wikipedia as only an encyclopaedia is a gross misconception and misinterpretation of the adoption and incorporation of print related terminology to describe new media technology.

For example, is an eBook a book? Not all, or even the majority of digital humanists, would answer ‘yes’ to this question. Although it is called a ‘book,’ an eBook is only a digital ghost or manifestation of a particular work. The most prominent distinction between an eBook and a book is the fact that an eBook is not inseparably attached or connected to the physical medium of representation. A physical copy is required for one to read a book, while an eBook requires downloading, a physical carrier and a physical reading device with the necessary software for the work to be represented for the reader so he/she can read it. Even though an eBook is viewed by many, without a great depth of consideration, as simply a book in digital disguise, the physical limitations of the print medium are not translated to its digital counterpart. Therefore, this raises the question: Should we be calling an eBook a book if the limitations that define a book are absent from an eBook?

(3): Data Aesthetics

According to Liu, “Data aesthetics” are missing from the text-oriented side of the digital humanities (27). The list, line or bar graphs and tag clouds reflect “the near-total imaginative poverty of the field in crafting an aesthetics of data” (27). Liu claims there is more focus on metadata than “the look-and-feel of data” (27).
Therefore, “the secret formula” for Katherine N. Hayles embodied experience of information, as Liu suggests, is the collapsing of “the phenomenological divide between metadata and data” (28).

With that in mind, one must ask: What about D3.js? Is D3 not ‘aesthetic’ enough for Liu? Although I agree that list, line or bar graphs are rather mundane ways of visualising data, one must ask oneself: what is more important the formal qualities of data visualisation or the meaning of the data the visual form is expressing?

Perhaps Liu is correct in saying that digital humanities is not yet prepared to represent the Humanities. Digital humanities may never be ready, but is it the goal of digital humanities to be a representation of the Humanities, a replacement for it or a self-defined discipline? This is a difficult question to answer, but if I had to choose what I believe to be the most probable outcome I would pick the latter outcome. As I said early, digital humanities is, in many respects, Humanities in an alternative form, but this “alternative form” is continuously evolving and changing with the rapid advancements in technology, along with the reconceptualization of intellectual inquiry as a result of these advancements. As Heraclitus claims, the only constant is change and if the digital humanities is in a state of perpetual inconstancy then we might not be witnessing the end of Humanities, but only the end of Humanities as we know it.

Kretzschmar, William A. “Large-Scale Humanities Computing Projects: Snakes Eating Tails, or Every End is a New Beginning.”

Liu, Alan. “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique.”

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities”

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Define Digital Humanities?

‘Digital Humanities,’ in my opinion, is a wide-ranging umbrella term that is far too broad and inconstant (perpetually evolving) to give a coherent and accurate definition that does justice to the nature of the field (or discipline?) and encompasses its achievements. It is for this reason that anytime I am asked by an inquisitive stranger or acquaintance to define ‘DH’, my response usually is: “How much time do you have to spare?”

Having said that, some form of definition – although it may be exclusive and rather limited in its definitional scope – is better than no definition at all, but whether it is purposeful or useful to have a definition of ‘DH’ is questionable.

The first question that springs to mind when I attempt to formulate a definition of ‘DH’ is where to begin. Perhaps, the nomenclature itself would be a good starting point considering that it demarcates a transitional moment in the history of Humanities. The merging of technology with textual culture effectuated change with the reconceptualization of traditional practice, and the development of new fields of inquiry and new forms of learning, research and teaching, while preserving (temporarily?) the foundational aspects of the Humanities. Resultantly, knowledge has been opened up from the confines of the disciplinary boundaries of academic departments to an interdisciplinary educational ecosystem, and from the scholastic to the public domain via the digital realm of the Internet.

For me, ‘DH’ is obviously more than the mere intersection of Humanities and computer technologies, humanities through digital tools, or any other condescending overgeneralisation. In my opinion, I think we (Humans) are the definition of ‘DH’. “Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living,” as Nicholas Negroponte claims. We (Humans) are the etymological root of the word ‘Humanities,’ and it is not only because of this fact that we are very much a part of the definition of ‘DH’. Humans define ‘DH’ through our interactions with computers, which in turn assist the interpretation and definition of who we are, as humans in this digital age.

The definition of ‘DH,’ in my opinion, is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the hands of the Digital Humanist, computational tool holder. ‘DH’ is what we create it to be, which subsequently (re)creates us.

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Does digital technology fracture or facilitate the reintegration of disciplines?

Digital technology creates an intersection between disciplines because digital tools are what Susan Leigh Star calls “boundary objects” – they are “entities straddling the borders between groups,” as Christine L. Borgman explains.

“Digital libraries, Borgman argues, are a canonical form of boundary object because their content can be useful to multiple communities, allowing them to carry meaning across the borders of multiple groups” (153).

Digital tools and services, Borgman contends, ought to be “generalizable, scalable, and interoperable,” in order to generate a flexible e-Research infrastructure for multipurpose, trans-disciplinary and interdisciplinary usage (252).

Digital tools provide a platform for the opening up of scholarly communication between disciplines and William Pannapacker envisions a future of disciplinary integration. Pannapacker claims: “We are reaching a consensus about the future of our profession that will involve not just language and literature, but all of the humanities in partnership with technologists, scientists, and information professionals”. Pannapacker predicts “it will become increasingly difficult to say what the humanities disciplines represent, by themselves—and to target them for elimination—because we are enmeshed increasingly in the transformation of every discipline in higher education”.

Consequently, it is my opinion, as the Three Musketeers’ pledge, digital technology and tools allow knowledge to be “all for one, and one for all” disciplines.

Borgman, Christine. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure and the Internet. Cambridge: MIT P, 2007. Print.

Pannapacker, William. “An Emerging Consensus.The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Star, Susan, Griesemer, James (1989). “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39“. Social Studies of Science 19.3: 387–420.

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Does Bio-art bridge the gap between art and science?

To answer the aforementioned questions, I must first ask: What is art? It could be argued that all forms of human activity is art. The separation of art and science is a relatively recent, 21st century phenomenon, if we take into account what the ancient Romans and Greeks considered to be art – engineering, geometry, mathematics, etc. Art and science were separated because of the alternative views of the world they created. Art creates a personal view of the world, while science creates an impersonal view. Art was marginalised by the sciences because of its inability to provide a universal view of the world thus hindering the process of coexistence.

If all human activity, however, is a form of art or is artistic to some extent then science could be interpreted as art. What keeps art separate from science is the progressive shift from unification to specialisation of knowledge in society, which commenced in the Middle Ages and snow balled with the Industrial Revolution. Separating art from science creates a fragmentation of knowledge and boundaries between disciplines that become further specialised internally.

The digital age, however, is providing us to an opportunity—through the ability of digital tools to facilitate interaction, exchange, integration and dissemination of knowledge—to return to the ancient paradigm of unified, total knowledge that existed on a continuum and not compartmentalised, discrete spaces. The knowledge paradigms of ancient and modern society, however, differ significantly because we live in a knowledge-intensive rather than the knowledge-deprived society of ancient times.

In response to the question about if Eduardo Kac’s art is necessary to bridge the gap between art and science, my answer is: Yes! This is because, in my opinion, art and science compliment each other and could be classed as similar to each other. If art is ubiquitous in nature then art is effectively life. Science deals with the study and examination of life. Kac’s art creates life that is made possible through the use of science. Therefore, in my opinion, the point Kac is trying to convey is that art is science and science is art.

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I think it is important to note, in case anyone isn’t already aware of it, but the man himself, Eduardo Kac, coined the neologism, Bio-art, in 1997. In terms of what the hyphenated neologism represents, I think its representation is apparent when one defines the punctuational significance of a hyphen – a mark used to signify that the two words it joins have combined meaning and are linked together.

Having said that, however, there is an essential component to Kac’s neologism that he didn’t include. The essential message of Kac’s work, such as the Time Capsule and Genesis, is to convey “the bio-impact of digital technology” [1] in a post-digital world. What is missing from Kac’s neologism is the reference to the technology used to accomplish the creation of bio-art or the digital element responsible for its exhibition and collective, creative-participation from the global online community of viewers.

Perhaps, Kac should have called it “Bio-digi-art” or “Bio-tech-art” because, according to Kac, the biological and the digital are intertwined in Genesis and Time Capsule. According to Kac, materially speaking, there is no fundamental separation between digital and biological because “both processes can occur in a similar manner in both environments, in both media”.

Referring to Genesis, Kac claims the process involved in this artwork was built upon the fundamental, functional model of IT – the Input-Process-Output Model. Genesis involved encoding digital information into a living organism, changing it, and retrieving it.

Similarly, with Time Capsule, Kac deconstructs the biological-digital divide by inserting a biocompatible glass microchip into his body, which allows biological tissue and microchip to unite, to come together. The reason Kac self-inserted a microchip into his body was in order “to confront the changing world of memory as everything becomes digital.”

With this in mind, I think the answer to the question, “Do you think this phenomena of ‘bio-art’ has any relevance to our thinking about ‘digital art’?,” is a resounding ‘Yes’ simply because, in my opinion, the digital component of Bio-art, is a functional aspect responsible for creating, influencing, structuring and exhibiting the artwork. If the message of ‘digital art’ is to demonstrate the impact of the virtual on the real, the digital on the physical and the blurring of the lines between both then Bio-art is relevant to ‘digital art’ discussion. Bio-art echoes the message of digital art by conveying that the biological – what we associate to be natural or real – impacts on the creation of the digital, and vice versa. In the eyes of Kac, both biological and digital are indistinguishable – materially and philosophically. Therefore, in the light of Kac’s view, bio-art is digital art if both are amalgamated like in Time Capsule and Genesis.

With regard the implications of Bio-art, the effects of linking the biological to the aesthetic raise both bioethical and moral issues and concerns because the artist (or, Sci-artist) is not dealing with an object. They are dealing with life itself and “empathy and responsibility are paramount,” as Kac observes.

There are two sides to the debate over the controversial genetic engineering of Alba, the GFP bunny. On one side of the debate, there are those who perceive Kac’s actions to be unethical and immoral because of his tampering with nature or the laws of nature for not scientific – not for the greater good of mankind – but instead mere aesthetic purposes. I think this is one of the reasons why a certain section of society interpreted Kac’s bio-art as unethical. If it was for scientific or medical instead of aesthetic purposes then it would be perceived as more excusable by society because science ‘matters’.

On the other side of the debate, some Animal Rights groups see the message and method in Kac’s madness, which is that the artistic visibility of Alba publicises her plight as a lab animal used for scientific experimentation. As Kac affirms, lab animals have a “cognitive and emotional life that must be acknowledged in a social space”.

Kac justifies his creation of Alba by saying that “no single life force has a decision to come into the world” because “it is a decision of our parents,” which explains why Kac, as a parent of “a life form that didn’t exist before” felt morally obligated to take Alba home. What is morally and ethically wrong about a transgenic creature, like Alba, from Kac’s perspective is not their unnatural or artifical creation, but their treatment after creation up to the point of death.

With Kac’s view in mind, Bio-art now makes perfect sense because it is not some wacky artist with a Dr. Frankenstein complex tampering with nature for the aesthetic fun of it. Instead, as Marshall McLuhan claims, “the medium is the message” [2] and Kac amalgamates biological and digital media to convey his aesthetic message to the world.

[1] Digital Art @Google Eduardo Kac, Andrew Senior, Sandra Cordero, Marina Zurkow. Youtube

[2] McLuhan, Marshall. Understand Media: The Extensions of Man.

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Writing things we can no longer read!

There is a very interesting TED talk by Kevin Slavin called “How algorithms shape our world,” which is relevant to our discussion of the New Aesthetic and how the digital-physical divide is becoming indistinguishable.

Slavin highlights a crucial point in saying that “we have lost the sense of what is happening in this world we have made” because “we’ve rendered something illegible” by “writing things [ie. algorithms] we can no longer read”.

Using the example of what is called “Pragmatic Chaos,” the Netflix‘s algorithm, Slavin claims that this algorithm is “trying to get a grasp on you, on the firmware inside the human skull” by trying to recommend the next movie you might want to watch. The absolute power and significance of Pragmatic Chaos is evident from its responsibility for 60% of the movies rented on Netflix.

Slavin argues that “these [algorithms] are the physics of culture” and “we are terraforming the earth with this algorithmic efficiency”.

It is no longer “a weird uneasy collaboration between nature and man,” Slavin says, because there is a “third co-evolutionary force” – algorithms.

“We have to understand them as nature,” Slavin suggest, “and in a way they are.”

The adoption of this machine dialect into societal culture is essentially what constitutes the New Aesthetic.

Slavin, Kevin. “How algorithms shape our world“. TED. July 2011.

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