Difficult Readings: Data Visualization

I struggled a lot with this week’s readings.

Some of my difficulty is simple and individual– I’ve no experience producing data visualization, and little experience thinking about it. And also some suspicion about how “the sheer power of the graphical display of ‘information visualization’ (and its novelty within a humanities community newly enthralled with the toys of data mining and display)” can lead to sloppy use of data visualization. Although I recognize the potential of Data Visualization, I feel that the limited examples I have seen in my field have been superficial use of “the Shiny” intended to impress rather than to inform or provoke thought.

Some of my difficulty might be trivial, or maybe a sign of my outdated sensibilities: i noticed many more small errors in this week’s readings than in previous weeks– imperfections that heighten my sense that there is too much info being transmitted too quickly, without time or need for careful copy-editing, sacrificing precision and clarity; a sense that the authors may somehow feel that all since human communication is reductionist and transient, they just need to get their texts to be comprehensible-enough, and that any effort to achieve greater accuracy would be past some point of diminishing returns. One example that struck me in Drucker:

A bar chart could compare daylight hours at different longitudes, or the average size of men and women in different countries…

when what was meant was something like:

the average size of *the population of* men and women…“.

(This not only makes more sense, but is clear from the description of the bar chart beginning two paragraphs down: “As an example, we can use that bar chart mentioned above, one that compares the percentage of men and women in various national populations at the present time”).

Manovich has many small syntactic errors, and I find that the effort it takes for me to correct for these (whether more or less consciously) comes at the expense of the energy i have for grasping and analyzing the arguments.

But the real motivation for my writing this post is: I am finding this week’s readings confronting as far as the limitations of DH.

Partly in a good way— i have been nodding along vigorously with our earlier readings, and suddenly my moral commitment to full open access is challenged by Guiliano’s and Heitman’s arguments in favor of considering restrictions to accord with the needs, rights, preferences of indigenous people. I am feeling some resistance to having my views challenged, with no appealing solution being offered as an alternative. I have become so accustomed to seeing multiplicity and customization as a solution to conflict– but it is not possible to make sensitive data selectively available in ways that will resolve the tension between, for example, a gender-restrictive tribal tradition and a woman within that traditional community who wants access to her family’s records, and my feminist values…. This is probably an important discomfort.
(note: when i say “not possible”, i do not just mean technically– the issues that Ashley addressed; i mean the ethical clashes between the right-to-know value of transparency and the right-not-to-be-exposed value of privacy and confidentiality).
More difficult: although I love Drucker’s insistence upon “capta”, which accords with some of our earlier readings about all texts being interpretation, and pushes these ideas further…. I find parts of her advocacy of more subjective representation to be somewhat inconsistent, incoherent, or maybe just beyond my capacity.

And, the reading that brought me here: the framing of Manovich’s attempt to advocate for “Direct Visualization” by presenting three examples. I am once again resistant as I read this, in part because he is trying to make a case that these are “direct” rather than “reductive”. Because I’ve already been convinced by our other readings, and life experience, that all representation is reductive. So I’m intolerant of his binary advocacy of “direct” visualization as an ideal alternative. I’d be much more open to hearing how and to what extent the different projects bring mediated, curated, or direct engagement with the user instead of feeling subjected to a defense of his pre-determined verdict that they are direct. This makes me think of Matt’s statements about the Digital Debates series– that it was important to insist upon contributions with “an argument” rather than simply descriptive case studies….

EDIT: I wrote this on monday, and let it sit. After a Text Analysis class last night, I am less troubled by Manovich. Now I would say instead that I reject his binary approach and his advocacy. I think that there are ways that Data Visualization can allow users’ more direct engagement with data and interpretation than other modes of presentation, and that such immediacy can have benefits, but that there are times when a more curated presentation might have greater benefits– and that the most important value, as we discussed last week, is for researchers to be as reflective and clear as possible about their aims, perspectives, data selection, limitations, and other aspects of their research and how they share it.

I am still feeling challenged by this week’s readings, but less grumpy about it because of the gift of Drucker’s formulation about all “data” being Capta.

7 thoughts on “Difficult Readings: Data Visualization

  1. Shani Tzoref Post author

    I will think about your critique and request, Marcela.
    I am quite sure that the error I pointed to in Drucker’s article is not about her facility in English, or related to class or race.
    with respect to Manovich, i think your point is well-taken. although the errors i was reacting to seemed to reflect poor copy-editing, they are probably better understood as a function of the author writing in their non-native language.
    i do not see how race or class are relevant to my comment. both Drucker and Manovich appear to be white and are professors in US universities. i do see how prejudice is relevant, both to my complaint and for our course more broadly. the issue of the hegemony of English has been a recurring theme. but i do not think it is the only perspective that is relevant to my concerns about textual precision, which I see as distinct from– though related to– “proper” grammar or writing style in any given language.

    1. Marcela F. González

      I had today my first encounter with Python (I went to the workshop). I love it, I think it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Python and me.


      It does not matter the class and race of the authors (Manovich and Drucker). Unless you are their English editor, or we are in an English class, in other contexts, it is racist and classist to make comments about people’s language. It is also profoundly impolite. We make the effort, much more those who have the education to be able to do it, to understand what people say. It is not so difficult.

      Manovich is foreign-born, and being Russian, he not only learnt English, but also he learnt a new alphabet to speak in English. Probably his everyday life is organized around speaking at least two languages every single day of the year. And also, he is a scholar from whom one can learn a lot in the area of data visualization. Pointing (imaginary) syntactic problems in his article is parochial and shallow.

      What you mentioned about Drucker is not correct. There is nothing wrong in saying: “A bar chart could compare the average size of men and women in different countries…” It is not necessary to add population. She even gave the example of a bar graph, which is the correct graph to use with a nominal variable like gender – nominal variables are categorical, no numerical; with numerical variables one uses a histogram. I do not even understand what your point is.

      I do not bring this point because English is not my mother tongue. I do the same with those who speak in Spanish, when their mother tongue is Spanish or when Spanish is their second language. I make the effort to understand what people say. When one lives in a multicultural and cosmopolitan society, with people from different nationalities who speak many languages, one makes the effort to understand each other in spite of language differences.

      1. Shani Tzoref Post author

        Marcela, I feel personally attacked by your posts.
        We have some strong differences of opinion on matters that are relevant to digital humanities, and potentially of interest to all of us in this Intro community. But I do not know how to find a common mode of expression that will feel respectful and comfortable to both of us and to the rest of the class participants. So i will leave a number of your points unaddressed– not because I want to ignore you, but because I do not know what or how to reply.
        Maybe others in the group will be able to help us bridge the gaps between us on the sensitive and personal matters. Maybe we will come to understand each other’s perspectives better over the course of the semester. Or maybe our differences will simply remain and continue to re-surface periodically, and we will both just have to continue to negotiate the complications and challenges of the situation as sensitively as we can.
        I had hoped that in class yesterday, we might speak more about how approaches of “close” and “distant” reading may correlate with the valuing or devaluing of precision and accuracy in textual and visual (re-)presentations; and also about a possible conflict in DH scholarship between valuing the verbal-textual as compared to the visual; and further, how those comparisons could relate to the topics of emic/etic and thick/thin analyses. (So many binaries! My own preferences are for multidimensionality, and we’ve all been discussing how DH opens up possibilities of multiplicity. This week’s readings confronted me with many limitations I had not considered before). We did touch on some of the above in class, but not with respect to the question of language. As always, the class flew by, with so many interesting and necessary topics, that I did not see an opportunity to raise this question. I was possibly also somewhat disinclined to do so, because of the personal tension emerging on the topic. And maybe that’s ok. I hope we will get a chance to revisit these issues in future class sessions.
        But before Manovich moves off our radar, I want to note some ethical and practical problems that I find with regard to 2 of the errors in his article, which I see as representative of his casualness with language, perhaps sloppiness.
        On his first page, he has two typos in his quotation of Rodenbeck, “medim” for “medium” and “righ” for “right: “Information visualization is becoming more than a set of tools, technologies and techniques for large data sets. It is emerging as a medim in its own righ, with a wide range of expressive potential.” Eric Rodenbeck (Stamen Design), keynote lecture at Emerging Technology 2008 [March 4, 2008.] .
        From my web search of the quote, and the style of Manovich’s article, I see these errors as introduced by manovich and not reflective of the original. This sort of imprecision is a misrepresentation of Rodenbeck. I believe that it is an ethical responsibility to cite another person’s work as precisely and accurately as possible.

        Omissions of negatives are especially confusing for a reader:
        “However, it seems to longer adequately describe certain new visualization techniques and projects developed since the middle of the 1990s.” This should be “to no longer”. The rest of the sentence makes it clear– the context and markers like “however” and “longer” but there is extra work required of the reader to supply that missing “no”.
        This kind of error is off-putting for me as a native English speaker, but I suggest that it could be especially taxing for a non-native English speaker to have to do all this extra work to follow the author’s argument. In my personal experience, as somebody with poor German skills, when I try to read German, I rely on the author’s clarity of expression. When I read something by somebody whose German is poor, this often requires me to make adjustments, and takes more effort. On the other hand, the simple vocabulary and sentence structure of a text in poor German can make it more accessible in some ways. When I try to read a text in which the author has carelessly dropped definite articles or letters of words, then i lose access to that text.

        Manovich’s casualness about language strikes me as a semi-deliberate stance, and seems to have some message, though not one i can easily read. Possibly something related to some of our class discussion about speed and surface
        It occurs to me that one reason that the casualness pushes my buttons is a Trump-association, because I have come to see a correlation between indifference to truth and indifference to language:

        I am somewhat critical of Meyers’ mockery. Not so much because he is making fun of what seems as though it might be some kind of cognitive disability– it it were anybody but Trump, I would feel that way, but i do not think this is relevant for the president. My discomfort with Meyers is more about gravitas. I think it is probably important to understand whether and how Trump’s mangling of English in his rhetoric is correlated with his mangling of reality, and how these facilitate his manipulations. Mockery could be an impediment to clear analysis.
        I did not intend to mock Manovich. I am critical of what I interpret to be his attitude towards language. Since I see he is at CUNY Grad Center, I guess it would be fairly simple to ask him for his own understanding of what I am calling his casualness. But now that it’s become a topic of our conversations, I would not be so sure about how I would go about framing my query, since it would not be only on my own behalf but a product of this broader discussion.

        two after-thoughts: I suggested at the beginning of this comment that I see a potential connection between close reading and textual precision as compared to distant reading, but of course DH corpus linguistics depends upon accurate entry of the textual data into the digitized corpus. (somebody shared that observation with me yesterday).

        Marcela, I guess we can say that one of the differences between us relates to sociolinguistic analysis. I see this as a useful tool for analyzing texts, with the presumption that there are many categories of identity possible. I think I hear you saying that any stylistic analysis of texts is racist and classist? “Unless you are their English editor, or we are in an English class, it is racist and classist to make comments about people’s language.” I strongly disagree with that blanket statement. The Meyers clip, above, might be rude and insensitive, but if you maintain that it is racist and classist, I think you would have to support that claim rather than just asserting it.
        I have devoted my career to analyzing and commenting upon people’s use of language (primarily Hebrew, occasionally Aramaic or Greek, and sometimes English, especially in the context of thinking about translation). I am studying DH primarily in order to gain better understanding about corpus linguistics and discourse analysis. When you dismiss the totality of my interests with the label “racist and classist”, it makes it hard for me to see the parts of your criticism that I could find relevant and important and consider taking on board. I plan to keep trying. Where I agree with you is “When one lives in a multicultural and cosmopolitan society, with people from different nationalities who speak many languages, one makes the effort to understand each other in spite of language differences.” I think that some of the differences between your views and mine about discourse and discourse analysis might be cultural. And i do want to keep learning, from you, and from those differences.

        1. Marcela F. González

          Hi Shani,
          If you feel personally attacked, it is not my problem because I am not attacking you.

          You lump together different people, such as Trump, scholars, you as someone who works analyzing people’s translations, students in humanities, and so on as if they were equals in their use of language. I leave Trump aside because he does not resist any analysis.

          Indeed, your work requires a degree of meticulousness that I consider hyperbolic when applied to the texts and authors we read. And it is not productive either because you miss the possibility of learning something new. You said a text written in poor German makes your understanding. I do not think we have read anybody whose English is poor – though you complained about the use of English of almost everybody.

          I assume that the authors in the syllabus have experience on the topics we read about. For example, when I read Manovich, I liked that in a clear way he explained important developments and differences in the field of data visualization. Field I know nothing about. When I found a word that perhaps it is not very clear, I understood by context. I do not expect from him, or other authors, a sublime use of language because for this I (re) read Dante Alighieri.

          I went to a bilingual school in Argentina; besides Spanish, my mother tongue, I studied four languages; I lived the last twenty years in three countries that required me to speak in three different languages; I use every day two or three languages. I have been exposed since I was very young to a great variety of people and languages. This gave me humility in how I judge people’s use of language. It would never occur to me to highlight people’s mistakes. Quite contrary, I always feel I must make the effort to understand.

          If you, or the students in the class, need to analyze people’s language because is very important for your learning process, go ahead, I do not want to interfere on anybody’s learning experience, much less in the normal development of humanities as a discipline. But I have my opinion. And also, I do not want to be a killjoy, but perhaps your limitations to understand are not given by author’s poor English, but because you are reading about topics you do not much about. A little of humility, along with a detailed scrutiny of author’s English, will be a good for your learning process.

        2. Matthew K. Gold (he/him)

          Marcela and Shani — thank you for this conversation. This public course blog is an extension of our classroom space, and we trust and expect that all members of the class will participate in it with the same levels of mutual respect that we have in our in-person communications. We definitely need to be able to disagree with one another, and to challenge each other when necessary, but we need to be sure we are doing so in ways that are constructive and that do not involve personal attacks. We invite both of you to speak with us privately to continue this conversation, and we ask you, and the class as a whole, to approach our course-related conversations (online and off) with generosity and respect.

          — Matt and Kelly

  2. Zach Muhlbauer (he/him/his)

    Hi, Shani — I likewise feel resistance toward Manovich’s treatment of visualization practices. By dividing infovis into two methodological categories (i.e. graphical primitives / direct visualization), Manovich appears to table the notion that any given act of representation always to some extent departs from its original artifact. While I recognize that there is wide range of accuracy with which visualization practices may preserve the integrity of their subject matter, I feel it is nevertheless crucial for scholars like Manovich to recognize and even overstate the inevitability of relative error among acts of representation, especially when the exigency of his paper demands readers to actively (and ironically) challenge reductionistic thinking and practices.

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