No Visualization Without Representation!

Searching for new forms of representation through visualization generates an entire new discussion in the digital humanities about how standard representational tools through visualization are insufficient and even harmful to the complexities present in analytical studies. We needed to ask ourselves, what is data? How are we representing it? And what effect does what we choose to represent and what we neglect to represent have on the processes of knowledge creation and consumption?

We first start by unpacking data. Johanna Drucker leads us through a reconceptualization of data as capta. As a humanist, this notion might be intuitive, perhaps, never articulated in this way before but you have a sense that you always knew this to be true. The fact is; data collection is a selective process, taken not given. Under this premise, historians are trained to be initially skeptical of all data and to investigate all possible factors that surround a dataset (documents, artifacts, human remains). Through this methodological approach, data collection becomes a multi-layered selective process – natural selection of surviving material objects, artificial selection by historical preservation, and the final selection made by the historian for further analysis.

Once we have our data as capta, how do we represent it visually? Therein lies the question at the heart of this conversation. There are many representational concerns that arise. What features of the data do we represent? When we centralize a feature, does it have a trivializing effect on other features?  How are western epistemological frameworks unsuitable for the representation of indigenous cultures? And how do we make visualization more dynamic to represent temporality and spatiality?

Joseph Stalin is often credited with the statement “A single death is a tragedy; a million death is statistics”. This quote really puts into focus the value of holistic representation. Stalin who is arguably the most murderous political leader of the 20th century with an estimate of 14-20 million people killed as a result of his policies, understood how visualization decontextualized from representation was a useful scheme for the implementation of bolshevism in the Soviet Union. Lev Manovich has an argument to make on the practices of information visualization (infovis), a field which has continuously relied on graphical primitive substitutions (dots, dashes, lines,  curves, geometric shapes) for data objects (people, animals, places, material objects, complex ideas) divorced from any substantive representation. For example, replacing a firefighter with a dot on a scatter plot, eliminates all elements but the singularity of his/her/their person. It does not distinguish him/her/them from the 1st grader on the same scatter plot. Graphical primitives gives us nothing of value to contextualize quantitative information other than visual add-ons such as color or size. Graphical primitives are the tip of the iceberg, an optical fallacy that leads us to make incorrect or incomplete assumptions about the data object which is harmful when it has a direct hand in policy making. Direct visualization uses techniques such as miniaturization, tag, cloud, and indexing, which reduce but also preserve the original form of the data object by presenting small or shorthand versions of the original object.

Standard visualization practices are harmful when one epistemology assumes authority over knowledge processes that belong to other epistemologies. Indigenous data and artifacts removed to and created within the traditional western epistemological framework are intractably situated in what Amy LoneTree calls a ‘Difficult Heritage’—meaningful but interpretively problematic. Non-indigenous processes are by design problematic for the study of Indigenous people. They are rooted in the same historical paradigms that legitimizes the ideal of manifest destiny (indigenous land grab) as American exceptionalism and lionizes Andrew Jackson the architect of the Trail of Tears as Old Hickory. The right system for approaching studies of indigenous communities is substantively irreconcilable with the former. Digital humanists today must reconceptualize their entire methodological and theoretical approach to studying indigenous communities. Firstly, it is imperative that indigenous voices are framing the ‘what’ how’ and ‘why’ of knowledge creation as well as curating access to material around their sensitivities and not that of the West.

Visualization is also confronting the representation of temporality and spatiality. The primacy and immediacy of space as the favored medium of graphical and textual representation is a challenge for digital humanists who want to err from that path. Space is a useful medium for arranging objects and ideas in a way that declares certainty, rationality, and finality, a false premise to begin with once we understand data as capta. Moreover, spatial delineation is harmful especially when it forces analysis into binary categories of representation such as gender.