Monday, March 17, 2008

Manovich, "Data Visualization as New Abstraction and as Anti-Sublime"

 Manovich, Lev. "Data Visualization as New Abstraction and as Anti-Sublime." Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools. Eds. Byron Hawk, David Reider, and Ollie Oviedo. Electronic Mediations Ser. 22. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Why render data visually? Lev Manovich, in "Data Visualization as New Abstraction and as Anti-sublime," the opening chapter in Small Tech (reprinted from ArtPhoto, 2003), responds to this with an answer that, in spirit, moves beyond the "data epistemology" of a cumbersome, old (perhaps even mythical) scientism. Why render data visually? "[T]o show us the other realities embedded in our own, to show us the ambiguity always present in our perception and experience, to show us what we normally don't notice or pay attention to" (9). By the end of this brief article, Manovich begins to get round to the idea of a rhetoric of data visualization, even if he never calls it this. Despite being caught up in a representationalist framework as he accounts for what data visualization does, Manovich eventually keys on "daily interaction with volumes of data and numerous messages" as the "more important challenge" facing us. That is, we are steeped now in a new "data-subjectivity."

Manovich provides four sections in his short essay: Visualization and Mapping, Data Modernism, Meaningful Beauty: Data Mapping as Anti-Sublime, and Motivation Problem. The "Visualization and Mapping" section begins with Tufte and Descartes; these are the precedents for the "dynamic data visualization" Manovich wants us to consider as it has spilled over from its origins in the "pure and applied sciences, from mathematics and physics to biology and medicine" to the greater "cultural sphere" (3). Next, Manovich attaches this to a mapping paradigm, considered here as a kind of direct conversion of data into image (1:1 precision in the translation of territory into map). This risks making visualization its own end; I question whether his approach does enough to keep the image open on the side of play, preferring a contingent and flexible (more model- or relay-like) image than one fixed and declarative in its presentation. The section on Data Modernism builds toward an understanding of data visualization as new abstraction. Here abstraction is matched with the same tradition in twentieth century Modernist art: the reduction of chaos into simple patterns. Given my own interest in abstracting practices, I tend to prefer drawing closer parallels between "new abstraction" and network studies. I deal with some of this in the diss; Manovich's take on abstraction might find a small place there. Of course, one of my reservations about "new abstraction" tracing back through art traditions is that it holds onto a faint notion of representable reality as a backdrop against which every movement is defined. Perhaps this is one of the ways a rhetoric of data visualization would do justice to Manovich's interest in subjectivity, agency, and motive, while also offering a greatly expanded vocabulary for complicating strict evaluative rules regarding chart junk and clarity (e.g., following Tufte).

In the third section of the essay, Manovich touches on scale. He describes data visualization as "anti-sublime" as it contrasts with the Romantic art concerned with the sublime." This section seems, again, to position data visualization as an end--an end in an aesthetics and epistemology valuing concretization--rather than a means, a model, or a relay. The stuff on scale is encouraging, but then he ends the section, saying, "Yet, more often than not, the subjects of data visualization projects are objective structures (such as the typology of the Internet) rather than the direct traces of human activities" (7). What's not clear is why this is so or how Manovich knows it. This isn't to dispute his claim as much as to call into question its basis, and also ask how these "objective structures" square with the "data-subjectivity" he introduces in the final section. In the final section, he is concerned with motivations and choices: why this or that design choice when several others are available? An arhetorical treatment of data visualization entertains the prospect that there is always one best way to present the data visually; a rhetorical approach, on the other hand, seems to me to create a situation--a conductive role, an agent, an exigency--in whatever comes between the data and the visualization of it. In other words, while Manovich is concerned that "computer media simultaneously make all these choices appear arbitrary" (7), a rhetoric of data visualization would frame those choices as "available means" rather than an automated function of the computer technology. Manovich: "One way to deal with this problem of motivation is not to hide but to foreground the arbitrary nature of the chosen mapping" (8). Yes, foreground it, but also let the "it" be a "rhetorical nature" in equal measure to an "arbitrary nature."

"Thus data visualization moves from the concrete to the abstract and then again to the concrete" (6).

Phrases: "Platonic schemas" (5), "new abstraction" (5), "reversibility" (6), "organic abstraction" (6), "modernist abstraction" (6), "anti-sublime" (6), motivation (6), "data epistemology" (8), "data-subjectivity" (9)

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 17, 2008 9:15 PM to Reading Notes