How do we represent tangible objects in a visual medium? We use words, pictures, and diagrams. We describe, share, show, and fail.10.5281/zenodo.3713670
Every day, countless decisions are quietly made on the basis of data most of us will never touch. Automated decision-making impacts insurance premiums and exam grades, traffic signals and pretrial risk assessments, all by relying on data captured through methods that are rarely transparent or representative. But despite the intangibility of this data, its consequences are felt in countless facets of social life: when targeted ads reflect a user’s habits back to her through a distorted mirror, or when historically biased training data move a job applicant’s resume to the bottom of the pile. We constantly feel the effects of data even if we can’t put our finger on them.
The essays in this inaugural issue of Startwords seek to give data a different feel by exploring their transformations: from things into data, and from data into emergent understandings of those things. “Data Beyond Vision” presents new techniques for representing data through origami, kirigami, 3D-printed models, and woven tapestries. Instead of the superficial sense of mastery so often promoted by data discourse, these data physicalizations foreground the “laborious translation” inherent in any act of representation. In doing so, Koeser, Doroudian, Budak and Li ask what it could mean to make an argument through an object—not an argument about an object, but an argument that is constructed in the form of a physical artifact.
While “Data Beyond Vision” demonstrates the importance of giving data tangible form, “Their Data, Ourselves” explores the mirror image of that process, when things in the world are first captured as data. Rebecca Munson asks what it means to “become at once both object and analyst” of data about an illness, to inhabit a body whose meaning is transformed into crucial millimeters of difference between periodic scans. In a world still trying to make sense of the pandemic, still coming to terms with the quantification of illness and risk, this essay provides guidance from someone who has known what it means to experience a body as data for some time.
What’s at stake in both of these essays isn’t simply the transformation of data from one state into another, but the affective repercussions of those transformations. The essays are published here in conversation, but we also hope that their very different forms showcase the range and variety of writing we’ve designed this journal to feature in the future.
When I was growing up I liked to read about dying children. I’m not talking about the Victorian orphan kind of dying, not the dying of storybooks, but children who were terminally ill.10.5281/zenodo.3713678