Wednesday, May 19, 2010

This is Data? Arguing with Data Baby

These IBM commercials are gorgeous, lavish examples of modern motion graphics from Motion Theory. Like some of the agency's earlier work, and a handful of other examples noted here, these ads show how code-literate design (could we call it the P factor?) is transforming this field. For all those reasons, I love this work; but it also really bothers me. I'll try to explain.

The opening line of this voiceover says it all, really. This is data. Making that call - defining what data is - is a powerful cultural gesture right now, because as I've argued before data as an idea or a figure is both highly charged and strangely abstract. It makes a lot of sense for a corporation like IBM to stake a claim on data; this stuff is somehow both blessing and curse, precious and ubiquitous, immaterial and material. IBM promises here to help with the wrangling, but also, most powerfully, to show us what data is.

So, what is data here? In these commercials data is first and foremost material. It is a physical stuff. In Data Baby it wraps a little infant like some kind of luminescent placenta, drifting away into the air, thrown off in shimmering waves as the child breathes. In Data Energy it trails like a cloud behind a tram, and spins with the blades of a wind turbine. A lot of the (beautiful) animation work here has been devoted to simulating behaviour, making this colorful, abstract stuff seem to be tightly embedded in the world with us. What that means is both coupling it tightly to real objects, and supplying it with immanent dynamics - making it drift, disperse or twirl.

The second interesting property of data here - related to the first - is that it just exists. Look again at Data Baby, and note that there is no visible sign of this data being gathered (or rather, made). No oxygen saturation meter, no wires, no tubes, no electrodes. Not a transducer in sight. Not until the closing wide shot do we even see a computer. (This is fascinating in itself; IBM (or their ad agency) gets it that the computer is no longer the right image, or metaphor, for "information technology". Neither is the network; now it's immanent, abundant data.) In other words data here is not gathered, measured, stored or transmitted - or not that we can see. It just is, and it seems to be inherent in the objects it refers to; Data Baby is "generating" data as easily as breathing.

Completing this visual data-portrait are some other related themes: data is multiplicitous and plentiful, it's diverse (many colours and shapes) but ultimately harmonious and beautiful - in Data Transportation it looks like an urban-scale 3d Kandinsky painting.

Several things bother me about this portrayal. The first is the same is the reason I love it: it's powerfully, seductively beautiful, and this amplifies all my other reservations. The vision of data as material, in the world, is also incredibly seductive; my concern is that we get such pleasure from seeing these rich dynamics play out - that the motes wafting from Data Baby's skin seem so right - that we overlook the gaps in the narrative. This vision of material data is also frustrating because it has all the ingredients of a far more interesting idea: data is material, or at least it depends on material substrates, but the relationship between data and matter is just that, a relationship, not an identity. Data depends on stuff; always in it, and moving transmaterially through it, but it is precisely not stuff in itself.

You could say that I'm quibbling about metaphors here, and you'd be right, but metaphors are crucially important because they shape what we think data is, and what it does. Related to data as stuff is this second attribute; data that just is, in the same way that matter is neither created or destroyed, but just exists. This is crucially, maybe dangerously wrong. Data does not just happen; it is created in specific and deliberate ways. It is generated by sensors, not babies; and those sensors are designed to measure specific parameters for specific reasons, at certain rates, with certain resolutions. Or more correctly: it is gathered by people, for specific reasons, with a certain view of the world in mind, a certain concept of what the problem or the subject is. The people use the sensors, to gather the data, to measure a certain chosen aspect of the world.

If we come to accept that data just is, it's too easy to forget that it reflects a specific set of contexts, contingencies and choices, and that crucially, these could be (and maybe should be) different. Accepting data shaped by someone else's choices is a tacit acceptance of their view of the world, their notion of what is interesting or important or valid. Data is not inherent or intrinsic in anything: it is constructed, and if we are going to work intelligently with data we must remember that it can always be constructed some other way.

Collapsing the real, complex, human / social / technological processes around data into a cloud of wafting particles is a brilliant piece of visual rhetoric; it's a powerful and beautiful story, but it's full of holes. If IBM is right - and I think they probably are - about the dawning age of data everywhere, then we need more than a sort of corporate-sponsored data mythology. We need real, broad-based, practical and critical data skills and literacies, an understanding of how to make data and do things with it.