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.


Michael said...

This is thoughtful stuff - too thoughtful, I suspect, for the byte-sized buffers of the people who should be reading it. "The people use the sensors, to gather the data, to measure a certain chosen aspect of the world": and the aspects that are measured are just those which are measurable, that can produce data. Often those measurable aspects are themselves only proxies for what we really want to know: we can't measure health, so we measure metabolism: we can't measure prosperity, so GDP is the quantifiable proxy. And that which isn't amenable to data-gathering gets ignored.

sha said...

I was thinking about this same thing when I watched those videos — what I really wanted was for them to be like the Britain from Above clips:


Unknown said...

Thanks for a very insightful post - one of the best I've seen recently. However, it left me feeling divided.

On the one hand, I agree about the somewhat misplaced emphasis on the data. All the time we see data-practicioners who are enamored with the data, but forget the "stuff" that the data is about. We want to make sure that folks understand it's not about the data, but it's about the larger problem you're trying to solve.

On the other hand, one thing we've struggled with is getting people who don't normally think about data to understand what data visualization means. From this perspective, I'm excited to see these short videos as they make data seem more tangible.

Thanks for sharing and starting the conversation.

Mary Franck said...

I think of data as a representation like a photograph or a painting. There are techniques of representation, such as sensors, and a flattening of the thing represented that is due both to the techniques and the selections of the person producing the data (or framing the photograph).
Data as representation is a metaphor that works well as an object in a symbolic system like computing.

bertram niessen said...

Thank you for your post. I definitively agree with your point of view: all this emphasis about the value of data representation as a value "per se" is becoming bothering. We can have all the possible numerical strings outputs, but this cannot be useful without a clear epistemological, theoretical and critical view.

Unknown said...

Agree, but i think that's the point of the commercial, it's about falling in love with the idea of data surrounding us, like particles in the air, and making us unaware of the complex ( political, economic, ideological, etc ) machinery behind data storing, analysis and representation. It is, in my opinion a good example of the actual applications of digital aesthetics in advertising. By the way, I also felt seduced by the piece, beautiful work, but not insightful.

Greg J. Smith said...

I'm still mulling over most of what you've written here but we may need to modify our vocabulary slightly when considering branding campaigns like this. We've all heard of greenwashing? Maybe we need to add datawashing to the lexicon?

Mitchell said...

@Michael - I absolutely agree re. measuring what is measurable.

@Sha - yeah the contrast with BFA is striking - those GPS traces were always flagged as traces of specific sources.

Apparently though there is some "real" data in there (see this making of video about 1:20). It's hard to tell how it's been used - can anyone fill us in?

@Ken - I feel the same conflict. Is this "materialised" vision of data a sort of small lie justified by a larger truth (ie there is lots of data out there in the world)? Ultimately though I hope it would be possible to make an engaging representation without telling fairytales.

@Mary, bertram - I agree.

@Greg - hmm, so "datawashing" would be appropriating the cultural values of data more than engaging with its content? Could apply to many data vis projects!

Mary Franck said...

I actually just write a paper on data and meaning. It's not a social critique, but it philosophically frames some of the ways data is used to create meaning.

Anonymous said...

The IBM commercial sounds like its priming us to get chip implants for the New World Order. Don't do it- you'll be sorry.

Bertram Niessen said...

@ Greg . You are right in paying attention to words. But "washng" is more meaningful if used for processes that want to change the appearance of something without changing its core dynamics (i.e. do you know that here in Europe McDonald's logo is green? ) . From this point of view, the emphasis on data is what sociology call a "plastikworte", a plastic word: a word that is used so often in so many different contexts that it lost its useful meanings. It' the same for "creativity" or "innovation": everybody is talking about innovation, but it seems that very few people has an idea about it.

tellio said...

I suppose there isn't any such critter as raw data if by that we mean objective in a Platonic sense. I see this as the same problem the brain has as it picks out light frequencies to create the reality of light and objects. Nothing is real until the brain says so. Is there a correlate to that with data? Data isn't real until IBM (or their ilk) says it is? Interesting and valuable insights in this post. Might want to respond to this article by Seth Roberts:

Doug said...

Mr. Mitch. Did you know that IBM's ad agency ripped off the British artists Semiconductor? See Magnetic Movie at

The agency called the Semis and asked them if they could use their ideas. When they said no, the agency used them anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think you have all missed the point. The commercial is about the cutting edge technology that was recently developed to gather data and use it to improve outcomes for premature infants.
Did you know that light, sound, humidity, temperature, and touch effect brain development? This is what is being measured, analized and put into a format so that Drs can have a "big picture" of the health of the infant so that optimal enviroments are created.
As an FYI - you would not want to see a premature baby on a commerical(its very sad) so they use this "imagery" to give you an illusion of the future of medicine. Personally, I think it's an amazing commerical. (PS this is not chip technology so no worries)

douro20 said...

The CG visuals in these commercials were produced using actual data, processed with software developed by scientists at Motion Theory. For example, in the "Data Baby", actual vital data taken from four different babies was used. It was quite an undertaking, requiring nearly a years' worth of R&D and input from scientists of all different fields.