“Visualization of Culture” or “Culture of Visualization”?

Continuing our key theme of Digital Culture, this week our class focuses on the distinction between Database and Narrative, which are both linked to the practice of archiving information. I chose to study the website www.informationisbeautiful.net, created by David McCandless, a London-based data journalist and information designer. His website offers a collection of visualized information of facts, data, ideas, statistics, questions, etc. As my classmate, Joanna. mentions in her post about the same topic, McCandless aims to convey his subject matter with the least amount of wording as possible.

McCandless presents a wide array of topics illustrated through many different types of graphs, diagrams, with dynamic use of shapes and colors. What appears to be very interesting to me, is his choice of subjects. Almost every graph reflects a contemporary interest or concern. Taste Buds to Censorship in China, McCandless appears to have a rather informal approach to all types of information. Some of his visualizations are disputable also. I was showing my Senegalese friend International Number Ones and he found it to be stupid when Senegal is referred to as the number one in Gasoline Bunkers, and offensive when Chad is top one for Poor Population. His sources are, NationMaster and CIA Factbook, are too generally credited.

It reminds me of a terms Beer and Burrows mentions in their study “Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data”, “infotainment”, which refers to data becoming a source of entertainment, or a resource to play (Beer and Burrows 61). Informationisbeautiful is based on the fourth feature of popular culture archives that Beer and Burrows discusses, which is play. In the form of a transactional archives (involving finding culture, discovery, seeing trends and charts, consuming, etc), Informationisbeautiful becomes a sort of a playground that is dedicated to the weighty task of archiving social data and information.

Beer and Burrows also discusses the “visualization of culture” and a “culture of visualization” being at work at the same time  (Beer and Burrows 62). It makes me ponder if Informationisbeautiful leans to the “visualization of culture” side. One might argue that culture is too broad of a term to describe McCandless’ subject matters across the side. However, what McCandless conveys on this website reflects the interests and concerns of contemporary society, which is an integral part of culture itself. Visualization, in this view, also belongs to the broad evolution of culture, or more precisely, of digital culture.

What also seems interesting to me, is how McCandless refers to himself as a data journalist and an information designer. These two terms only recently emerged, and they serve as a reflection of a generation of technological advancements and a society of digitization. Visualization of data now can be considered as journalism. Information can now be “designed”. Can you actually be the designer of information? Or in other words, are technological advancements and extreme modernization designing new information? McCandless is only archiving existing data, facts and ideas, then designing them into visualizations. To me, that does not equal designing information. 

McCandless also dedicates a session of his website to Interactive Visualizations. In one of Lev Manovich’s essays “On Totalitarian Interactivity”, Lev Manovich starts off by referring to Shulgin, who views interactivity as a form of manipulation. The paradox is, people nowadays are in fact enjoying this manipulation for they think that it is a part of technological revolution. We are given choices and forced to choose among those limits, which prevent them from proposing other ideas and opinions. We, however, love being given limited choices, as we appreciate the modern machine for being able to interact with ourselves. I was playing through McCandless’ interactive graphs a long time ago and loved it, being left in awe at how advanced technology had become. However, now I get to wonder if it is actually a positive contribution, as after being given those choices our minds start to close down to a certain limits as well.

“Exciting, Beautiful, Technical – But What Does It Mean?” The featured image for this post

Source: David Beer, and Roger Burrows, “Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data,” Theory Culture and Society,

Manovich, Lev. Accessed September 24, 2013. http://manovich.net/TEXT/totalitarian.html.

 

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