Is It Cool if I Present My Thesis in Morse Code

Certainly theory and making are inseparably bound, even if we don’t always realize or intend it. I think we tend to talk about artifiacts  in terms of their explicit and implicit arguments: a website may feature a concluding statement that touts one argument, but then endorse another via its presentation, layout, or medium. In the digital world especially, becomes especially difficult to differentiate arguments generated intentionally by the author, and those generated circumstantially by the tool or medium. And of course, the question still stands as to whether and when this distinction matters. Should the constraints or afforandaces of a medium be dismissed or excused as limiting reagents (“for something made in MS Paint, it makes a convincing argument”), or should they be weighed as deliberate and argumentative in their own right? Both? I’ve tried to pick a few artifacts that investigate this struggle

1. InformationIsBeautiful.com’s “Snake Oil Supplements?” is one of my very favorite data visualizations, as its one of those few that serves up utility and visual appeal in equal measure. Yet I’m also critical of the piece, because it does rub me almost as a work of subliminal advertising. Before I even begin to read the words on-screen, my senses are flooded with buzz-words (“strong”, “good”, “evidence”, “scientific evidence”) and visual appeals to my affection – big, deeply colored bubbles are somehow better than tiny, pale ones. The entire thing reeks of careful plotting and strategy, and I don’t know whether to be repulsed or amazed. I think back to Leigh’s post “Memory of your loved ones: $3/day”, in which she voices her frustrations at finding a paywall that blocked her access to Fannie Brandon’s obituary. Both the Snake Oil visualization and Leigh’s paywal offer examples of interface and design coloring our understanding of an artifact before we even reach the “meat” of it.
2. My second example is actually one of my own. Last year, for Dr. Shrout’s HIS245 course, I compiled, organized, and visualized around 170 American love letters from 1768 to 1860. Once I had my data in a manipulable format, I plugged it into a number of data visualization platforms. Below is one that I made using a tool called WordIJ.
Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.15.29 AM
Purty, ain’t it? I think it looks a little like a flower growing from two lungs. You might think it looks like spaghetti. In any case, I’m pretty unhappy with this visualization. Above all, it’s misleading. It suggests that my data is on the same level of beauty and eloquence as the image. Certainly, I could make a case for love letters being that beautiful, but I also have to concede that you could feed 1,000 lines of gibberish into WordIJ and end up with a visualization just as exquisite. The platform is built to make pretty things out of pretty and ugly things alike. Again, it’s up to us to determine whether and to what degree these kinds of affordances matter. Will recently touched on this topic when he wrote on “the issue of how much power curators have over the final interpretation of an artifact.” As we continue to examine the say that tools and platforms have in formulating theory, it seems the follow-up question to WIll’s may be how much power curators have over the tools they use, and if it is worth it to succumb to their affordances.

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