From Jamie Allen - http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=356. Thinking about medical data from this perspective….
“Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them.”
—Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World
The promise that base metals supposed for the alchemist, and the capacities that scryers gave to globes of rock crystal, is the promise that “data” brings to our present moment. Richard Wright’s essay for “Software Studies, A Lexicon” (2007), points to the archive fever and historical anxiety from which contemporary techniques of data visualisation arose: “In 1987 the US National Science Foundation published their “Visualisation in Scientific Computing” report (ViSC) that warned about the “firehose of data” that was resulting from computational experiments and electronic sensing.” (Fuller 78) Artists, “creative technologists,” designers, programmers are, right this moment, developing an enormity of alternate perspectives on comma delimited lists, spreadsheets and other seemingly humdrum data formats and sources. The tools they employ often involve a surprisingly potent mix of simple statistical techniques, aesthetic schemes, and data massaging.
But the whole endeavour reveals a quintessential epistemic irony of our data-age: Data is collected in order to characterise the truth of an object or event. But, having collected too much data, of a kind that is impossible to comprehend directly, we elaborate a whole literature of symbols, infographics, explanations and visualisations. As Vilem Flusser puts it, “…every mediation between man and the world, [is] subjected to an internal dialectic. They represent the world to man but simultaneously interpose themselves between man and the world (“vorstellen”). As far as they represent the world, they are like maps; instruments for orientation in the world. As far as they interpose themselves between man and the world, they are like screens, like coverings of the world.” (Flusser 2007) We drill-down, slice and sieve the database —digital dowsing, attempting to “strike oil,” or to “sift gold” from these stratifying datasets. And here again is why geological thinking is more than an inter-disciplinary conceit. We find ourselves inventing a new tectonics of the database, an elaborate succession of measurements and multiple-working-hypotheses, that we hope will bring us closer to the realities we seek to characterise. But, there is much to be said for the insights wrought by perspectivally looking at the data. Perhaps “a landscape is best viewed with a single source of light—the sun, one light bulb, a lone candle, a lone writer – so that all the shadows and highlights are true to each other.” (Coupland Extraordinary Canadians Marshall Mcluhan) In order to study something highly non-linear, perhaps we must first arrange it, slice through it, in or with a line.