Data visualization has lately become an unlikely form of mass entertainment. When public health professor Hans Rosling first presented his giant, animated graphs of floating bubbles—challenging popular preconceptions about global life expectancy and family sizes—he was met with whoops and applause at the 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference.11 Hans Rosling, Hans Rosling Shows the Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen (presentation at the TED Conference, February 2006): http://b-o.fr/rosling-stats The video of the presentation has since attracted 2.8 million online viewers, making it the seventh most-watched TED talk in the past five years. “The statistics of the world have not been made properly available,” argued Rosling. “Animated graphics can make a difference.”33 Hans Rosling, Hans Rosling’s New lnsights on Poverty (presentation at the TED Conference, March 2007): http://b-o.fr/rosling-poverty
Data provides the means by which science progresses, legislation changes, and society advances; data is the enemy of witch hunts, bigotry, and ignorance (not to mention Creationism). But data is always gathered at a certain time with a certain purpose; and to be useful it must be mined, parsed, and presented. Each step of this process involves decisions about what to omit and what to prioritize. Yet the end result, the visualization, carries an authority, timelessness, and objectivity that belies its origins. Curiously, this fact is neglected in the otherwise rich discourse around data visualization and information design. [Visual studies researcher] Johanna Drucker has observed that information designers almost entirely ignore what she considered theoretical problems:
An empiricist assumption that what you see is what is there underpins their practice. The self-evident character of graphic entities—lines, marks, colors, shapes— is never itself brought into question, however much the parameters on which they are generated or labeled might be criticized. That images themselves might be dialectical, produced as artifacts of exchange and emergence, is an idea foreign to the fields of engineering and information design.44 Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 73.
To explore why the critical discourse of the arts and humanities is conspicuously lacking around visualization requires that we take a meta-view of the contexts in which it is practiced. Visualization might be separated into three categories of practice. The first, and most dominant, is scientific. This, the domain of laboratories, supercomputers, and vast monitor arrays, enjoys the funding of the military industrial complex and a sense of societal importance. According to historian Alfred Crosby, “visualization is one of on…