Data Visualisation and Visionaries. Captology And Tasseomancy


One of the rhetorical devices surrounding the Data Dimension exhibition at Future Everything involes inferring a link with historical technologies that have opened up a new realm to human apprehension/perception. Take this quote from Rhizome:

“The microscope, like the telescope, revealed entirely new worlds, at scales impossible for humans to perceive. Today, like their predecessor, scientists, artists, academics and amateurs, re-purpose, extend, and invent new technologies to observe and comprehend the things no one has seen or understood before. This not only reveals a previously unimagined realm, more than this it constructs a new reality, giving shape and life to a new dimension. The artworks featured in The Data Dimension are an example of the type of experiments taking place. They are spyglasses to study the microscopic, immaterial and infinitely complex. This is about illuminating a future, and creating a new perspective, on a world that is only beginning to emerge.” Rhizome

I find the parallel interesting in the context of my computational divination research to date. For not only did the telescope & microscope change dynamics in the manner which Rhizome details they also utterly transformed the nature of the visionary in society. For the first time they were not the only mediator with the capacity to transport you into another realm; now a hithertofore imperceivable realm of reality was opened up, and opened up by tools, the children of a rational science different in sympathy to the sort of knowledge system inhabited by visionaries (when I say ‘transport to another realm’ I am talking about the authority placed in a visionary to tap into a believed in “other-realm”, and his ability to transport you there via his acting as a conduit between both realms)

Technology can be seen as extending the human sensorium. I first read of such a topic being elucidated by Nigel Thrift in Non Representational Theory. Indebted to the writings of Patricia Clough, technology considered in such a manner opens up the ‘infra-empirical’ to perception. Lets take again the Rhizome rhetoric:

“The Data Dimension presents a selection of these Digital Microscopes; artworks that nurture new insights into the invisible infrastructures that make up our world”

Aside from the poetic parallel with the visionary a great deal of this speaks to me on the level of faith and belief congealing around data visualization, at least for those perhaps less appreciative of the mechanics by which it operates (and I do not pretend to comprehend them in fine detail but I do appreciate the complexity involved). Lest we forget these new realms are registered through the brute force of the computational prowess of the relational database model (RDM). Furthermore evoking a parallel with the telescope is missing the mark to me: data, and the ‘knowledge’ produced from data mining, stems from an abstraction of the reality our human bodies would consider most concrete. Data visualization is probably closer to the role of visionary than we would like to admit: the process parasites our minds propensity to make connections (see apophenia), and though it need not be constricted to the visual there is a case for that particular sensory apparatus being the best suited to picking out patterns. In addition, and fully in accordance with the instability of proving something which a truly RDM view of the world would necessitate (Jeff Jonas: “If you don’t query your data and test your previous assumptions with each new piece of data that you get, then you’re not getting smarter” ), there are some who would contend that visualization is about creating the most engaging experience less so conveying facts (I stopped just short of information, as who is to say fostering engagement is not an informational exchange?)

a data architecture of a microsoft visual basic program entitled apophenia. too meta for me to resist

I feel that the direction which Data Mining Divination is tending towards pushes it into this realm. Another domain which I feel like the project is beginning to inhabit is another prominent, yet unspoken, theme of Future Everything: Captology. This is broadly defined as the use of computers as persuasive technologies. The reason I am drawn to this is down to parallels I am beginning to see between occult practices like tasseomancy and general tools & practices of suggestion such as hypnotherapy. The latter are very powerful practices which appeal to the adaptive unconscious as a means of resolving the impediments occuring in your life. And while self hypnosis (sometimes object mediated) is indeed possible these practices speak to the importance of another mediator. In descending down this area of enquiry I am prompted by CCBT (computerised cognitive behavioural therapy) and what a crap experience I thought that was. But I’ve also been prompted by coding the interface for my prototype: I was struck by the conundrum of how to record the shapes participants perceived. The option were to let people input their witnessed shapes into the database and then have the computer match input against possible correlations or to provide an option for a reference table of shapes to be summonned. Psychologically speaking I’m sure the latter option WOULD bias what shapes were witnessed. But then I wondered did a human consultant perform a similar suggestive function. And if indeed those consultants were guilty of suggestive sleight of hand what effect did it have on the participant, who may have entered into a mildly hypnotic state care of the preparation and ritual surrounding the event? And then in my prototype scenario a computer would step into that breach – prompting an interesting playground to explore suggestion (in the hypnotic sense) between humans and code. This begs its own questions, some of which I will be putting into a new post shortly


~ by Stephen Fortune on May 17, 2011.

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