Data as Theory and Practice

In “Wampum as Hypertext,” Angela Haas (2007) offered a counterstory to Western claims about the origin of hypertext and multimedia that enriches our understanding of data and digital environments beyond new media theorizations. Haas explained that wampum and other material components such as bark fibers, sinew, hemp fibers, string, and other weaving materials have been used by Woodlands Indians as sign technologies to record, document, and connect information (or stories) about social interactions well before Vannevar Bush’s (1945) concept of the memex. Our fascination with new media screens can be seen in the juxtaposition of the wampum and the memex—where one was actually used, but has been overlooked, and the other was just an idea, but has always been cited. The wampum was a system of communication as well as a screen for communication where the corporeal and incorporeal worked in concert. The idea of the memex, on the other hand, would have been a system of communication that would not require the external world: Bush conceptualized the memex as a device that would allow for an associative system for indexing, storing, retrieving, and delivering memories or stories; the data, although meant to be associative, is only associative to other data with or without regard to the users. The memex would be a combination of Lev Manovich's (2001) and Janet Murray’s (2011) idea of new media affordances and subsequently its screen representations. Both Manovich and Murray enclosed data into the sphere of the electronic medium of computers and screens, although others such as Adriana de Souza e Silva (2006) have argued that data crosses freely in between the boundaries of physical and digital environments. However, with Haas’s insight, we are now challenged to conceptualize the relationship between how data moves from the lived world to the represented. Thus, when we speak of data visualization, is it possible that we are speaking of the tools instead of the data?

Annette Markham (2013) asserted that “data is a deceptively easy term to toss around”: “‘big data’ is less about the characteristics of data themselves than the shift to computational tools and methods for analyzing large sets of information.” And, in Markham’s assessment (citing Lisa Gitelman), to have “‘raw data’ is an oxymoron.” Instead, Markham suggested that “data has an incontrovertible ‘itness’” despite its rhetorical function as evidence in arguments.

The story that data tells of itself is what we will call data materialization.

Data can tell a story on its own, although we often frame it to support other stories or research goals. According to Kenneth Burke (1966) and Erving Goffman (1974), frames draw on our attention and shape what we think. In the case of data visualization, the screen behaves as a frame. We mistakenly think that the frame constitutes the data when in fact, the frame constitutes an argument. The data within the frame is constitutive of the relations that implicate the data. Markham (2013) wrote that data is something "that one gathers.” Data, thus, tells a double story: one of the gatherers and one of itself. Data visualization, thus, tells a story about the research goals and what has been researched or what the researcher observes and what was observed.