⚡ New Event: Living in Data ft. Jer Thorp
The case for reclaiming agency over the data around us
I'm usually a Kindle loyalist, but certain books demand to be read in print. Living in Data is full of striking and elegant visualizations — data art, as the author would say — that spotlight humans' role in shaping the stories around our data.
📖 living in data by jer thorp
Our guest for May 27 is data scientist and artist Jer Thorp.
His creative works range from an algorithm to place names on the 9/11 memorial to data-collecting expeditions in the Okavango Delta. His book, Living in Data merges memoir, art, and analysis in describing the messy, fraught processes in which we create data and have data created of us.
Join us next Thursday, May 27 for a Q&A on reclaiming agency over our data.
🔊 our take: data is a verb, not a noun
By Jessica Dai
Data is food for machine learning models; data is oil; data is a supposedly-impartial arbiter of truth. But data is more than just that: data, as artist Jer Thorp argues in Living in Data, is a medium through which we attempt to understand ourselves and the world around us. In other words, "data" is about relationships, and is therefore also a verb. The title of an early chapter is I Data You, You Data Me (We All Data Together): by framing "data" as a verb, Thorp suggests that we can also make visible the power relations that the static noun version of "data" can hide. For example: Google datas us; Uber datas us. To live in today's world, therefore, is to live in data, whether one likes it or not.
Living in Data is not a how to guide. Instead, the book shines most brightly in highlighting just how messy, complex, and contingent the process of gathering, organizing, and understanding data can be. In this way, the book reawakened my sense of wonder around data. Though Excel spreadsheets or clean pandas dataframes might suggest otherwise, data never springs neatly into existence; rather, the processes of collecting and schematizing are intensely messy, physical processes. Thorp's own adventures collecting data — whether it's for art pieces or scientific research — are fascinating in themselves: he describes being airlifted into the mountains, only to be trapped by a three-day blizzard; coming face-to-face with a hippopotamus; accidentally stumbling into a minefield. He also connects his own experiences to the relationships, invisible and visible, that they rely on — for example, the extraction of knowledge from indigenous communities who often see no benefit from Western researchers who parachute in and out.
The book is peppered with gorgeous — and provocative — data visualizations, though it seems reductive to describe them as such. After fifteen months filled with line graphs and bar charts, it's refreshing to discover that there are so many more ways to illustrate and communicate with data. I almost want a book filled with his "data art" and explanations of how he arrived at them: data can tell a story just as moving, just as nuanced, as prose. For instance, one piece illustrates the territorial land occupied by the giant data centers of the big tech companies — a reminder that the frictionless experience of the tech products we use every day is not only grounded in physical reality but also dependent on the continued occupation of indigenous lands.
One of Living in Data's aims is to illustrate how we might "clos[e] the loop between data and the people from whom the data comes." We are all living in data, and while the harms of the attention economy and surveillance capitalism are certainly real, so are the ways in which we, too, might engage with data. Unlike Shoshanna Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which describes a rather pessimistic view of our agency in the data landscape, Living in Data demonstrates that data itself is not inherently exploitative or inevitably for-profit. For example, one chapter is about a participatory mapping project, done by middle schoolers and community groups in St. Louis, a project which "shifts civic data from being a resource for urban planners and academics to being an exploratory medium for everyday citizens." In another, Thorp describes how the Maori are active participants in defining how their data ought to be collected, disseminated, and used to improve their lives.
Living in Data is a work about technology which places us, citizens of today's technological world, at the center of optimism for the future. We may be data-ed by any number of corporations, but we can also reclaim our own agency for how to figure out the world.
📉 On the reductive appeal of election maps and the challenge of telling stories about uncertainty.
🎭 Reboot community member Jacky Zhao explains why context collapse exists, social media is a performance, and maybe that's all just fine. (Related: I wrote a short reflection on alt accounts as the perfect response to context collapse.)
💼 This personal essay on poverty and classism in tech is a must-read.
👨👩👦 Children exist as fodder for Twitter clout
🍎 I don’t trust anyone who uses Apple Mail by choice
💝 a closing note
I asked the Reboot community about some of their favorite data visualization projects:
Theresa: Shirley Wu is a data viz superstar, and this is literally the coolest shit I've ever seen. You can highlight relationships between different Hamilton characters & sort lyrics / songs by themes.
Anh: This project records the sounds of Wikipedia’s recent changes feed, which is strangely relaxing!
Nikhil: If I’m debating about something remotely important to society with friends I can usually bet on the answer being visualized in Our World In Data.
Arjun: I love everything that comes out of NYT's graphics department: e.g. this one on the Beirut explosion or this one on how masks work.
Discover your data,
—Jasmine & Reboot team