Visualizations Trapped behind Glass?

I’ve been noticing various visualizations around me on the web constantly since we started discussing them in class. Since we’ve begun talking about visual representations, I haven’t even been able to keep track of all of the things that have run past my screens that seemed relevant.

When I think about reading chapter 4, “Infinite Interconnectedness” of Lima’s Visual Complexity, I compare the experience of looking a printed book to being able to explore a visualization online. In this chapter, Lima presents a portfolio of network visualization projects that tracked a variety of data sets, from blog activity to terrorist cells.

Lima mentions the Digital Dark Age in his introduction, and how he found it easier to gain access to a 12th century illustration than a visualization produced in 2001. So I understand that this book, or this chapter, may in many ways be an attempt to archival snapshot of visualization work. However, as I examined chapter 4, I kept wondering why one would produce this kind of object–essentially a collection of photographs, or two-dimensional fixed images in print of these visualizations that otherwise would contain, display and make available much more information in whatever form these visualizations were originally released–on the web, etc. To me looking at this chapter felt a bit like seeing a still from a film: when you haven’t seen the full feature, you just can’t grasp the whole thing from one image alone. I really wanted to be able to view these objects both closely and from afar, in ways that I think would have been more manipulate-able online.* If visualizations are tools, then would seeing a photo of a hammer or a paintbrush really give you the sense of the full spectrum of its abilities?

I really liked Maureen Stone’s piece, “Information Visualization: Challenge for the Humanities,” in relation to examining the chapters of Lima’s book that were portfolio-like. Stone writes a bit about the history of visualization and also its key elements: color, and the materials that make up visualizations (i.e. paper, screens, etc.). Stone talks about the way that reproduction on an offset press affected map making. Acknowledging that map makers were influenced by the methods through which their maps were printed  is not something that we’ve talked about in class when we looked at printed maps–but understanding how these items were constructed, from concept to the page, might assist our understanding of what these items are and all the hands that helped them come into being. I think the same is true for born-digital works: understanding how they are constructed can aid our appreciation of their form.

Talking more about color and construction of visualizations as printed objects, software, jpegs, or apps also pokes at the underbelly of materiality in all of these visualizations, and my qualms with Lima’s book–how could his representations of each project really capture the piece effectively, when such a radical transformation happens from morphable pixels to the page? Isn’t this book merely presenting a snapshot, or a tiny portion of each piece?

I’m interested in what you all thought as you were reading and viewing Lima’s work: can a printed book really capture the essence of these three dimensional visualizations, and if not, why might this book still be important?

*I know Lima also has an accompanying website–I wonder if how this might have been used or promoted differently in the book?

About Alycia Sellie

Alycia Sellie is the Associate Librarian for Collections at the Graduate Center Library.
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