Week 7 Response: Data Viz, Visuality, and Invisibility

**I can move this over to a comment if desired once our ‘weekly’ slot is posted, but I thought I’d get the ball rolling for our discussion this week 🙂

I found D’Ignazio and Klein’s paper very clear in its goals, organization, and self-reflexivity. They do a good job of applying intersectional thinking to their analysis which, as we have discussed in class, is often easier said than done. Keeping visualization in mind, I am interested in continuing to think about how situated knowledge might work to render design teams and their ideologies visible where they often are not. One place where this article most clearly dovetails with Chun’s is in the discussion of female design and production teams.

I am interested in Peter Hall’s term critical visualization, and its expansion by Marian Dörk, on which D’Ignazio and Klein write:

In both feminist HCI and critical information visualization, researchers have introduced design principles that attempt to draw attention to how knowledge resides in specific bodies (disclosure/self-disclosure, embodiment), how power is distributed throughout the design process (empowerment, advocacy, ecology) and how to include more voices and alternative perspectives in the design process, as well as the experience of the resulting artifact (participation, pluralism, plurality).

These are all principals that I strive to include in my own work. Self-disclosure is a fascinating term to meditate on in relation to DH and the body: does this mean self-disclosure of privilege and/or bias, of oppression experienced, of hiring practices, of hierarchy and ability? As someone not geographically-minded, I am excited by the possibilities presented by Mei-Po Kwan’s feminist visualization + mapping: “Her design principles include grounding mapping practices in women’s everyday lives and political struggles, as well as incorporating qualitative and narrative components into spatial representations.” While likely not literally what is meant by this, how amazing would a Google Maps extension be that tells you “Turn left at the corner where you were standing when you read the email that you got that job you wanted”? Geography is almost always emotionally bound, for me.

D’Ignazio and Klein’s “design process questions” would be so easily and vitally integrated into almost any academic or creative field. Such a simple statement that I had never really considered, but love: “Information design processes often start with data, but a feminist approach would insist that they begin by working backwards to surface the actors (both individual and institutional) that have laboured to generate a particular dataset.” Yes. Of course!

The question they pose that I’m stuck on, and would welcome anyone’s input on: “When do values often assumed to be a social good, such as “choice,” “openness,” or “access,” result in disempowerment instead?”


Two points Chun repeats that stood out most to me are that “The computer—that most nonvisual and nontransparent device—has paradoxically fostered ‘visual culture’ and ‘transparency’” (27), and that “Programming languages inscribe the absence of both the programmer and the machine in its so-called writing. Programming languages enabled the separation of instruction from machine, of imperative from action” (30).

I don’t think that Harry Reed’s assertion that “The ‘mastery’ of computing can easily be understood as ‘suffering’” (32) has gone away in recent years. Chun’s excellent discussion of whether programming is a clerical activity or an act of mastery (32) gives way to a nuanced look at the historically invisible presence of women in programming. It is curious that computing is so often gendered as a male endeavour…here Chun illuminates the ways in which Wrens and machines were treated indistinguishably, as if both women and computers exist to respond to the ‘mastery’ of a male programmer’s instruction (the description of a computer sounding “like a roomful of knitting needles” (34) is a nice nod towards the degradation of women’s work and ‘weaving’, too). In my mind, this piece speaks perfectly to McPherson’s “Why are the digital humanities so white?” in its skillful deployment of computing histories with social and cultural inequalities.


After having watched only the first episode of Lain, some of my first concerns were surrounding the tone of suicidal ideation coming from the ‘voice’ of the dead girl inside the computer. Language such as “I’ve only left my body” and “soon everyone will understand” is encouraging Lain (and other girls at her school) to kill themselves, with some promise of life in cyberspace. Would anyone like to weigh in this; has anyone watched beyond the first episode? (I admit I did read the Wikipedia page for the show…I’ll check back here later in the week).


8 thoughts on “Week 7 Response: Data Viz, Visuality, and Invisibility

  1. Great post, Kayla! I love your idea of a google maps extension – while google maps does allow to tag certain addresses as “home” and “work” and things like that, I would really like to be able to easily tag all sorts of things in ways that make sense to me. Stuff like “my favourite grocery store” and “that new coffee place I want to check out sometime” could be really useful.

    I’m not really sure how to answer the question of when things choice and openness can “result in disempowerment,” but I think they might be touching on the idea that what’s accessible to some people may be the opposite for others. Some people might like being presented with a lot of choices in an interface, for example, while other people might find that overwhelming and want to be guided down more of a linear path instead. I’d be interested to see what other people have to say about that as well.

    I was really interested in a lot of the ideas in the data visualization article as well, and I found that they were worded in ways which were accessible for me. One example was the explanation in the abstract that “Feminism is not (just) about women, but rather draws our attention to questions of epistemology – who is included in dominant ways of producing and communicating knowledge and whose perspectives are marginalized.” Feminist theory, while relevant, has never really been the main focus of my research, so my lack of knowledge of it in comparison to other academics has sometimes left me confused about why some things that don’t seem to have any direct relationship to women’s issues are considered to be feminist. That sentence answered some of my questions in a nice understandable and concise way, and the expansion on that idea in the “related work” section was helpful to me as well. I also liked the line “A feminist approach to data visualization therefore acknowledges the user as a source of knowledge in the design as well as the reception of any visual interface. The creation of knowledge is, after all, always a shared endeavor.” – it reminds me of some of what I’ve been looking into for my dissertation about Indigenous research methodologies, which also challenge typical ideas about the sources of knowledge.

    One part which raised a question for me was a part in the human computer interaction section that mentioned a relationship between that field and “talking back to street harassment.” At first I was confused about how those two things could be related, since street harassment doesn’t seem to have anything to do about computers. But their footnote points to a conference proceeding called “Hollaback!: the role of storytelling online in a social movement organization,” which seems to be a project examining the positive effects of sharing stories of street harassment online. It was interesting to see a connection there that I hadn’t initially thought about!

    I’m unfortunately having a bit of the same problem with this article as I’ve had with some of our other readings, which is that I just have no idea what this stuff they’re talking about looks like. They’re talking about visualization, but there isn’t much for the reader to see. I suppose they seem to be asking research questions before beginning a larger project, or just in hopes of inspiring more work on the subject, so maybe they don’t have the answers yet either.

    In terms of the anime, I’m also interested in the ideas it seems to be exploring about the potential to live on in the digital world after death, and I definitely want to watch more when I have the time to see what ends up happening. I think someone in this class might have already brought up the Black Mirror episode it reminded me of in some other discussion – the one in which a company uses social media profiles to reconstruct an AI version of a dead man for his grieving widow. Both episodes raise some interesting philosophical questions about to what extent a duplicate of a person is really the same person – although I’ll have to watch more of Serial Experiments Lain to see if that’s the sort of thing that’s going on there! I think Lain could also be interpreted as touching on the issue of the potential of online communities to reinforce negative ideas, such as encouraging suicide. I recommend the horror/puzzle game The Cat Lady (http://store.steampowered.com/app/253110/) to people who are interested in that!

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  2. ‘Feminist Data Visualization’, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein

    I have really enjoyed the clarity and the precise conciseness of D’Ignazio and Klein’s paper, for example in the way they offer brief descriptions of fields of studies such as Feminist Science and Technology Studies, or Feminist Human Computer Interaction. This insertion of their own work in well-defined backgrounds was extremely helpful to me, as well as the way in which they lay out the potential developments and current trends in the fields they describe, opening them up to further inquiry and research. In particular, like Kayla and Stephanie, I was also very fascinated by feminist approaches to mapping, as well as by the embodied/emotional aspects of spatial representations and experiences. (Geography is made of memories to me, and I love the idea of a Google Maps built upon that, too – even if I have to admit that there is something disturbing as well about the feeling of being tracked and surveilled that might come with it. I am thinking, for example, of when I get notifications from Google Maps asking me to ‘rate’ the places where I have been…) Cartography and mapping, however, seem to be the perfect sites of exploration of “situated knowledge”, in the way they bring together representations of the world, lived and embodied experiences of the world, and knowledge of the world.

    I have found D’Ignazio and Klein’s presentation of the Principles of Feminist Data Visualization illuminating, especially through the very clever and practical questions that they suggest, which I think could be extremely useful to inform our own practice, for example when working on our projects. I have tried to think through the question that was highlighted in Kayla’s post: “When do values often assumed to be a social good, such as “choice”, “openness”, or “access”, result in disempowerment instead?” I thought that this might have to do with the envisioning of an ‘ideal user’ or rather an ‘ideal community of users’ that D’Ignazio and Klein mention in paragraph 3.3 as an important principle of feminist visualization. They argue, “Aspiring to empowerment, then, may involve designing for and evaluating the success of a visualization at the scale of the community rather than the individual user.” This, however, could also lead to disempowerment for other users or communities, and perhaps this is what their question might be pointing to. Their reference to “choice” and how it might result in disempowerment also makes me think of the limits of categorizations they suggest in paragraph 3.1.

    Finally, I think their closing point on the importance of making labor visible is quite interestingly related to Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s ‘On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge’, for example in their reminder that “Making labor visible also has implications for fair attribution and credit for the resulting artifact, especially in light of the fact that women and other underrepresented groups have been notoriously excluded from sharing in credit for scientific work.” Chun’s historical account is very compelling, especially for how it then relates the history of programming to the relationship between hardware and software, and the tension between the invisibility of the machine and the illusion of visibility created by softwares. One term that I found key to Chun’s argument is the “suspension of disbelief” the softwares’ clear causality ensures in the users: is she arguing that we need to go beyond this “suspension of disbelief” in order to interrogate software (as an expression of ideology) and “the visual knowledge it perpetuates”?


  3. My comments on D’Ignazio and Klein’s “Feminist Data Visualization” and Chun’s” On software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge”

    I have found D’Ignazio and Klein’s articulation of the application of feminist theory to information visualization very thought-provoking, especially for what concerns questions of epistemic location. The way in which they stress the importance of the fact that “all knowledge is situated” reminded me of Homi Bhabha’s “The Location of Culture” (1994), as Bhabha, in his taking issues with the Eurocentrism of postcolonial debates, matches D’Ignazio and Klein’s challenge of power configurations. I also find interesting the fact that feminist STS – which investigate historical as well as sociocultural aspects – emerged in the 1960s-70s, around the time Cultural Studies developed. One can therefore infer that the two fields somehow influenced each other.

    Moreover, the fact that feminist STS examine perspectives of those who are marginalized by hierarchical structures made me think of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1983) where she denounces the fact that, in a postcolonial world, the non-Western subaltern must adopt Western ways of producing knowledge in order not to be marginalized and to be acknowledge by Western cultural systems. This, again, goes back to D’Ignazio and Klein’s claim that feminist theory and data visualization seeks to embrace pluralism, thus defying pretenses to universalism. In addition, I have associated the fact that the subaltern cannot speak (unless in the terms of the oppressor) and thus stays invisible, to the necessity for feminist data visualization of making labour (and especially those underrepresented groups behind it) visible.

    Speaking of subaltern marginalized subjects, I liked how Chun’s article exposes the relation between invisible labour and transparent computers. Even if during World War Two almost all programmers were women, the stories of those women have often been repressed in standard //his//tories of computing. They were much more than computational machines, as they interpreted and put data together, and yet they are often categorized as the subaltern, as the operator answering “yes, sir” to every command they received from their male superiors. Most of them thus remained transparent, invisible – so how “transparent” can narratives of computing be considered? Or should we say that they are rather opaque?

    Lastly, I have found Chun’s remark that software can be regarded as a form of culture, of ideology, for it makes certain invisible forces visible (by concealing/erasing others) very on point. Hence, it is important to situate not only knowledge, but also softwares, as they, too, can articulate hegemonic configurations.


  4. Thanks for getting the conversation started, Kayla!

    I’ll add my thoughts to yours, entered around the following excerpt:

    “As our machines increasingly read and write without us, as our machines become more and more unreadable, so that seeing no longer guarantees knowing (if it ever did), we the so-called users are offered more to see, more to read. The computer—that most nonvisual and nontransparent device—has paradoxically fostered ‘visual culture’ and ‘transparency.’” (Chun 27)

    This week’s readings have got me thinking about unseen labour and design and have led to a series of thought-bursts.

    I wonder why we don’t see any transparent laptops? You know, like those purple gameboys:


    I don’t think it’s a question of sales. If memory serves, the see-through purple ones were *highly* coveted items and were almost always sold out (much to my younger brother’s dismay).

    There’s something crucial about framing computers as essentially “whole,” rather than made up of parts — as polished units: always already finished things. Objects that are designed to hide the craft put into producing them. The cost (social and environmental, too) and labour of production. The screws and wired and boards are kept carefully hidden — even Apple spends a tons of “resources” on softening the shape of the aluminum shell that keeps our MacBooks together. But to what end? What exactly is the message that’s being signalled?

    The conflation of information with transparency (as Chun points out in Baudrillard’s analysis) has perhaps begun to become more challenged in areas like “big data” (where bigger is usually construed as means better, but really means “better if you have the right tools and methodologies), but still remains rather opaque in the field of tech design.

    If tech industries are trying to sell us the future by constantly marketing their products as “the latest” — what about the future of tech is necessarily opaque in terms of design, in terms of human (or, more like human-lead, machine handled) labour. The Mac book I’m currently typing on looks and feels as though it just magically poofed into this word. I have to blink twice and stare hard past the beautifully polished shell to recall and imagine the complex, human-built world of glass, plastic, and metal.

    Like cyborgs, we treat tech as an extension of the body (anyone who has left their mobile at home knows the feelings of loss and confusion that lingers before finally reuniting). In fact, there is even a service in Europe that will “tattoo” your Macbook, that is, laser-cut patterns into the top aluminum shell for but a small fortune! But I digress.

    Nowadays, a sleek website means a minimalist website —and yet anyone who has ever actually tried to code a “clean” and “minimal” site knows just how much labour goes into crafting one. You spend as much time hiding your labour as you do labouring. Here “narratives of labour” (Introduction 5) is perhaps where a conversation of literacy comes into play — code literacy, that is, where “literacy” is always based on standards that rely on a particular criteria generated by a particular group: a system that others others, whether it be for class, gender, or perceived race.

    But is code literacy made widely available and accessible enough?

    My technical question for this week: How to parse D’Ignazio and Klein’s 6 steps towards Feminist Data Viz with minimalist/sleek websites and tech?


  5. @Kayla

    I would like to answer your comment about Serial Experiments Lain first, and sincerely apologize because when I sent it to Susan I forgot to mention it could be a bit « harsh » (sorry I do not know any better word in English to describe the feeling it can provoke) on certain points. The opening scenes are indeed focused on suicide, and mey be perceived as a positive representatio of the act. But the next episodes move from this subject, and the schoolgirl’s suicide is — I guess — a way to start to introduce the possibilities offered by the machine (« Navi ») and also to create tension in the main plot (because the story is really fragmented and has several layers). I am sorry if I sound so vague, but I am convinced this anime is a really good piece and I don’t want to spoil ! If you want to keep on watching the season despite your first mixed feelings, you’ll see that Lain actually rediscovers life through other of online reality. I am ready to develop my point about the anime tomorrow, but first I want to see with you to what extend I can spoil.

    About Chun’s article >

    I found this text highlighting both regarding our everyday behaviour with digital tools and our way to construct reality and construct knowledge in general.
    The anthropological, cognitive and psychological analysis of human-machine interactions stroke me, as well as the derivated concept of « user pleasure ». When the author talks about the sensation of power that can be provided by programming and seing your commands executed by the machine reminded me of Balsmo’s comparison between digital tools and land conquest. It seems that there is always a complex relation of domination/submission happening whenever interactivit happens. This relation of power is also inherent to the relational frame of humans involved in machine designing (as explained in the first part).

    Another attractive concept was Laurel’s « causal pleasure », because I guess it is something deeply rooted in Philosophy and Epistemology, since Hume already theorized the effects of causal constructions in human spirit and the ever-present need of what he calls « necessary connexion ». The text naturally follows with the idea of « fetishistic logic » and the link between semiotics and our perception of software, that are desperately trying to imitate our “physical”, already-known environment.
    These are things we almost never think or at least never talk about, but that appear obviously important when « unveiled » by theory. It eventually makes me wonder about the future of the young yet promising alliance between Anthropology/Human Sciences and Programming.
    (on this topic I would like to share a personal reflexion: when I read this kind of article, I really wish that my friend who is in his first year of User Design degree could teleport himself and attend one of our classes)

    The couple unveiling/concealing echoes Tara McPherson’s words, but also my reading about film theory. Yet I do not think that watching a movie and experiencing a software/exploring visualized data can be easily connected.
    I find the parallel between software and ideology very telling since they both are tools. However I think that their respective influence upon individuals cannot be so closely compared that easily. It is very discussable, but I guess that software are more discreet, and much more related to intuition and immediate reactivity, thus taking part in an individual and very personal experience. Meanwhile, the ideology is more structural and part of a collective movement.

    I just wanted to end the idea of creating your own programming language. During the reading week I found this project that is related:
    (unfortunately my knowledge of programming does not allow me to fully catch what is at stake in there)

    Note: Sorry it is far past 12pm, but I just realized my comment has not been sent correctly the first time I tried to publish it.


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