Let’s say you’ve just been convicted of a crime, and a judge is now deciding what your sentence should be. 10 years? 2 years ? Parole? Would this process be less susceptible to bias if an software could review various factors and produce an algorithmically generated recommendation for the judge? Cathy O’Neil’s new book, Weapons of Math Destruction, examines the risks of trusting proprietary software with life-altering decisions. (BR)
A few months ago, we began the early stages of re-conceptualizing the visuals for a project dedicated to preserving women’s intellectual history. How could we make this information more dynamic, more interactive, more collaborative? And, in turn, how could we make sure that this important, yet often unacknowledged history, becomes and remains a vital part of our educational standards? It’s an exciting project, for sure, but it’s also a project that reminds us that some histories aren’t as heralded as others. Names, faces, thoughts, and ideas. Movements, collectives, discoveries, and innovations. All of them here, many of them forgotten. Their works and their creations have either been relegated to footnotes, or continued on in our consciousness completely divorced from their makers.
The project’s director, New School professor Gina Luria Walker, noted in an interview with Broadly: “It’s too easy to blame the media, or blame big business, or capitalism, or white men. The issue is ancient. It is primordial.”
Simply: we don’t know these names because no one has ever told us that we needed to. But what if, from the very beginning, these names weren’t unearthed discoveries, but readily accessible knowledge? That knowledge has to come from somewhere, and it needs to start early.
Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of reading Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (Ten Speed Press) written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky. I suppose, that on its face, it may seem like a children’s book— it’s colorful, vividly illustrated, and contains short, easily digestible biographies of fifty women in science—it actually is perfect for the budding science-lover in your household. It would be a mistake to think that it’s only for kids, though (as evidenced by the excited ooohs and aaahs heard around the office when the book arrived). Honestly, how many us know the remarkable Annie Easley who, despite being subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow south, went on the become a NASA engineer whose work formed the foundations for space shuttle launches? Or the work of particle physicist Sau Lan Wu who, against her father’s wishes, applied to college and later led one of the teams instrumental in observing the Higgs boson? For these names to become more recognizable, they need to be written about, read about, and spoken about by people of all ages. We can’t remember what we’ve never known.
One of my favorite images in Ignotofsky’s book is an illustration titled “More Women in Science,” where she highlights eight additional women and provides short bios for each. But it’s the ninth figure on the page that gets me. She leaves this one in shadow, mysterious—”The next great scientist could be you!” she writes. That gets to the heart of it; these biographies do more than uncover history, they make inroads for the future. It’s not important to keep these names alive just because it’s the right thing to do (it is), it’s important because knowing them could mean the difference between a kid seeing the possibilities and, well, not. Women in Science is an important book to hand to a kid because they need to know—as soon as possible—that history includes all of us. It’s also an important book to keep for yourself because, sometimes, whatever your age, you might need a reminder of that fact, too.
In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.
Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.
In their new book, Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.
As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:
Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.
Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.
Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.