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Below is Part 4 of the essay/feature "Data Culture" from ARCADE's spring 2015 issue. The essay has been released online in installments. Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for notice of future posts.—ARCADE

listening post

The installation Listening Post (2001) by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin dynamically displays text fragments collected from Internet chat rooms in real-time. Rubin: "I hope people come away from this feeling the scale and immensity of human communication" (from the New York Times). Courtesy of the artists

 

From "Data Culture: Part 1: Introduction," Part 2: The Quantification of Society" and Part 3: The Cost of Data:

"Data is on the ascent. In particular, the last decade has seen the dramatic rise of data in society. There is more digital information in the world than ever before, and we create more every day. Along with the exponential increase in computer processing power, the Internet’s explosive growth is fueling this new age of information, making it ever easier to collect and share data. As a result, quantification is infiltrating seemingly all corners of the world. Things that have never been measured before are now being converted into data, including aspects of life as amorphous as our personal relationships.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Data’s rise and the effects of quantification are profoundly impacting our communities and our lives. ...

Four developments in particular characterize our current data-driven climate [big data, data journalism, social media and the Quantified Self]....

It is hard to recall any other time in history when we have been this infatuated with information and numbers. But with all the ways we capture and access new troves of data, are we becoming more knowledgeable? Or are we just processing more noninformation in search of insights that are increasingly hard to come by? Does data help us connect more with who we are as a society, or is it pulling us further apart?

While we may exuberantly welcome data’s rise for the unprecedented possibilities it brings, our new data-fueled culture is also causing psychological discomfort and societal friction. In many respects, information technology is advancing faster than society can keep up. ..."

 

Part 4: The Art and Impact of Data

The rise of data is disrupting the core of our society, impacting us deeply as both individuals and members of communities. Throughout history, frictions created as societies undergo change have spurred innovative responses in the arts. New artistic forms and statements examine the fabric of society as well as the role of the individual, and the artist, within it. The arts, and more broadly, all manner of cultural production, provide ways for society to process change. One particularly poignant example is the Italian futurist movement, which preceded the Bauhaus and modernism in its celebration of technology and the machine at the height of the industrial era. A more recent example is net art, an art form leveraging the web as a distribution channel and a response to the proliferation of the Internet. Poised as we are today at the dawn of the information era, we are witnessing the coalescence of another movement — data art.

In the coming weeks, we'll be sharing a series of posts — "Data as Narrative," "Data as Mirror," "Data as Truth," "Data as Equalizer" and "Data as Interface" — which will focus on the use of data in the arts to generate new forms of creative output as well as critique our data driven world. Despite the issues that data presents, many of the following projects represent the unexpected moments of humanity that arise from quantification. The work speaks to a shared human condition and proposes questions and observations that may help us come to terms with our changing society.

THE IMPACT OF DATA

Quantification is quietly changing the world. The new kinds of analysis made possible with data’s rise will lead to greater insight but could also result in greater predictability in all areas of life. Artist Martha Rosler writes in her contribution to the frieze article “Safety in Numbers?” that quantification is an “essential bureaucratic tool” delineating all aspects of human activity. She warns that quantification may be pushing the humanities into decline. What if the quality of TV programming was determined solely by audience share rankings? Or what if student achievement was determined on the basis of test grades alone? The insights data offers may be insufficient for the creation of meaningful cultural output, especially in those areas that are more nuanced — and human. Is the quantification of the world stifling free expression? Or, conversely, is it possible for quantification and the humanities to live side by side, even become intertwined? Could the production of data itself be a creative act? As data works its way deeper into our society, culture can be a powerful lens through which to view its impact on our changing world.

 

"Data as Narrative," the first of five posts exploring data in the arts, will release 16 June 2015:

"Data can tell stories. ...The following projects present different perspectives on data as narrative."

 

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Data Culture

Photo: Cole Benson