The Data Sublime

The Observable Universe

In February 2014 Marina Jirotka and I met as participants at Blast Theory’s annual two day seminar, Act Otherwise. That year’s theme was “The Invisible Hand: On Profiling and Personalisation”, exploring many issues around the generation and use of “Big Data” in artworks and by artists as well as more generally in culture and society. We found ourselves sharing a healthy skepticism about the way “Big Data”, number-crunching and data visualisation are often presented as a ‘final’ and over-arching narrative to understanding modern life; as an “end to theory”. We both found this triumphalist narrative – that data-driven computation can comprehensively explain everything – to be troubling and misguided, especially as it seemed to be spreading across many other disciplines and fields of practice. The implication that both research and culture could thus be transformed into quantifiable commodities to be analysed and neatly compartmentalised purely by computational means was another major concern.

At the seminar I presented the Lifestreams data manifestation project (2012) which demonstrated how we could use our senses of touch and proportion to engage people with otherwise abstract and ephemeral information being collected about their life patterns and behaviours. The project also offered an alternative vision to the emerging “Quantified Self” and Internet of Things narratives in which complex human behaviours are often reduced to a set of data-driven variables that can be processed from sensor data. This also seemed to be an Orwellian vision that promised all kinds of benefits on the basis of a worryingly narrow perspective.

After the seminar, Marina invited me to Oxford to speak to her research group in Human Centred Computing about the Lifestreams project and my work in general. From there we began a conversation and collaboration that has continued over the past five years; most recently resulting in the UnBias Fairness Toolkit – my contribution to the two year UnBias research project (of which Marina was a Co-Investigator). We also developed two proposals that were not realised, but which coalesced some key ideas and thinking which have never-the-less flowed into other projects and activities. Both proposals revolved around ideas I was beginning at the time to crystallise – reciprocal entanglement and the data sublime. An early proposal in 2014 addressed Big Data and the Quantified Self via the data sublime, whilst the other (in 2017) focused on issues at the heart of developing Quantum Technologies. Marina’s research group is a part of the NQIT Hub, conducting studies into Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the quantum field. Whilst I have since written about reciprocal entanglement in relation to quantum technologies, the ideas behind the data sublime remained unpublished in proposal documents. The purpose here is to bring them out into the light as they have a renewed relevance to the new project I am embarking on (Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change).

The Data Sublime

The category of the sublime in literary theory and aesthetics refers to encounters with phenomena that are excessive – too much to handle – and which inspire awe or dread in the subject. What renders the experience sublime is our ability to, nevertheless, address this vastness or dreadfulness and to incorporate it into a perceptual register for meaning or sense-making. It has been a hugely important and influential category of perception in the Humanities for almost three centuries – as well as having roots in Roman-era Greek philosophy (Longinus’ On the Sublime, 1st century AD). Edmund Burke was one of the earliest English philosophers to write about it (in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756), followed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764), then Arthur SchopenhauerGeorg Hegel, Rudolf Otto and others since (notably Jean-François Lyotard).

What the sublime offers us is a conceptual mechanism by which we can recuperate an almost overwhelming encounter with things which are too massive or complex to calculate, measure or fully comprehend. It allows us to make sense, to make meaning of an encounter with the ungraspable. It describes an ontological encounter that transforms something from being numinous (or unknowable) into something phenomenological – which we can incorporate into a narrative experience and a type of knowledge. Joseph Addison’s description in 1704, “The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror” (from Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703), captures the internal ambiguities of the sublime – that horror can be at all agreeable – which make it such a powerful perceptual register of recuperating the excessive. Such a rupture and intertwining of perceptual and critical abilities within a person’s consciousness could, perhaps, be figured as a form of entanglement between oppositional states and phenomena – the sublime being the moment of awareness of the entanglement itself. It is, of course, always relational between the person and the thing they are encountering.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data, Algorithmic Decision-Making are the latest issues du jour, about which we are so often told that the data is too big to understand, the algorithms too complex to represent and the decision-making processes too opaque to be grasped by mere humans. Might it be possible for us to make sense and meaning of such vast quantities of data and computational processes in ways that affect our social and cultural aspirations for society beyond the purely instrumental? We could consider the speed and quantity of the data being generated, both individually and societally, as a monumental encounter. Such an encounter could then be approached as moment of the ‘data sublime’; an encounter where artistic practice may offer us alternative opportunities to assimilate and make meaning from it.

What do Arts & Humanities offer?

Art and aesthetics offer different ways to conceive of what happens in complex encounters than those utilised by the sciences. When you encounter a work of art, it is the experience itself which determines your aesthetic reaction to the piece. It could be one of awe, delight, revulsion or indifference – whatever it is, it is driven by similar complex factors. Each person’s own aesthetic experience is affected by the use of materials, colour, scale, lighting, sense of space and proportion as well as by their own memory, critical thought and emotion. There can be no right or wrong aesthetic experience: each person experiences a work of art in relation to the summation of their own existence.

The methodologies and critical analyses from the arts and humanities, such as aesthetics and categories like the sublime, offer alternative ways to develop new ways of realising knowledge from data and computational systems through encounters that work on multiple senses, not just via sight and sound as most contemporary technologies currently deliver it. We don’t just have to simplify and summarise data in linear ways to make it easier to represent visually on a screen (e.g. in a chart or diagram), we can also use our other senses – touch, sense of scale and balance, taste, smell, hearing, time and temperature. The data sublime in artistic encounters allows for multiple sensorial engagements, where we are reciprocally entangled in the possibility for meaning making with the work itself, through our own consciousness. It is a route away from the reductive reasoning of standardisation, quantification and calculation that lead to probabilistic and statistical interpretations. Instead it is a route to knowledge that reinserts key human qualities of judgement and imagination that can encompass the kinds of ambiguity, diversity and the unknowable that would be routinely excised from analytical systems based on quantification alone.

Evolving technologies such as Quantum computing and AI – topics of extraordinary complexity and subtlety – run counter to mundane understandings of the phenomenal world and stretch the limits of human perception. The intangible, counter-intuitive nature or sheer vastness of the science makes it hard for people to grasp, and yet so exciting in its implications for the future. The complexity and interdependence of planetary life and natural systems (such as climate) is another sphere that often seems overwhelming in terms of the scales involved. Modelling climate systems alone require some of the most complex computational methods and powerful resources. How people can make sense of such data, often geographically and experientially remote, is one of the key challenges of our age.

The MDECC project will be attempting to explore ways in which artistic expressions of data into physical manifestations (sculptures, installations and inhabitable spaces) might offer new ways for people to make sense of such remote phenomena and connect it to their own lived experiences. In this way we will be exploring the affordances of a data sublime to make climate science accessible in ways it has not been before.

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