A Poetics of Data

Lifestreams (2012): description of the data expressed in a 3D printed ‘lifecharm’

Personal data is not only the traces of our actions in the world – contributed, sensed, detected and recorded online, but a yoke that is coming to define each one of us in ways that may often be beyond our ability to directly perceive. In the hands of governments and corporations it has become the means by which individuals, groups and even whole populations can be trammelled, their choices shaped or ‘nudged’ into convenient channels and pathways for ‘better’ governance and exploitation. Our world is increasingly managed by systems that collect, collate and analyse such data, to calculate statistical probabilities based on our past actions and behaviours and to infer what opportunities and permissions will or will not be made available to us.

Such systems both reinforce and are the products of the standardisation of difference and diversity into a manageable homogeneity. The logic of their engineering is to drive forwards an ever deeper vision of ‘efficiency’ into the fabric of our everyday lives – straining out that which doesn’t fit, shaving off the awkward edges. Too often it excises difference and diversity by simply refusing to acknowledge that an individual’s specific context and situation are valid parameters that require nuanced judgement in decision-making. In this way the vulnerable and excluded experience further depredations; injustices and inequality are compounded and amplified. Complexities are crudely simplified and the richness, the colourful tapestry of life is elided into a seamless standard grey weave. For some, such order may be comforting, perhaps even ideal. Yet for many, probably most of us, this is a poor bargain. A zero sum game in which we have much, if not everything, to lose.

To what part of our humanity may we look for an escape from such rigidity and reductive standardisation? For me, the answer is to make a poetics of data that can trigger a phase shift in how we might interact with it. A shift away from the familiar and ordered modes through which we are used to experiencing it on screens, via spreadsheets, tables, graphs, counters, dials or the linear waveforms of measuring devices. Poetry and poetics are time-honoured ways in which people have communicated things that are beyond just measurement – emotions, feelings, beliefs. Things which are at the very limit of description. Things which defy rationality and even reason.

I have been exploring this idea of a data poetics through digital materialisation and manifestation in projects such as Lifestreams (2012) and more recently in the Manifest Data Lab. I’ve written before in detail about the ‘tactile poetry‘ created by expressing data about our bodies into talismans that we can develop a tangible relationship with. Talismans that can act as mnemonics or reflective objects that remind us of aspects of our habits and behaviours which affect our health and wellbeing over and through time – not just in the series of fractured, fragmented moments in which we glance at the digital display on a ‘smart’ phone or watch. Like Proust’s madeleine, or the chink of a teaspoon on a saucer, they help us connect out of the mundane discontinuity of daily life into a place of reverie with ourselves.

I have also likened this approach to working with data as a form of ‘Digital Alchemy‘: treating data as a material with which to encounter the numinous and transform the self. A process that does not seek to break apart into individual bits and atoms the delicately intertwined and mutually influential patterns of matter that constitute Life; but that comes to an appreciation of the essence of the subtle forces that bind matter together. To appreciate the powerful bonds of relationships between elements that, through connection itself, provide sense and meaning to being and becoming.

Poetry – whether in the form of words, music, visual arts, performance, dance – is a portal into spaces that are beyond the sum of their parts. It is always more than the words on the page, the notes in a score, the brush strokes of a painting, the material of a sculpture, the light projected by a film, the movements of dancers. It allows us to communicate and experience feelings – innate things which are inexpressible, incalculable in themselves, yet somehow connect us and give us access to the experiences and feelings of others. A kind of dark energy perhaps, not something we can directly measure, but which is nevertheless real and pervasive. A kind of knowing that remains tacit rather than explicit. Often it resorts to ‘apophasis’ – describing what is not to indicate that which is ineffable or indescribable. Revealing presence through absence… the shape of something monstrously huge through the sublime. An incompleteness that allows us to invest its gaps and lacunae with something of ourself; an invitation to become enmeshed within a whole that is never finished, that expands as others share how they engage with it too.

It is often said that great works are the ones which we can return to, and in each encounter, find something new. Perhaps that newness is actually always already within ourselves – it is we who expand and increase in relation to the work, not the other way round. Perhaps this is why perfection is said to be abhorrent and why craftspeople through the ages have often introduced intentional flaws and irregularities into their work. A deliberate incompletion, preserving a space for the ineffable and unknowable.

But, I hear the objection raised, all this is mere metaphor. I beg to differ: it is as intrinsic a feature of conscious deliberation and action in the world, as the data manifestations we created for Lifestreams (and will be creating in our work at the Manifest Data Lab) are expressions of data – not representations of it. These are not metaphors of data, but reifications – they are the data, simply expressed in physical forms that we can experience through additional senses to those we generally use with screen-based representations. It is up to us to devise the grammars of sensory engagement that enable us to ‘read’ and make sense of our encounters with them. Some grammars could be shared, others kept private. Perhaps by learning to appreciate the data we generate through our machines in such a way, we could learn additional techniques to appreciate the way that nature encodes ‘data’ in all its organic and inorganic forms – as a living experience of perception, not only through an analytics of extraction and separation.

To create any form of poetry or art is not easy: it is not the direct or unambiguous product of straightforward rules. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the energy to create “lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed” (One Way Street). That is not to say that great craft does not require constant practice and experiment – that programmatic exercises (think of practising musical scales), rituals and habitual activities are not a fundamental part of the making. Many of these are often used to surrender oneself into a fugue state, from which the actual work may emerge. Too often, such states are elusive, fleeting and all that one is left with is the dross of making. But this dross might also become the material of a re-forged piece, worked over again and again, made and re-made until its creator judges that it has reached a state that is sufficient to share.

What do we gain from a poetics of data in addition to it’s more common articulations? A weaving together of harmony and dissonance, rhythm and inconsistency – a way of encompassing adaptation and irregularity within a transcendent whole. A way to enhance our cognitive abilities by challenging us to flex other senses in meaning-making, to enhance our capacities by widening the frames in which we encounter and engage with data.
A poetics of data is about engaging with its qualities, not just its quantities.

London, October 2019

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