Data Visualization: On and Off the Screen

It’s easy to consider digital rhetoric and writing in terms of always-advancing computer technologies. This isn’t inaccurate, and keeping our fingers on the pulse regarding the rhetorical affordances of new software makes for innovative digital writing, research, and pedagogy. At the same time, however, it’s helpful to remember that digital rhetoric is more than what’s possible through recently released products.

In “Wampum as Hypertext,” Angela Haas expands our digital scope beyond the computer screen by reminding us that “[a]ll writing is digital,” as “‘digital’ refers to our fingers, our digits, one of the primary ways (along with our ears and eyes) through which we make sense of the world and with which we write into the world” (84). While computers certainly fall under the purview of digital rhetoric and writing, “the digital” isn’t limited to them, and the perceived boundary between digital and embodied rhetoric is illusory, even if such a distinction can feel intuitive.

The same goes for data visualizations, which I tend to associate with computer animations–from simple graphs to real-time, interactive texts. However, I sometimes find myself overlooking seemingly rudimentary data visualizations–those that aren’t computer generated–as well as ignoring how the delivery of such visualizations can contribute to their rhetorical effectiveness.

As a case in point, I draw attention to a video made by NumbersUSA, an “immigration-reduction” organization that claims to be pro-immigrant but commonly faces (legitimate) charges of nativism and racism. The video was produced in 2010 and hasn’t received much traffic on YouTube in the last few years, but it still circulates heavily on Facebook. I find the video troubling, yet rhetorically effective–due, in large part, to the rhetor’s use of data visualizations, and I think we–and our students–are well-served by not dismissing the strategies at play.

There’s a lot to take issue with, but I want to call out three aspects:

  1. Disconnecting numbers from people. In the video, Roy Beck, founder and president of NumbersUSA, begins his presentation by asserting, ”[P]lease remember that if immigration is a problem, the problem is not immigrants. . . . We’re sticking to numbers tonight. Good, solid, non-controversial numbers based on data and projections from the U.S. Census Bureau” (0:52-1:17). Here, Beck attempts to de-articulate immigration from immigrants, numbers from people. I think anyone working in data visualization is well served by remembering that such information can’t–or shouldn’t–be disconnected from people.
  1. Color-coding data. To make his case, Beck uses color-coded cylinders to represent immigration levels (he’s careful not to say immigrants). Color-coding information isn’t neutral, and he associates the blue cylinder with “traditional” (read: good) levels, and the red cylinder with “unsustainable” (read: bad) levels. There’s a reason Obi-Wan Kenobi’s and Darth Vader’s lightsabers are their respective colors.
  1. Implying a visualization is inherent to information. To signify increases in immigration levels, Beck adds extensions to the red cylinder. But as the top quickly becomes out of reach, he struggles to complete his task and even attempts to stand on the table–which causes the audience to gasp. “This is really kind of an unsustainable level,” he says (3:25-3:38). Luckily, there’s a ladder waiting for him on stage. In other words, he implies that the height of the cylinder inherently represents immigration levels (again, he’s careful not to say immigrants). And his argument that immigration is out of control is reinforced by a performance wherein the height of the cylinder is out of his control. The top is literally beyond his physical reach, as if the scale was non-negotiable. The “good, solid, non-controversial numbers” makes him jeopardize his physical well-being. Or so the performance implies.

In short, while associating data visualizations with computer interfaces is certainly productive, if we limit our lens to the screen, we risk overlooking the (pathetic) appeals of seemingly rudimentary, but rhetorically effective, visualizations. Expanding our scope, then, can influence what we produce as digital writers, but also what we encounter and how we process it.


Featured image credit: Monitor, Computer, Screen, Silhouettes, Network, Arrow, geralt, 2012. Public Domain. Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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