Critical Writing: Lucifer Effect in Social Media (Cyber homogenization & violence)

By wanyi

I never used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram before, one main reason is my friends almost do not have this social software, and are not being allowed to. Correspondingly, for the social interactive needs, we use Sina Blog and Wechat. But what I want to talk about is not network firewall. I want to bring about such a change today from such a new Internet that is not suited to this era. In particular, what kinds of problems and challenges have arisen from the various revolutionary changes brought about by Social Media and Social Network? And those things we are going to prepare, our society is ready (in a worldwide range)? Maybe we are not ready, are not we all imaginary about the constructive imagination in each of us all?

Network Information environment offers us a more transparent and malleable culture form. (Benkler, Y., 2006) Like every new thing is faced with the subversion or collapse of civilization, the social network changed us from information collection. When I was little, my parents and I gathered information and news from the newspaper, they are boring, with limitation, but in some perspective, trustful.(We may not see everything from it, but what we already saw is real.) Right now, since the explosion of social media, people have more channels to accept news and information, they think it’s great to get diversity views. However, depends on their social circle, people would like to interact with somebody who has the same values. In this pattern, information from social media with bias and subjective, sometimes even made up.

The more serious situation is when people get into reading, thinking, it causes discussion. A discussion in social media mostly plays around with the same circle called” The echo-chamber”. The echo-chamber effect is a condition arising in an online community where participants find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, thus reinforcing a certain sense of truth that resonates with their individual belief systems. Participants within online collaborative spaces will always act in human ways: that is, people will gravitate toward and will be more comfortable communicating with those who share their ideas, conceptions of the truth, cultures and communication styles.(McRae, P., 2010) People have the autonomy to choose the channels of information, but individual choices with emotions and positions still lead to the homogenization of information. More adapt to social identity and carve them into a “safe place”. (Baym, N. K., & Boyd., D, 2012) An importance sense of community with a network and overlapping social ties.

Even though this situation is not such serious apparently, it reminds me to think of Hannah Arendt’s talk about people began to lose the ability to judge independently, do things what themselves cannot believe. (Arendt, H., 2005) Same as The Lucifer Effect in real life, the digital interactive of homogeneous network environment could cause cyber violence in a potential damage.

In China, one typical cyber violence called: Human Flesh Search(HFS), is a type of collective online action aimed at finding with certain events and Publication of collective online actions related to the specifics of targeted individual facts. It related to tracking and posting may help to solve a crime or disclose someone who is allegedly engaged in the corrupt or unethical behavior. (Ong, 2012) But it’s more serious currently, the public can do almost anything in a cyber environment to support or discredit individuals, even beyond the moral threshold. Even more frightening is that they are real user groups, not bots.

For people who violate morality without breaking the law, society informality punishes them by the Internet. When we talk about punishment, there are roughly two kinds of sanctions in the civilized society now: One is to punish a criminal in the state system by law; The other type of punishment is social informality, which imposes a punishment through various social rules. What needs to aware is the second one’s rule is subjective and sometimes arbitrary. Because of the homogeneity of social media, people’s voices are actually self-protection or self-noble embodiment, they depend on social media as a board platform, do justice. However, what I am thinking is the fair of compensation. When public use Internet to spy on people’s privacy, nobody considers who should do it, who has the right to do that critic and at the same time, in what way. In the end, the result can be unexpected. Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon in The New Yorker in 1993 once said “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (Steiner 1993). Through the current Internet, even dog would not have privacy.

Ironically, the physical reasons why people judge crucially on the Internet is similar to massacre behavior in real life.

Firstly, they believe the responsibility could be separate to each person, that means they do not break the law, and it’s hard to figure who should take that responsibility, in some range, they are faced the pressure of majorities, neutral also embodies the attitude of support here (Jensen, R., 2008)

Secondly, they believe they are one of the “noble” community, a justice behavior of words and deeds will have more supporters from society since everyone wants to be ethnic. Thus, bringing self-satisfaction to people.

Furthermore, they have the obligation to speak freely(power). More than these, Internet blurs each person’s identity, makes them could not directly face the target people. Physically, let them express boldly.

Pathetically, this is not a social media or Internet problem, but rather digital media that exposes social issues. So, except understand the function of algorism and logical for prevent being taken advantage by the commercial and political community, at any time, keep an eye on the environment and society in which we live.



Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1-18.

Arendt, H. (2005). Responsibility and judgment. Random House Digital, Inc..

McRae, P. (2010). Forecasting the future over three horizons of change. ATA Magazine, (90), 4. Magazine/Volume 90/Number4/Pages/Forecasting-the-Future-Over-Three-Horizons-of-Change.aspx

Baym, N. K., & Boyd, D. (2012). Socially mediated publicness: An introduction. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media56(3), 320-329.

Ong, R. (2012) “Online Vigilante Justice Chinese Style and Privacy in China,” Information and Communications Technology Law 21(2): 127–45.

Jensen, R. (2008). The myth of the neutral professional. Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive librarian, 89-96.

Steiner, P. (1993) “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog,” New Yorker, 5 July, (accessed 25 February 2015).

Critical Data Studies (CDS)

By chinos

The article for this critical review was by Andrew Lliadis and Federica Russo, they address the topic of Critical Data Studies (CDS). CDS is an emerging research segment in the field of data. According to Lliadis and Russo,“The nascent field of CDS is a formal attempt at naming the types of research that interrogate all forms of potentially depoliticized data science and to track the ways in which data are generated, curated, and how they permeate and exert power on all manner of forms of life.” (Lliadis, Russo, 2014). With data being a hot topic in our society today it is not hard to see why CDS is an important topic to address. Whether it be testing to see how valid current data research approaches  are or to debunk them and move on to other potential research methods. The article opens with a clear and necessary explanation of the relevance of data “Data are a form of power. Organizations own vast quantities of user information and hold lucrative data capital (Yousif, 2015), wield algorithms and data processing tools with the ability to influence emotions and culture (Gillespie, 2014; Kramer et al., 2016; Striphas, 2015), and researchers invoke data in the name of scientific objectivity while often ignoring that data are never raw but always ‘‘cooked’’ (Gitelman, 2013).The article also touched upon references to Big Data and to put the Big Data into context as defined by Boyd and Crawford  “We define Big Data as a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of: (1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets. (2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims.(3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.” (Boyd & Crawford,  2012)

In the field of information, most data that had been generated, used and archived in the past by the institutional powers that once were and were generally accepted, are now coming under scrutiny for the recognition of concealed biased nature of information or lack of inclusivity of all stakeholders in the ecosystem, making such old assemblages questionable and rejected in some circles. Assemblages being defined  as “Assemblages is a concept that helps capture the multitude of ways that already-composed data structures inflect and interact with society, its organization and functioning, and the resulting impact on individuals’ daily lives.”(Lliadis, Russo, 2014) With the increase connectivity in human networks  and globalization due to social platforms, the need to have data that is accepted based on inclusivity and transparency of generation is in growing demand and becoming the standard of the future. CDS is an attempt to get a better understanding at data without the influences of the predominate powers that once influenced most. The hope is that data that is deemed acceptable and trustworthy can help move forward the various fields of application this data can be harnessed and deployed in. This is very important as the credibility of the entire field rest on this progress.

The push for CDS stems from this critic of data along the lines of  including issues related to politics, ethics, and epistemology.”(Lliadis, Russo, 2014)  To help build the case for CDS, lliadis and Russo, expand upon the current explorations where CDS is currently being applied and the intentions hoped to be gained they explain “CDS has covered a wide area of communications inquiry, including data power issues in social media, apps, the Internet, web, and platforms, but also and equally importantly statis tics, policy, research, and organization.” (lliadis, Russo, 2014)

Should CDS continue to gain traction there are challenges it might face as it tries to rise as a credible source of data research validator since what CDS specifically is, is still not fully defined or understood by researchers in the data field. As as  an emerging field of data study ”‘what does a critical data studies look like?’’ Kitchin and Lauriault (2014) offered an answer to Dalton and Thatcher’s question and proposed that CDS should study ‘‘data assemblages,’’ that is ‘‘the technological, political, social and economic apparatuses and elements that constitutes and frames the generation, circulation and deployment of data.”  Also part of the challenges CDS is up against is to make its case as to what special contribution it can make that warrants its seclusion from the general study of data. As interestingly pointed out in the article “As Dalton et al. (2016) note, CDS might offend researchers who point out that all forms of research are critical and create a false separation between critical theory and data science. As such, CDS continues to remain an inclusive field that is open to self-critique and dialog, itself politicized in its quest to politicize Big Data.”  

In reviewing the article, looking at how CDS compares to other research study approaches that exist around social sciences and information was considered as a way to gauge how far off or similar CDS is to other research practices.  For instance comparing it to the approaches in Mcgrath’s article, Methodology matters: Doing research in the behavioral and social sciences. According to Mcgrath “The meaning of research evidence of any area of science is inherently tied to the means or methods by which that evidence was obtained. Hence to understand empirical evidence, its meaning and its limitation. Requires that you understand the concepts and techniques on which that evidence is based” and Mcgrath’s main points are summarized saying: (a)Results depend on methods. All methods have limitations. Hence, any set of results is limited.(b) It is not possible to maximize all desirable features of method in anyone study; tradeoffs and dilemmas are involved.
(c) Each study (each set of results) must be interpreted in relation to other evidence bearing on the same questions.” (Mcgrath, E. (1995). Another research work comparing to compare CDS to is Kincheloe and McLaren’s work on Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. They discuss and point out how “A critical social theory is concerned in particular with issues of power and justice and the ways that the economy; matters of race, class, and gender; ideologies; discourses; education; religion and other social institutions; and cultural dynamics interact to construct a social system.”(Kincheloe & McLaren 2002). In looking at these research methodologies there are similarities to the fundamentals CDS looks to address however there is still a sense of relevance and credibility that still needs to be established with CDS. A suggestion has been for CDS to tackle long term projects as mentioned by lliadis and Russo,“What need to be established are long-term projects that take up specific challenges in CDS by proposing critical investigations into Big Data assemblages.”  Topics that have been of concern to researchers in CDS include food agriculture, governmental, Health and even socio technical problems the article further mentions “Beyond humanitarian social data problems, sociotechnical systems that populate the worlds of economics, finance, and the stock market pose a significant challenge to CDS due to their closed, inaccessible nature.” They also make reference upon Christiaens research “Building on the work of Maurizio Lazzarato, Christiaens provides a critical take on human–machine interaction, arguing that the high-speed data-driven nature of financial markets subjectivize traders in preconscious ways due to their inability to keep apace with automated transactions Christiaens argues that CDS must consider processes of digital subjectivation and subjugation that occur when Big Data science is applied to socio- technical systems that are governed by humans and machines.”


Lliadis and Russo finish the article by sharing their views on CDS principles “In our view, CDS follows three basic principles derived from this broadly Aristotelean approach: the identification of social data problems, the design of critical frameworks for addressing social data problems, and the application of social solutions to increase data literacy. These three simple principles allow for a collective learning experience where critical approaches can be put to use in specific contexts. CDS should strongly emphasize an applied and participatory approach to learning and view interaction as an important part of the applied learning process.” Lliadis and Russo conclude acknowledging the importance of CDS being inclusive and equipping the users with the right tools for educating themselves. “The application of social solutions to increase data literacy and justice involves effecting change by conducting research and sharing that research and the activities that might grow out of it with the public. Importantly, CDS should provide individuals with the necessary tools for becoming more informed and the ability to organize efforts around data justice issues.” (lliadis, Russo, 2014)


To conclude, data is here to stay and is growing into all the areas of our lives. With the role data now plays in society, there must be more efforts in evaluating  data and in some acceptable way from all stakeholders. While CDS intentions of initiating a more rigorous approach seem to be logical and on the right track, it is still a young practice yet to truly be tried in the data field, its current siloed practice across different fields is also still yet to prove if this is a strength or weakness for its possible implementation and standardization. At the end there is admiration for such an initiative to critically analyze and critic data in a manner that is considerate to those that use it.



Iliadis, A., & Russo, F. (2016). Critical data studies: An introduction. Big Data & Society, 3(2), 2053951716674238.


Dalton, Taylor and Thatcher (2016) Critical data studies: A dialog on data and space. Big Data & Society 3(1): 1–9

Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, communication & society, 15(5), 662-679.


Kincheloe, J. L., & McLaren, P. (2002). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. Ethnography and schools: Qualitative approaches to the study of education, 87-138.


Mcgrath, E. (1995). Methodology matters: Doing research in the behavioral and social sciences. In Readings in Human-Computer Interaction: Toward the Year 2000 (2nd ed.

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Event Attendance: Diversity Seen in Hollywood Costumes

By Kcalnan

On Wednesday November 8th, 2017 I had the pleasure of attending a lecture presented by the SLA New York Diversity Committee. The lecture “Diversity Seen in Hollywood Costumes: Collecting, Curating, and Librarianship” featured guest lecturer John Davey. Not only is Mr. Davey the Library Manager at the law firm of Alston & Bird LLP, he is also an avid collector of vintage Hollywood costumes, vintage fashion, and Haute couture. After 18 years of collecting, Mr. Davey has become an expert in his genre of collecting and pieces from his collection have been exhibited throughout the U.S., France, Japan, and Korea. He displayed and discussed eight costumes from his personal collection:

  • Katharine Hepburn’s silver dress from “Desk Set” (1957)
  • Rock Hudson’s beige jacket from “Send Me No Flowers” (1964)
  • Ramon Navarro’s Navy jacket from “The Midshipman” (1925)
  • Salma Hayek’s red velvet dress from “Frida” (2002)
  • Penelope Cruz’s white flower dress from “Elegy” (2008)
  • Lana Turner’s pink dress from “Imitation of Life” (1959)
  • Halle Berry’s sparkle gown from “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999)
  • Eddie Murphy’s silver suit from “Dreamgirls” (2006)

IMG_20171108_181243290    IMG_20171108_181231358

Mr. Davey shared the curatorial aspects of his collection: how he acquires his costumes, how he determines the condition of each piece, how he verifies the authenticity of each item, and how he preserves the costumes. His lecture highlighted how each of the eight pieces represented diversity in Hollywood costumes. Mr. Davey selected Katharine Hepburn’s dress because it was featured in “Desk Set,” a film about an intelligent woman working in the library field. Since Katharine Hepburn was a Caucasian woman, her status as a librarian reflects the lack of diversity that we still see in the information field today. Rock Hudson’s jacket represents homosexuality, particularly because he was the first big star to die as a result of AIDS. His sexual orientation was hidden by Hollywood to uphold his image as a “heartthrob.” Ramon Navarro’s jacket represents diversity because he was Mexican and homosexual. His sexual orientation was also hidden by Hollywood in order to uphold the positive studio image as well as his image as a “heartthrob.” Salma Hayek’s dress represents Hispanic actresses and lesbians. The film “Frida” was about Frida Kahlo, who was married to Diego Rivera, but had lesbian interactions within the film and throughout her personal life. Penelope Cruz’s dress highlights race and age diversity. Not only is Cruz Hispanic, but in “Elegy” there was nearly a 40-year age difference between her character and her character’s boyfriend.  Lana Turner’s dress was another piece from Mr. Davey’s collection that represented race diversity. Turner was a Caucasian woman, however the movie “Imitation of Life” highlighted difficult race relations. Turner’s character befriends an African American woman and audience witnesses the struggles of Black America in the 1950s. Halle Berry is an African American actress who portrayed Dorothy Dandridge. Dandridge was the first African American actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and Berry was the first African American actress to actually win Best Actress. Eddie Murphy’s suit represents African American males and race relations. The film “Dreamgirls” was set during the Civil Rights Movement and expressed racial tensions during that period.

Using eight costumes, Mr. Davey represented a diverse group of actors, actresses, races, race-relations, age groups, time periods, and sexual orientations. He did an acceptable job including as much diversity as possible throughout his presentation. Unfortunately, two aspects of his presentation detracted from his efforts to highlight diversity. The first aspect was that all eight of the costumes, particularly those from actresses, represented “ideal” body types. For example, there were no costumes representing plus-size actresses. Each dress, with the exception of Salma Hayek’s dress, was designed to fit a petite hourglass figure. Hayek’s dress appeared to fit a bit more loosely, but in the film it fit her perfectly. I would have preferred to see more body types represented among the costumes. The second aspect of Mr. Davey’s costumes that detracted from the diversity was that there were no culturally diverse costumes. Although “Frida” was a culturally diverse film, the costume did not specifically highlight cultural diversity. I would have enjoyed viewing a costume from another culture, particularly since Hollywood produces a multitude of movies that focus upon other cultures.

Mr. Davey’s presentation was educational and entertaining, yet I felt that it could have included more facets of diversity. Although Hollywood’s image may be a far cry from the image of libraries, the presentation reminded me of Jennifer Vinopal’s article “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” She invites readers to look critically at culture and suggests being aware of the impact of bias, privilege, and power differentials in the library field, a concept which I applied to Hollywood costumes. In Hollywood, the sexual orientations of Rock Hudson and Ramon Navarro were hidden in order to maintain their images as “heartthrobs.” This reflects the impact of bias, privilege, and power differentials in Hollywood because the studios utilized their power and privilege to present actors as heterosexual, despite being homosexual. The studios maintained this biased image since it was more profitable than featuring homosexual actors. Vinopal also asked, “How much ‘valuing diversity’ does the organization need to demonstrate in order for staff from the dominant culture to perceive it as sufficient?” (2016, Jan. 13) The “organization,” in this case Mr. Davey, felt that his representation of diversity was sufficient for his presentation. The “staff,” meaning the audience and myself in particular, felt that the diversity he presented was insufficient and could have been expanded upon. I would have enjoyed seeing more representation of body types and diverse cultures. I do not have the advantage of knowing the extent of Mr. Davey’s collection, but it is possible that he compiled the most diverse pieces that he owns. Since the presentation was created using his personal collection, the collection solely reflects Mr. Davey’s interests. If he is not interested in cultural diversity or body type diversity, logically they would not be included in his collection or presentation. Despite the two facets of diversity that appeared to be absent, Mr. Davey managed to include a wide range of diverse subjects using only eight costumes. Perhaps in his future presentations, Mr. Davey might consider including costumes which reflect more facets of diversity in Hollywood culture. All in all, attending his lecture and presentation was a pleasurable experience and exceptional opportunity to understand how others interpret diversity.


Vinopal, Jennifer. 2016. “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” Lead Pipe.

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Duality and Recognition of Liberation Technology as Applied to Western Democracies

By EmmaKarin

Liberation Technology is a double-sided blade. We laud it for it’s ability to keep dissidents connected, to document and keep record of atrocities, but it can be turned against us so easily. Governments have the ability to use our reliance on ICTs for their own purposes. The same technology that frees us can be used to censor the Internet, create filters, track our Internet usages and criminalize us. Larry Diamond describes, “[l]iberation technology [as] any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom” (70). Diamond focuses on the use of Liberation Technology in the “other-ed” part of the world, meaning the non-western world. His examples are rooted in the Middle East and Asia where, without a doubt, human right violations are far higher. But to imagine oppression and injustice as taking place only in places seen as “distant”, physically and politically, is damaging.

While we in the west have no issue imagining a Chinese dissident being hauled away to a detention center for posting an anti-authoritarian tweet, we are hard pressed to call up the image of our own government agencies serving subpoenas and summons to Twitter, “seeking records including the phone number, mailing addresses, and IP addresses associated” with dissident accounts (Wong). But why? We know the NSA keeps tabs on us. Every other week a new story breaks about the FBI demanding our social data. Most recently, the Department of Justice served DreamHost, a website-hosting company, with a search warrant, “for every piece of information it possessed that was related” to, the website, “that was used to coordinate protests during Donald Trump’s inauguration” (Wong).

The J20 demonstrations are the perfect example of the duality of Liberation Technology within a Western Democratic country. J20 was the name given to the demonstration that took place to protest the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Before the demonstration, people used Facebook pages to organize smaller groups to meet and protest together under common banners, used its messenger service to coordinate transportation to and room, and their own personal pages to post general protest safety guides. During, people used Twitter to provide live updates about what was happening on the ground in real time and alerted people to first aid stations. After, hundreds of videos are uploaded to YouTube, photos posted to Instagram, and blog articles spread across the Internet providing factual accounts of the rampant police brutality and the systematic suppression of the protestor’s rights to assemble. This is seen as the positive side of liberation technology, ICTs bringing people together to, “enable citizens to report news, expose wrongdoings, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom” (Diamond 70).

The more daunting side of Liberation Technology that gets overlooked are the instances when it is used against us. For example, the D.C. police subpoenaing Facebook for, “the social data of several protesters” who participated in the J20 demonstration (Daileda). Or facial recognition software scanning Instagram photos of the protest to track down those in attendance, and tweet’s being used as evidence in court to convict protestors of felony charges of ‘conspiracy’ (Higgins). Law enforcement is already infiltrating Twitter and Facebook creating fake profiles, setting up traps, and generally using social media to gather intelligence to use against groups it deems a ‘terror-threat’ all in the name of keeping America safe. Just as authoritarian dictators are able to use ICTs to track down dissidents in their countries, so does the government of the United States.

Diamond makes the statement, “[t]here is now a technological race underway between democrats seeking to circumvent Internet censorship and dictatorships that want to extend and refine it” (81). Which is immediately followed up by the contradictory statement that Iran has made “significant gains in repression” because western companies have happened because, “Western companies like Nokia-Siemens are willing to sell them advanced surveillance and filtering technologies” (81). Diamond even concludes his article with ways Western countries can support those citizens in Authoritarian countries. He even concludes his paper with a quote from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supporting free access to the Internet.

The atrocities that occur in other parts of the world are horrific by comparison, but minimizing the violations perpetrated by our own government puts us all at risk for it’s continuation and escalation. We cannot continue to delude ourselves that our democracy is above surveillance. We cannot be so naïve to think these companies are only selling to “other-ed” countries, that they’re not using these technologies on their own citizens. Especially, because we do know that they are. We have proof that our civilized western democracy is spying on us, collecting data, and using our Internet use as a means to sustain their version of a civilized western democracy. We must remember, when she was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered for more intensive surveillance of American Citizens in the name of safety and freedom.

The good and bad side of Liberation Technology exists here in America and other Anglo countries and it must be recognized. Human right’s violations and oppression don’t happen solely “over-there” in those “uncivilized” and “un-democratic” regions of the world that most American’s can’t point out on the map. Turning injustice into a solely ‘other-worldly’ occurrence makes it easier to gloss over it when happens here, in our civilized western democracy.


Diamond, Larry. “Liberation Technology.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 21, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 69–83.


Levin, Sam. “FBI terrorism unit says ‘black identity extremists’ pose a violent threat.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Oct. 2017,


Daileda, Colin. “D.C. police demand Facebook hand over data on Trump protesters.” Mashable, Mashable, 6 Feb. 2017,


Wong, Julia Carrie. “US government demands details on all visitors to anti-Trump protest website.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Aug. 2017,


Higgins, Eoin. “Hundreds Face Conspiracy Charges For Actions Of A Few During Inauguration Day Protests.” The Intercept, 25 Oct. 2017,



Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence

By Valerie Saunders

“We must have an endless commitment to finding, showing, and telling the truth”- Edward Tufte

ET open


Edward Tufte is a professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is also the closest thing we’ve got to a household name in the field of information design, devoted equally to the data and its display, its function and its form. His beautiful, self-published books are loaded with rich visuals covering all sorts of graphs, charts, and maps, many historic and some new. He has worked as a consultant to NASA and The United States government, among many others. He is also an artist and has developed a sculpture park of 234 acres in Woodbury, Connecticut. He periodically gives a one-day seminar course on “Presenting Data and Information” which, though the title sounds impossibly dry, draws attendees from around the globe.


A ripple ran through the crowd as Edward Tufte, “The Leonardo da Vinci of data,” (Shapley, 1998) “The Galileo of Graphics,” (Aston, 2009) took the stage to introduce a music visualization as the opener to his seminar in Washington DC on November 6, 2017. The lights went out completely and I could no longer even see the note paper in front of me. Color bars pass on a screen, pulsing in coordination with the musical notes of a recording of Chopin, part of the Music Animation Machine by Stephen Malinowski.


But before we even got to the beautiful music, we had quiet reading time. Edward Tufte begins all of his presentations with “Study Hall” where he provides a devoted segment of silent time to read a written document, of 3-4 narrative pages, that describes the concepts and information of the materials that are about to be presented. He is known for his disdain of typical Powerpoint presentations and describes the study hall segment as the first step in a successful presentation by placing control (physically) in the hands of the audience. He is devoted to the user as the priority when setting out to provide education, evidence, and information. His position is that the viewer has the best capabilities to scan the materials for what interests them, skip what they don’t want, and have the option of holding onto the hard copy for future reference. In this way the presentation may be customized and personalized by the viewer and not just the presenter. The meeting begins by empowering the ones who are there to learn and makes them active participants right from the start, rather than passive observers. This “silent start” study hall strategy is also used by Jeff Bezos at Amazon for all company meetings as an efficiency measure that his team swears by. (Bariso, 2017) Attendees have time first to learn and time to think, and then to be more engaged in the meeting.

Frederic Chopin, Barceuse, Opus 57, depicted by Stephen Malinowski's Music Animation Machine

Frederic Chopin, Barceuse, Opus 57, depicted by Stephen Malinowski’s Music Animation Machine

Tufte describes the Powerpoint presentation as “stacked in time.” The concepts and data are dribbled out over time and there is no way for the audience to gather the whole in a cohesive context. It may be the easiest to create and show, but it is not the best way to clearly and accurately inform the viewer. When a presenter subjects his/her viewers to the passive experience of sitting through the traditional Powerpoint slide deck, they are entirely at the mercy of the presenter’s pace and choices. “For all of the disruption we have seen from the tech industry, there is a complete lack of creativity.” (Tufekci, 2017) Powerpoint has enjoyed the default presentation position for years. Tufte compares it to voicemail menus where a listener must wait through a list of options to find out what to press–another interface that is stacked in time and inconvenient for the audience. A “focus on the person… a shift towards a ‘person-centred’ approach, rather than a ‘system-centred’ approach. This has been accompanied by a switch from quantitative methods to qualitative methods.” (Wilson, 2000) Tufte very decisively advocates for a human- and user-centered process, that addresses quantitative and qualitative measures, when sharing data and presenting information.


Besides the study hall beginning, Tufte describes the optimal way for users to consume information as “adjacent in space.” Using methods that allow the integration of different types of data–numbers, words, pictures, etc. in the same space creates context for a richer, comprehensive understanding. He shared Charles Joseph Minard’s data map tracking the French invasion of Russia in 1812. The visual creates a rich story by including numbers of troops lost, over time, as it relates to deployments, the terrain, and the weather. It provides lots of context to explain the devastating loss of life due to multiple factors. “Taking context seriously means finding oneself in the thick of the complexities of particular situations at particular times with particular individuals.” (Nardi, 1996, p35)

Charles Joseph Minard's data map of Napoleaon's Russian invasion in 1812. 422,000 troops at the beginning. Only 100,000 survived.

Charles Joseph Minard’s data map of Napoleaon’s Russian invasion in 1812. 422,000 troops at the beginning. Only 100,000 survived.

Tufte had plenty of jabs for 3-D pie charts, drop shadows, bright colors, and “datajunk.” His directive is to first consider the data that you must convey, leave as much information intact as possible, and present it in as clear and uncluttered a format as possible. Visual clutter is the signature of the designer, the coder, the editor, and will only impede the learning process for the viewer. Just as Lessig describes his concept of Open Evolution as it relates to coding: “Build a platform, or set of protocols, so that it can evolve in any number of ways; don’t play god; don’t hardwire any single path of development; don’t build into it a middle that can meddle with its use” (Lessig, 1999, p110), Tufte is a strong proponent of keeping as much of the data itself available for the audience to interpret for themselves. There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design.


“Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. It is all information after all. For readers and viewers, the intellectual task remains constant regardless of the particular mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance, and integrity.” (Tufte, 2006, p83)


The more data that is there, the more accurate and believable it will be. He raises significant concern around integrity in data analysis. Specifically, in the process of selecting data, he recognizes the broad practice of “cherry picking and lemon dropping” data to suit one’s biases. Akin to James Moor’s Invisibility Factor in computer calculations: “Answers chosen will build certain values into the program…This becomes a significant ethical issue as the consequences grow in importance.” (Moor, 1985, p274) Gathering data appropriately and then showing it accurately takes skill and mindful discipline. Many data visualizations can skew the viewer’s understanding simply by using larger font sizes for some bullet points–and the more important the data, the higher the stakes. Tufte shared a presentation from his evaluation of the Space Shuttle Columbia flight that imparted information in a way that led to dangerous decisions and ultimately may have contributed to the loss of life for 7 crew members. The Powerpoint format was too simple, inappropriately edited, and did not show the important, complex data that needed to be considered. He argues the world is complex and multi-variate and we must display the data to encompass this. Don’t dumb it down–have faith in the viewer.


Tufte warns us all, as creators and as users, to question the data we see and to think carefully about the relationship between the evidence and the conclusion. Start with an open question and do the research. Taking data from one project and appropriating it to something else will often lead to inaccuracy. Every step, from how the data is collected (is the scientist paddling over to a cleaner area of the lake to gather his sample for water pollutants?) to how the designer lays it out (are they removing some data to make it fit nicely in their grid?) is suspect. “In the political and philosophical sense in which I use the term here, neutrality is impossible. In any situation, there exists a distribution of power.” (Jensen, 2006, p91) He also urges us to question our own biases and to cultivate self-awareness about what we see.


Tufte urges us to always assume equality across a room. Give every idea a chance. Meet the challenge to see things in a neutral way rather than through the lens of our own bias. Always source alternative and divergent views. Create the environment for truth to be sought and revealed.


The last visual of Tufte’s talk asked:


How do they know that?

How do you know that?

How do I know that?


“When we turn over the provision of knowledge to others, we are left vulnerable to their choices, methods, and subjectivities. Sometimes this is a positive, providing expertise, editorial acumen, refined taste. But we are also wary of the intervention, of human failings and vested interests, and find ourselves with only secondary mechanisms of social trust by which to vouch for what is true and relevant.” (Gillespie, 2014, p187)


In the field of data analysis and visualization we must be accurate with sources, provide more than less information, and show it in the most logical and digestible way to our viewers. Ultimately we are seeking the truth, which Edward Tufte proselytizes can be found through evidence. If the evidence is shown properly, the right conclusion will be found.



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