I. Hard Data

"You see a business deal. At Sprint, we see data." This is the opening line of Sprintís "Handshake" spot, which began airing on American television networks in September of 1998, targeted at small and mid-sized businesses in need of a solution (to use proper parlance) for their communications infrastructure (see top right frame). [1] As the 30-second sequence unfolds we are treated to a lavish display of computer-generated imagery: 3-D models and blueprints of what appears to be a bridge, rotating through multiple angles and views; Web browsers and extreme closeups of the browser interface; maps and GIS data on a laptop; and luminous lines of text and numbers streaming across VDT screens, far too fast for the eye to follow. Intercut or sometimes superimposed in translucent layers, we see people talking, typing, telephoning, teleconferencing, and, on at least two occasions, shaking hands. We learn that all of this activity is enabled by Sprintís "Integrated On-Demand Network." Finally, in a panoramic shot, a bridge (the same design that was earlier modeled on the computer screen) comes into view. As the sun sets (or is it rising?) on the horizon, pulsing lines of light, which cannot be anything other than stylized representations of the aforementioned data, streak across the finished bridgeís arches and cables, surrounding the span with a kind of digital halo. The dataís reification in the material structure of the bridge (itself a ubiquitous trope in discourses of information technology) signals a less-than-subtle convergence of the commercialís two predominant themes -- computer-mediated communication and interpersonal interaction -- while also performing as a visual counterpoint to the spotís closing line: "Because business runs on data. And data runs on Sprint."

This sequence captures, in as concentrated and condensed form as any contemporary document or artifact I know, what I take to be a recent and fundamental shift in the nature of data and information. If the Sprint commercial is exceptional, it is only by way of the explicit rhetorical weight on the keyword "data" and its subsequent heavy-handed concretization in the bridge itself. But the commercial is otherwise unremarkable, and its stock of imagery -- the geometric grids of light, the text scrolling across a computer screen, the colorful animated maps and multi-dimensional graphics -- will be familiar to anyone who watches TV or looks at advertising layouts in magazines. Informationís presence in the Sprint commercial has been aestheticized, and aestheticized in a radically visual manner. The computer-generated imagery is compelling and it is cool -- "eye candy," in the contemporary vernacular. Nor is this an isolated phenomenon; aestheticized representations of information are ubiquitous in the contemporary media culture. From this I want to suggest that no full understanding of information in the present moment is possible absent recourse to the disciplinary methodologies that have given us our most sophisticated analytical tools for understanding visual structures of representation -- art history, film studies, graphic design, iconology, and visual semiotics, to name the most important. We can agree, for example, that Monetís canvasses look like the work of an Impressionist while Picassoís do not, because Impressionism is a recognizable set of artistic conventions and practices among particular painters. Likewise, we can perhaps agree -- say from the perspective of a graphic designer -- that Wired magazine "looks" like information, whereas the NY Times Book Review does not. What I want to suggest, of course, is not that the loud colors and disjointed layouts that characterize Wired somehow embody the essence of information, but rather that information as such manifests a visual history of tropes and representational devices, and that attention to this visual history can tell us something about our changing views and understandings of information as a communicative mode and a representational catagory.

Though visual representations of information have been most dramatically assimilated by the popular culture since the mid-1980s, they have in fact been present since information theoryís inception as a formalized branch of communication studies in the years after the Second World War. Claude Shannonís landmark The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949), for example, includes a number of austere diagrams depicting the various components of his idealized information systems (figures 1 and 2). Though these are simple images whose purpose seems plain and transparent, they do serve to indicate certain basic concepts that are of interest to the student of information. Their schematic format, for example, encourages a view of the communicative process that is essentially linear; messages are sent from point A to point B, sometimes with the intervention of a feedback mechanism. The diagrams make it easy to see information as a spatial/temporal phenomena. Because of this, they are the ancestors, however stark, of the dramatic bridge imagery in the Sprint commercial.

In all of this it is difficult to know how much lexical pressure to bring to bear on the word "information" as opposed to "data." Sprint uses the two interchangeably: "Itís the sharing of information that helps build business. [. . .] Business runs on data." But it is also increasingly common to find qualitative distinctions between the two, as in the introduction to a recent computer science textbook on visualization techniques: "Computer graphics and visualization have revolutionized the way we interact with and understand data -- transforming our data into information -- and the way we communicate that information to others" (emphasis in original; Brown, et al. ix). What this language suggests is that information is now perceived as a qualitatively distinct category of knowledge. From this I will contend that the consequence of much of the computer science done in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and more specifically of the so-called "Information Age" -- an appellation introduced in H. Marshall McLuhanís Understanding Media, and which gained common currency in the early 1980s -- is not only that we have more information, and not only that we can relay it more quickly and more efficiently and more economically between geographical locales that are more spatially disparate, but also that information itself has undergone a basic ontological shift. If the pronoun "itself" seems odd or out of place when subordinated to "information" in the preceding sentence, it is only because we are not used to thinking of information as possessed of any inherent qualities -- a compelling but none the less historically specific view that was first introduced by Shannon at Bell Labs in 1949 when information was explicitly defined as a function of accurately transmitting messages independently of "meaning." That particular formulation is still relevant to the extent that electrical engineers and computer scientists rely on it as a basic tenet of systems architecture. But it seems to me to do little to capture the rich information-based imagery of the Sprint commercial, and still less to explain what a visualization textbook might mean when its authors characterize information as a unique way of seeing. Though it is true, as we know from Edward Tufteís expansive studies, that we have always possessed heuristics for "envisioning information," in recent years this phrase has been literalized by rapid technical advances in computer science: both the widespread proliferation of graphical user interfaces, and more specifically the tremendous growth in such fields as computer modeling, simulation, and visualization.

"Hard data" of the sort I have been describing -- either models, renderings, and visualizations, or the aestheticized constructions in the Sprint commercial -- may soon be the only forms in which "information" is meaningful or even recognizable. In a paper entitled "How Much Information is There in the World?" (answer: "a few thousand petabytes") computer scientist Michael Lesk is able to estimate that within the next two years the efficiency of computer memory will be such that we will be able to digitally save all information comprising any part of the human record -- even (theoretically) everything that everyone remembers ("for a single person, this isnít even hard"). Calculations of this sort are carried out in units like terabytes (1000 gigabytes), petabytes (1000 terabytes) and exabytes (1000 petabytes). The very existence of such units of measurement compounds the level of abstraction associated with information (in the traditional usage of the word) beyond a point at which encounters with anything other than some visualized or materialized presentation of data can possibly have value, except perhaps to a small coterie of computer scientists and archivists. Yet, at precisely the moment data becomes invested with visual form as information, so too does it assume a cloak of representational artifice, thus taking its place in the multifaceted media array that has defined the popular contexts of the Information Age.



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