Data by Design

Data by Design: A Cultural History of Data Visualization, 1786-1900, challenges the commonly-held belief that visualization serves as a neutral method for data’s display. In a monograph accompanied by an interactive digital companion, I trace the rise of modern data visualization techniques. I connect what I term the “visualizing impulse” to Enlightenment ideas about the primacy of visual knowledge, and to the related concepts of subjectivity, agency, and the human. I show how the practice of data visualization carries a set of implicit assumptions—and, at times, explicit arguments—about how knowledge is produced, and who is authorized to produce it. Illustrating how these assumptions were both upheld and contested over the course of the nineteenth century, both through specific visual practices and through key sociopolitical events, I reveal how historical epistemologies, as much as visual form, continue to influence the design, reception, and rhetoric of data visualization today.

Data by Design follows a chronological arc, moving from Scotland, the birthplace of modern data visualization, across the Atlantic, and then to the Americas, in order to accentuate the political and philosophical influences on the development of visualization techniques, particularly as they relate to ideas about democracy, slavery, nation, and race. Beginning with the time-series charts of William Playfair, the Scottish political economist widely considered the founder of modern data visualization, that appear in his Commercial and Political Atlas (1786), I document how the Age of Revolutions, as much as British empiricism, inspired early visualization techniques. I then turn to the widely-circulated diagram of the Brookes slave ship (1788), designed at the same time as Playfair’s charts, in order to expose the controlling impulse inherent in many methods of visualization. Underscoring how the abstraction encouraged by visualization often comes at the expense of the particularity of the “data” it is intended to represent, I consider two contrasting approaches to visualizing geographical data: the historical atlas created by Emma Willard, the activist and educator, to accompany her U.S. history textbook (1828); and the impressionistic maps sketched by Shanawdithit, a Beothuk (Newfoundland) Indian, at the urging of a Scottish-Canadian anthropologist (ca. 1829). A discussion of nation-formation also animates the fourth chapter, as I explore the chronological grids of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, which she designed for her own U.S. history textbook (1856) in the lead-up to the Civil War. Returning to a discussion of race, data, and political agency—one which persists to this day—I conclude with an analysis of the recently discovered visualizations of W.E.B. DuBois, designed for the 1900 Paris Exposition, which re-visualize US Census data in order to emphasize African American life. Through this timely example, I reassert how visualization, the conditions of its development, and its political consequences, are forever intertwined.