More Stories, Less Data

MikeachimThe Everyday8 Comments

 The stars we are given. The constellations we make.

Rebecca Solnit

I worry about data.

As everything gets faster and more hectic online, as friends and companies and apps and professional deadlines push for quicker updates & ever-more-frantic feedback, we’re pressured to publish not stories, but raw data.

Stories are things made from raw data – crafted, hammered into shape, hacked out, honed, smoothed, sharpened, and then, if we’re really smart and brave, thrown away and remade all over again. Crafting; drafting; refining. Until something precious results. Something that endures and anchors itself to the world.

It worries me that we’re under a lot of pressure to either shortcut that process or forget it altogether. We stop making stories because we don’t have time, and because we’ve got out the habit of giving ourselves time. Instead, we publish data. As soon as it’s collected, it’s published. If we’re lucky, we might put a spin on it as it flies past – but that’s about it.

Why is this bad? Because we might lose the art of stringing things together. Joining the dots to make things that fit the way human beings interpret their world. Making shapes from chaos. Interpreting.

When I worked in archaeology, I was initially baffled why we were asked to take photographs of sections and plans and draw them. What’s with that? Surely a photograph is more accurate than any drawing? In fact, an archaeological photo is (depending on the skill of the photographer) mainly data – and a drawing is a story created from data that accentuates, exaggerates or downright misleads, all to create an argument based on what someone thinks they are looking at. People are biased and fallible, hence the photos – but data is shapeless, hence the drawings.

The constellations in the night sky are stories invented by ancient Greeks. They looked up, they saw points of light, and they joined them together in the most wonderfully human ways that still mean something to us. Who hasn’t stood on a hillside as a kid and delighted as a cluster of random stars turned into a shape that their mind tried to fit into a picture – “look, there’s Orion’s belt – and there’s his sword. Do you see it?”.

I worry about our ability to stand there patiently, in the dark, until we see it.

Image: ComputerHotline