Historic Examples & Cultural Foundations of Dataesthetics

The mechanical, gear driven engine was surely both engine and mediator for the economy and design style best exemplified by the Bauhaus in the early 20th Century.  From that singularity arose an ideal that is best expressed in the phrase “form follows function.”  dataesthetic philosophy is derived from a similar convergence at the dawn of the 21st Century, wherein computers drive the economy and mediate most artistic, literary and musical creation.  A logical successor to the Bauhaus ideal must recognize the nature of this shift in value and primacy, from physical manufactured objects to conceptual/intellectual property.  In today’s economy algorithms that drive visualization (e.g. postscript) exceeds the value of all printers that actually use that code combined (both unimagined future printers, and old broken ones, from many manufacturers, owe royalties that must be paid to satisfy market needs).  Likewise, the products of those printers may be valued differently than the printers: highly customizable output and code can create products that greatly exceed the value of the tools that created them (e.g. business contracts, checks, stocks, bonds and other documents worth any amount imaginable).

Today form and function follow data.  Watch any network news program: the screen is densely layered, packed with messages that are related and unrelated to the program.  Some of that information is purely navigational: logos and screen bugs tell you what you’re watching (information about information or metadata).  Other information is amplification, or intentional manipulation.

US President George Bush’s (in)famous speech on the Abraham Lincoln in 2003 is a great example of applied dataesthetics.  A choreographed landing on an aircraft carrier, in a full flight costume, disconnected in time from the speech (where he is pictured in a business suite), generated new records in conceptual and image databases with every step.  The “Mission Accomplished” banner delivered a deliberately vague, but seemingly conclusive message about the status of the invasion of Iraq.  The President’s words, stating “major combat operations” were over, built on that message.  Months later critics ridiculed the message and attacked the President as being wrong and out of touch.  Great dataesthetic design provided the president with a glorious photo-op in May of 2003, an adoring military audience for later promotional uses (commercials), and bullet-proof deniability that amounts to a brilliant form of “preemptive lying.”

Thus the White House has masterfully stoked the campaign engine with priceless imagery and conceptually delivered one message, while verbally saying something else.  The exercise provided a database that only their side can effectively use, but it encourages their foes to try to misrepresent the actual message, which ultimately amplifies their larger points: in effect they force their opponents to mislead with intentionally misleading content, and those misleading images actually promote and bolster the President’s positions with his base.  This is just one example: Careful molding of form and function serve as elements of a design for data that supports unimagined narratives!

Content and meaning, as well as metadata and code have unique value.  Their storage and dissemination are not really part of that value equation, but rather elements we can mediate or control through design.  The packaging and delivery of information affects both meaning and value, so media object creation must consider and address potential repurposing.  Returning to the Bush campaign database, less care in the selection of words was only the most obvious possible failure.  A poorly fitting flight suit with less phallic padding might have recalled the disastrous tank ride of Michael Dukakis in an earlier campaign (his ill-fitting helmet and inexperience made him look silly).  Even the absurdly positive “Mission Accomplished” banner is a fitting prop for projecting power and confidence, but factual enough to minimize potential subsequent embarrassment.

In the beginning of the 20th century modernist artists created new forms, new aesthetics, new representational techniques, and new symbols of industrial society. We need to do the same for INFORMATION society.  dataesthetics is a rational first step to defining the parameters and terminology to describe what we already see.


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