Orit Halpern – Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945


Duke University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0822357305, English, 352 pages, 2015, USA

The unstoppable explosion of recorded data makes it increasingly difficult to reduce its complexity to an understandable and meaningful representation. The scale we are confronted with is unknown. This is a recurring situation, especially since the second half of the 20h century, where the proliferation of data comes to need new instruments in order to be fully readable. Instead of conceptually reinventing the wheel, a healthy historical trajectory can help, as this book amply proves. Starting from cybernetics and particularly from Norbert Wiener’s thoughtful visions, to the “landscape of sense” by Gyorgy Kepes, the author investigates what she defines as “communicative objectivity,” essentially the reconceptualization of “evidence, vision and cognition.” Divided into four sections (Archiving, Visualizing, Rationalizing and Governing), this volume examines the different phases of information gathering and displaying, taking examples from quite different disciplines and crossing their boundaries. Songdo smart city (Korea), the 1964-65 World’s Fair, experiments taken on frog eyes, and Isamu Noguchi’s garden design, for example, become cases that help us to understand the changes in cognition driving us to associate the potential attractiveness of data and its aesthetics with political consequences.  This archived knowledge (now a flexible, real-time, software-based process) should be seen then through the lenses of history that Halpern helps to define, in order to stop the fascination with data visualization for its own sake and instead encourage alternative pattern recognitions.