Earlier this month, on 6th February, I attended the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London with other members of the Rethinking Creativities cluster group. Our aim was to learn about different ways of collecting, interpreting and presenting data, and to this end the exhibition did not disappoint. The more general aim of the exhibition itself is to ‘explore the issues surrounding the datafication of our world through the work of artists, designers, journalists and visionaries.’ In this blog I will write about some of the exhibits which caught my attention and how these observations have impacted on my view of data and creativity.
One of the most prevalent themes at the exhibition was how data can have both a positive and negative impact on our lives.
This argument often manifested itself in discourses relating to how data collected from social media can help or hinder our lives. Exhibits frequently featured the dominant social media juggernauts, such as Facebook and Twitter, which perhaps highlights its increasingly ubiquitous presence in our lives. Having grown up alongside the emergence of ‘Myspace’ and ‘Bebo’, my generation has seen the dominance of social networking sites increase. Many of us are conscious that our cyber footprints can be tracked and that our data is harvested by big companies to target us with advertising. Most of us know this happens but it’s just something that we accept as par for the course if we want access to the Internet.
Even still, news of undercover reports conducted by sites such as Facebook to try to understand our psyche can sometimes be a little unsettling, and this is something that came across at the exhibition. Photographic displays showed the massive storage systems which hold our data, serving as a very visual representation of the information we would like to consider to be private. These images really brought it home to me the real, physical presence data has in our lives. It’s every email conversation we have or Google search we make. It feels invisible but simultaneously tangible. One image in particular which struck me was that of an old Cold War bunker in Switzerland that had been turned into a data centre, which served as a poignant reminder of how society’s needs have changed over time. I got the distinct impression that data has started to eclipse our lives, at a rate where we need to build, or repurpose, new data centres to accommodate the growth. It also made me think about the purpose of my PhD project and how I can ensure that it is purposeful, with real impact. With all this data in the world, I don’t want to produce data for the sake of it, but rather something that will be effective and profound.
The exhibition also showcased ways in which data collected from social media can be used for ‘the greater good’. One tutorial I attended explored how the authorities used Twitter to catch those involved in the 2011 London riots. The live action data Twitter users create through ‘Tweets’, to boast about their activities or recruit more people to help, can be captured by the authorities to help them to prevent crimes or persecute criminals. This might seem to a bit naïve on the part of these criminals, but all too often it is easy to forget that something that takes a few seconds to post online can have significant implications for a person’s future. Another exhibition at the event captured this idea well. The exhibition – ‘#onesecond’ by Philipp Adrian – was a printed book with four volumes that captured users’ Tweets in a physical format, ‘allowing each author to emerge out of the abundance of anonymous data and become an individual again.’ To me, this served as a warning to social media users about what they post online, but it also reminded me of the importance of capturing individuals’ voices in research. While it is important – ethically at least – to allow participants to remain anonymous, at the same time we should allow individual voices to filter through in the write up of research.
So, I think it is fair to say that social media can be used to capture rich data, and as the private becomes increasingly public, the exhibition presented an opportunity for researchers to use digital technology to shape their research. Indeed, some even use social media as a data collection method. This approach is one that could be seen to make data more accessible; in theory, anyone could select a collection of Tweets and analyse them. Accessibility to data is an issue that was highlighted in the ‘Dear Data’ exhibition, which showcased how collecting and representing data can be treated as an everyday activity. Social media provides an extra outlet for this accessibility, but it also raises questions about ethical soundness and reliability. For me, the problem with using social media as a single method of collecting data is that it may strip away the context of a person’s identity and environment. Similarly, quantitative data sometimes does this too, and at Big Bang the idea of the so-called ‘quantified self’ was, to a certain extent, disparaged. It was argued that numbers do not tell the whole truth and can in fact be skewed and manipulated to tell a particular story. Nicholas Felton, however, portrayed a slightly different approach to using quantitative data in his exhibition. Instead of using data to tell a particular story he instead used it to specifically tell his story, by piecing together bits of information about his personality, habits and relationships to form a database. He then used this data to create narratives and annual reports about his life. This approach, while not without its faults, challenged my own perceptions about how I saw quantitative data. I have always been wary about the potential of quantitative data when conducting research with humans – particularly in education – but this exhibit provided me with food for thought about how participants’ stories can be pieced together using quantitative data too.
Overall, one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from our trip is how each exhibit had a different impact on us
So certain aspects of the exhibition were profound to some but less so to others. For instance, here I have focused on social media and the Internet, meaning that I have closed myself off to other themes which are less important to me but crucial to others. This highlights aspects about creativity and research that have been widely commented on before. Firstly, what constitutes a ‘good’ creative artefact? In a similar way to how we value exhibitions differently, the value we place on a piece of art, music or fiction also often varies. Secondly, I feel that it highlights the all too often interpretive nature of data. This is particularly prevalent in qualitative data but, as the exhibition presents, can occur in quantitative findings too. This serves as a reminder that it is pertinent to listen to different reactions to events and occurrences, as richness lies in the diversity of these opinions. Consideration can be given to this not just in the data collection process but also during data analysis too. What I consider to be an important line of enquiry or theme in data may differ from the next person, and these are dilemmas which are encountered by researchers all the time. A final observation to make is that I found the conversations that took place after the exhibition to be far richer than simply walking round it. As the exhibition itself argues, data by itself can only tell us so much, similar to, in my opinion, pieces of creative work. For me, the richness of human commentaries on creative and research processes are just as – if not more – significant than the data itself. I know that many people would disagree with that but, as Big Bang Data highlights, ‘by concentrating on data alone, we also ignore the fact that our society can thrive on more disordered mechanisms such as debate’, so perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.