W.E.B. Du Bois, radical visualization, and the transformative power of information

Posted on 02/28/2011 by


First of all, I apologize for my brief absence.  I was at Morehouse College presenting a paper (that doesn’t really have anything to do with my blog).  While I was at the airport waiting for my late flight, however, I stumbled on a post over at L. Eckstein’s fantastic blog, All My Eyes.  Her post uncovers a set of incredible infographics by undergraduate students of W.E.B Du Bois made for the “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

These graphics do actually have to do with my conference because at the time, Du Bois was teaching at Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta) University which happens to sit on the same campus as Morehouse (which is very nice, by the way).

Now housed at the Library of Congress and the archive of Professor Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., at the University of Miami, many of the infographics dealing with the socio-economic situation of blacks at the turn of the century were hand-colored and quite original.

In fact, I was struck by how similar some of the images looked to hip contemporary visualization methods (see my posts here, here, and here).

Of course, none of these are interactive or widely available, but they had in mind a similar goal: the dissemination of information in a compact form that tells a story, carrying meaning or implication beyond the numbers alone.

This also got me thinking about the historical development of data visualization, a topic that I have covered before herehere and here.  I commented to a friend yesterday that some of these were more reminiscent of the modernist graphic design–especially in advertising–coming out of New York, Los Angeles, or Rome in the 1930-1950’s.  As a small part of a gigantic International Exhibition in 1900, it is unlikely that these were so highly influential on designers as to produce these larger trends; however, I think they are emblematic of a new way of thinking that would produce such works as Isidore Isou’s Lettrist Manifesto and the Hypergraphics movement (Curtay 1985; Bohn 1996).  It is a way of thinking about information as transformative, socially powerful in its ability to demonstrate pure fact.  It is somewhat utopian, assured that if people can just see (and thus understand) information, they will not only be convinced but also transformed by it.  It was radical.

Now, this group of students was not the first to see the transformative power of information.  As early as 1858, Florence Nightingale used a very unique chart in order to convince the government to implement a sanitation program in the army.  The polar chart, as it is sometimes called, portrays very effectively the massive increase in deaths during January.  I can only speculate as to her thought process behind the creation of this novel form of data presentation, but records indicate that she imagined it would convince a skeptical royalty to improve conditions of soldiers. What is clear is that she believed that it could do something, achieve something beyond mere presentation.

But as a radical act, why do these sort of images come up again and again in similar forms?  I think context matters.  Waving around an American flag in Boston today is not particularly radical (sorry Tea Party); waving one around in 1775 was.  In a sort of different vein, Dr. John Snow’s cholera map showing clustering of breakouts made in 1854 was radical precisely because he was looking at an old problem in a new way; forty years later and an ocean away, Du Bois’ students made a radical decision when they visualized the economic plight of a group explicitly excluded from statistical analysis and thus hidden from international attention.

(I am always reminded of that incredible quote from The Civil Rights Cases 109 U.S. 3 (1883), where the Court said that “it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business.”  That was only about 7 years prior to when much of the data collected in these infographics was collected; look at some of the data on material ownership and see how much or how little had changed…)

In an age so saturated in information we are, I suppose, somewhat cynical of its power to transform, while also standing in awe of its theoretical potential.  I can’t really make an articulate statement about how exactly to revive that sentiment, but I am inspired by the increasing computer literacy and math education of young people in the developing world.  They have the potential to use data in truly transformative ways precisely because they see something that is worth changing (and I am even more convinced of this since the first wave of revolutions in the Middle East).  The rapid dissemination of information on the behavior of the Mubarak regime through the internet in Egypt, for example, to me points to an increasing awareness of how to use data in a socially meaningful way.  As Du Bois’ students showed, the simple act of disseminating information can, in itself, be a radical and potentially transformative act.

Special thanks to the All My Eyes blog as well as Professor Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., School of Education, University of Miami (site here).

Curtay, Jean-Paul: Letterism and Hypergraphics: The Unknown Avant-Garde 1945 -1985, Franklin Furnace, New York, 1985

Bohn, From Hieroglyphics to Hypergraphics in “Experimental – Visual – Concrete Avant-Garde Poetry Since the 1960s”, 1996