Data is a Story

This is part of an ongoing series, muses about code and art, and the intersection of the two. Prior essay: Data is the Medium.

A friend and colleague, Nathaniel Hansen, captured a saying from an interview in his documentary, The Elders. It’s riveting, because it speaks a certain kind of truth so simply and elegantly:

“Everybody not only has a story. Everybody is a story.” — Louise Denham
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, J. M. W. Turner, 1842

The same can be said of data. Everybody not only collects or outputs data, everybody is a link in the chain of human data. This also continues a prior idea from my last entry, that, broadly speaking, all media is data and all data is media. In other words, the delineation between physical and metaphysical data is sometimes a bit arbitrary.

I like to call it cosmology. You’re born, you live out some experiences, you eat, breath, drink, sleep, go to work, maybe get married, maybe have children, have ups and downs, and on and on the roller coaster.

Call it the Book of Life. Sure, maybe some patron saint somewhere above is recording (digitally? we’ll save the discussion of tech-theism for another day) every. single. act. Regardless, the motions of the planets and the alignments of cells and tissues are more than representations. They are the instances of actual data, the clockwork and physics of everything circumstantially quantifiable that matters. Data (as a representation), in other words, is completely meaningless without measuring something that is the data itself.

Take the law of entropy—which ends all life in a dissipated, lifeless mass of cold, dead bodies. Moving from a higher birth in the human chain to a lower grave is a simulation of dynamic interactions with data points all along the way. This step in the sand. That picked flower. This drop of water. That dab of sun on your face.

Where it becomes most humanly interesting is at the thresholds of media transformations. Open your mouth and tell it. Pick up a pen, write it. Type on a keyboard, enter the data. Each medium a message, each message a data point. Each point along the line a human story.

It’s a miracle of semiotics that the press of a keyboard or the click of a tongue can, in collective or in singularity, be understood (wether abstract or concrete) as the telling of the human data-story that already exists all around us.

We shape data because we are data.