The first in a series of essays on the theory and practice of data sonification.
Topics: Emergent Tech, Data Sonification, Auditory Design Thinking
Data as Abstract Material
This essay aims to guide the reader through some of the theory and practice of data sonification, from a practitioner’s perspective. Data sonification is a diverse field built around the idea that data can be transformed into sound based forms. These may range from tightly-coupled auditory display where sounds act more like indicators, to creatively loose interpretations referred to as data-driven music. This series of personal essays is not intended to be an academic documentation of the field. My writing is informed by professional practice working with data as raw material, primarily for deriving sound and other unconventional forms of data representation. It might seem unfamiliar to refer to data as material, so let’s begin there. Data is a mass noun. Grammatically, we are supposed to refer to it in the plural. Data are beautiful. Data are weird. Usage like this already implies some notion of mass. Through our everyday interactions with technology, we amass data about living, actions, histories - our world. These are the data histories of the Anthropocene and they exist forever as a raw material which can be recycled, sculpted and formed. Because data structures are essentially abstract, anything we make out of data can be encoded, mediated and further manipulated. Surprising for many is that data can be communicated across more forms than the conventional charts and plots that we see everywhere. On the surface of it, working with data in non-visual forms might appear to be folly or playful experimentation. In practice though, it becomes more revelatory. When relying less on visual thinking, we begin to get glimpses into fluid forms of representation and purpose that seem to hold promise and value for data production, ideation and consumption. And value, here, is not solely a commodified one. Value means enriching everyone’s understanding about data, opening more inclusive ways of helping folk understand what data is about, what it can communicate. Alternatives to the conventional representations of data, might perhaps help demystify why data…