Making Research Tactile: Critical Making and Data Physicalization in Digital Humanities

This special issue of dh+lib introduces our readers to how digital humanities can integrate data physicalization into the research process and how data physicalization is a form of critical making. Seven case studies are presented here, ranging from how we can use data physicalization to teach digital methods to how data physicalization can aid in the creation of research objects.

What is data physicalization?

Before we get too deep into the work itself, what is data physicalization? Essentially data physicalizations are tangible objects whose appearance, form, and design are informed by data. Rather than making a traditional “flat” data visualization in Tableau, Python, or some other software, these projects use textiles, clay, fiber, and more to present their information. There are many terms for this process, like physical data visualization, embodied data visualizations, data materialization, but we are using data physicalization as it is a term that has been long adopted by design fields already. 

Data physicalization can also incorporate themes from other critical data fields. Data physicalization shares a lot with data feminism, and in particular in the ways it makes labor visible. While traditional visualizations can sometimes appear effortless, physicalizations often emphasize the hands of their makers. That labor also promotes deeper relationships between the practitioner and their data, as they spend more time directly interacting with the data (Cleghorn 2019). For readers of the physicalizations, they can engage them both visually and haptically, creating a deeper engagement with the information presented. That care and attention makes data physicalizations a tool with a lot of potential for projects dealing with data about people and can function as data visceralizations. Many makers see data physicalization as a way to reassert human elements back into data processes that are often abstracted and distanced from the subjects of representation. The possibility for tangible connection—by the maker and the viewer—engender rehumanization.

Why in DH?

So why would a digital humanities need data physicalization? Would a data sculpture or quilt even count as digital humanities work? If we take an expansive definition of digital humanities, where digital humanities is the process of using technologies to help us pursue and answer humanities questions, then digital humanities doesn’t have to be digital. Indeed, not all technologies are digital, and exploring non-digital technology can help us reconnect to another meaning of digital, referring to fingers and hands, which underscores the broader issue of how we can think about computation as something extra- or non-human rather than being a fundamental part of the human experience. Woodwork, ceramics, and weaving are all technologies that predate computers. In fact advanced weaving looms helped inspire the first computers. Weaving, knitting, lacemaking are all algorithmic and such fabric-based making is a way of demystifying how computers function – they aren’t these weird magic boxes, but are related to these everyday activities that have been going on, in some cases, for millennia (Harlizius-Klück 2017). By integrating physicalization into our practice, we better understand data and computing as part of our human existence rather than solely the province of machines. And by integrating these types of skills into our digital humanities practice, we can begin to credit more forms of knowledge in the academy. While data sciences and heavily computational digital humanities place a high value on coding skills, which can benefit particular genders and socio-economic backgrounds, elevating skills like crochet and embroidery as technical and academic skills allows us to acknowledge a wider variety of traditional knowledge (Haas 2008).

Additionally, data physicalization can be a critical data practice. These types of visualization help us explore the ways power impacts the data we study and utilize, thereby enabling a particular ethic of digital humanities praxis. Data physicalizations are slower than traditional visualizations, and that slowness promotes a deeper connection between the practitioner and the data themselves. Additionally it can take longer for a viewer to interpret a physicalization, and that process of translation can encourage a more meaningful relationship between the viewer and the data. For data on sensitive subjects, like people or the environment, this time can help both the researcher and the reader to reflect on the story being told. 

This work isn’t new to digital humanities. Two entries in the Debates in Digital Humanities series, Making Things and Drawing Boundaries (Sayers 2018) and Bodies of Information (Losh and Wernimont 2019), both touch on making and materiality in digital humanities, and there have been digital humanities data physicalizations (Webber-Bey 2014). However as the #DHMakes community continues to grow and more scholars turn to making as a way to engage in their research, libraries need to be involved in these conversations too. 

Why in libraries?

But why should libraries, and those who work within them, care? Data physicalization can be a great partner for traditional digital humanities instruction, teaching technological methods without using a computer (D’Ignazio 2022). This can help students engage with data-oriented and humanities-oriented computational thinking while simultaneously addressing tech anxiety. It allows the instruction to be more focused on scaffolding and embodying data literacy concepts than on specific software, giving students the skills to then apply the information to their own research (Russell and Hensley 2017). Additionally, by familiarizing themselves with diverse research methods, libraries will be better prepared to support a variety of learning styles and needs. 

In this issue

This issue consists of seven data physicalization case studies taking inspiration from cooking blogs: each study is framed as a narrative about the author’s experience; several studies include an accompanying pattern for the reader to try. These patterns have been gathered into a zine that you all are welcome to print and share. The issue covers a range of methods, from weaving to programming wearables, and a variety of topics, like dealing with failure and considerations for coming up with the design of a data physicalization. 

We hope this special issue can serve as an invitation to join us in this work. Please try making any of the patterns in our zine, post pictures of what you make using #DHMakes—a hashtag many folks in the community have been using—and if you find more readings on this topic, or write one yourself, add it to our Zotero group  of resources on data physicalization. And when the call for proposals for the second part in this series comes out, consider submitting something to it! 

Citations

Cleghorn, Ripley. 2019. “Why You Should Close the Computer for Your Next Data Visualization.” Nightingale (blog). October 2, 2019. https://medium.com/nightingale/why-you-should-close-the-computer-for-your-next-data-visualization-3636663d0b35.

D’Ignazio, Catherine. 2022. “Creative Data Literacy: Bridging the Gap between the Data-Haves and Data-Have Nots.” Information Design Journal, July, 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1075/idj.23.1.03dig.

Haas, Angela M. 2008. “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19 (4): 77–100. https://doi.org/10.1353/ail.2008.0005.

Harlizius-Klück, Ellen. 2017. “Weaving as Binary Art and the Algebra of Patterns.” TEXTILE 15 (2): 176–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/14759756.2017.1298239.

Losh, Elizabeth, and Jacqueline Wernimont, eds. 2019. Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, Minn. London: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Russell, John E., and Merinda Kaye Hensley. 2017. “Beyond Buttonology: Digital Humanities, Digital Pedagogy, and the ACRL Framework | Russell | College & Research Libraries News,” December. https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.78.11.588.

Sayers, Jentery, ed. 2018. Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities. 1st edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Webber-Bey, Deimosa. 2014. “Runaway Quilt Project: Digital Humanities Exploration of Quilting During the Era of Slavery.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, no. 6 (November). https://cuny.manifoldapp.org/read/runaway-quilt-project-digital-humanities-exploration-of-quilting-during-the-era-of-slavery-0f3051c0-9511-4642-9c91-9f47ad761442/section/f7beacd0-44e9-4c22-be61-8c2d5c0e01a0.

By Claudia Berger, John Russell, Pamella Lach, and Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara.

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