Ode to Spot: We need to talk about Data (and narrative).

We need to talk about data. And narrative. In fact, data and narrative need to talk to each other, work some issues out, attend relationship counselling, try to recapture that “spark,” that “special something” that kept bringing them together, that has made them, at times, seem inseparable, but also led to some pretty fiery clashes.

So, what’s the deal? What is the relationship between data and narrative? What role does narrative play in our use of data? What role does data play in our fashioning of narrative? How much of what we have to say about each is determined by pre-established notions we have about either one of these entities? Why did I instinctively opt, for example, while writing the previous two sentences, to refer to data as something that is “used” and narrative as something that is “fashioned”? And further still is it correct to refer to them as wholly distinct? Can we have a narrative that is bereft of data? And are data or datasets wholly bereft of narrative?

Data and narrative are presented by some as being irreconcilable or antithetical. Lev Manovich presents them as “natural enemies”[1] whereas Jesse Rosenthal, speaking in the context of the relationship between fictional narratives and data, observes how “the novel form itself is consistently adept at expressing the discomfort that data can produce: the uncertainty in the face of a central part of modern existence that seems to resist being brought forward into understanding.”[2] Todd Presner argues that data and narrative exist in a proto-antagonistic relationship wherein narrative begat data, and data begat narrative. I use antagonistic here in the sense of musculature, with the relationship between narrative and data being analogous to why you’re not able to flex your biceps and your triceps at the same time, because for one to flex, the other must relax or straighten.

Presner situates database and narrative as being at odds or somehow irreconcilable

because databases are not narratives […] they are formed from data (such as keywords) arranged in relational tables which can be queried, sorted, and viewed in relation to tables of other data. The relationships are foremost paradigmatic or associative relations […] since they involve rules that govern the selection or suitability of terms, rather than the syntagmatic, or combinatory elements, that give rise to narrative. Database queries are, by definition, algorithms to select data according to a set of parameters.[3]

So databases are not narratives, and while narratives can contain (or be built on data), they are not data-proper. This means there is a continual transference between data and narrative in either direction, a transference that is all the more explicit and controversial in the transition from an analogue to a digital environment. This transition, the extraction of data from narrative, or the injection of data into narrative, is a process that has significant ethical and epistemological implications:

The effect is to turn the narrative into data amenable to computational processing. Significantly, this process is exactly the opposite of what historians usually do, namely to create narratives from data by employing source material, evidence, and established facts into a narrative.[4]

Rosenthal also presents data and narrative as operating in this interrelated but tiered manner, with narrative being built on data, or data serving as the building blocks of narrative. And while Rosenthal focuses on fictional narratives, this is the case irrespective of whether the narrative in question is fictional or non-fictional because, after all, non-fictional narrative is still narrative.[5] Whereas Presner focuses on the complications surrounding the relationship between narrative and data in digital environments, Rosenthal’s engagement is more open to and acknowledging of the established and dynamic nature of the relationship between narrative and data in literature: “Narrative and data play off against each other, informing each other and broadening our understanding of each.”[6]

Data and narrative could be said to exist in a dynamic, dyadic relationship then. Indeed, Kathryn Hayles argues that data and narrative are symbiotic and should be seen as “natural symbionts.”[7] So their relationship is symbiotic, rather than antagonistic; they intermingle and their relationship is mutually beneficial, with data perhaps adding credence to narrative (fictional or otherwise) and narrative helping us understand data by making clear to us what the data is saying, or has the capacity to say (in the eyes of the person working with it). That said, if they are symbionts, what is the ratio of their intermingling? Is it possible for a narrative become data-heavy or data-saturated? Does this impede the narrative from being narrative?  Would a data-driven narrative read something along the lines of Data’s poem to his pet cat Spot from Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) Season Six Episode Five:

Ode To Spot

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,

An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;

Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses

Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,

A singular development of cat communications

That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection

For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;

You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.

And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,

It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behaviour you display

Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.

And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,

I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

This “ode” is an example of a piece of writing so data-laden[8] that the momentum of the narrative is hampered, or rather the lyricism necessary to bring Data’s sweet ode to his cat into Shakespeare territory is seriously lacking. And what do I mean by lyricism? Well, the answer to that is relatively simple, just take a look at Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

     So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In contrast to the Data-ode, and to the lyrical Shakespearian ode, would a narrative that is almost entirely bereft of data (and arguably also bereft of narrative, but let’s not go there) read something like a Trump rally speech?

A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.

(APPLAUSE)

Because they have no sources, they just make ’em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said, “Nine people have confirmed.” There’re no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people.

And I said, “Give me a break.” Because I know the people, I know who they talk to. There were no nine people.

But they say “nine people.” And somebody reads it and they think, “Oh, nine people. They have nine sources.” They make up sources.

They’re very dishonest people. In fact, in covering my comments, the dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people. The fake news. They dropped off the word “fake.” And all of a sudden the story became the media is the enemy.

They take the word “fake” out. And now I’m saying, “Oh no, this is no good.” But that’s the way they are.

So I’m not against the media, I’m not against the press. I don’t mind bad stories if I deserve them.

And I tell ya, I love good stories, but we don’t go…

(LAUGHTER)

I don’t get too many of them.

But I am only against the fake news, media or press. Fake, fake. They have to leave that word.

I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources.

They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.

(APPLAUSE)

“A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being.” Let ’em say it to my face.

(APPLAUSE)

Let there be no more sources.[9]

And now, by means of apology and for some brief respite, I offer you a meme of Data.

But are these our only options? Are narrative and data really at odds in this way? Is there a way to reconcile narrative and the database? Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of data and narrative as being at odds with each other; perhaps it is necessary to break down this dyad and facilitate better integration?

Traditionally, narrative driven criticism took the form of “retelling,” what Rosenthal calls an “artful,” or “opinionated reshaping” of the underlying evidence (aka the data) whereas more contemporaneous data driven criticism largely takes the form of visualisations that attempts to, as Rosenthal puts it, “let the data speak for itself, without mediation.”[10] This turn to the visual is driven by a hermeneutic belief akin to Ellen Gruber Garvey’s assertion that “Data will out.”[11] But this is something of a contradiction of terms considering elsewhere we are told (by Daniel Rosenberg) that data has a “pre-analytical, pre-factual status,”[12] that data is an entity “that resists analysis,”[13] but can also be “rhetorical,”[14] that “False data is data nonetheless”[15] and that “Data has no truth. Even today, when we speak about data, we make no assumptions about veracity.”[16] Borgman elaborates, stating that “Data are neither truth nor reality. They may be facts, sources of evidence, or principles of an argument that are used to assert truth or reality.”[17] That’s a lot of different data on data.

Fictional narratives can be built on supposedly reputable data, this helps the reader to suspend their disbelief and “believe in” the fictions they encounter within the narrative. Supposedly non-fictional narratives, such as presidential speeches, can be based on tenuously obtained, fabricated data, or can make reference to data that is not proffered, and may not even exist, rather like dressing a corgi up in a suit and asking it for a political manifesto.

What we’ve looked at today concerns the evolving discomfiture of our difficulties outlining the relationship between narrative and data. In the interplay between analogue and digital, different factions emerge regarding the relationship between data and narrative, with narrative and data variously presented as being anathematic, antagonistic, or symbiotic, with data presented as something one can be either “for” or “against” and with distinct preferences for one or the other (either narrative or data) being shown on a discipline specific, researcher specific, author specific level. At the same time, irrespective of which of these positions you adopt, it is clear that data and narrative are intricately linked and deeply necessary to each other. The question is then, how can one facilitate and elucidate the other best in a digital environment?

[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, 2002, 228.

[2] Jesse Rosenthal, “Introduction: ‘Narrative against Data,’” Genre 50, no. 1 (April 1, 2017): 2., doi:10.1215/00166928-3761312.

[3] Presner, in Fogu, Claudio, Kansteiner, Wulf, and Presner, Todd, Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture, History Unlimited (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674970519.

[4] Presner, in ibid.

[5] “Yet the narrative relies for its coherence on our unexamined belief that a preexisting series of events underlies it. While data depends on a sense of irreducibility, narrative relies on a fiction that it is a retelling of something more objective. […] The coherence of the novel form, then, depends on making us believe that there is something more fundamental than narrative.” Rosenthal, “Introduction,” 2–3.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] N. Katherine Hayles, “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts,” PMLA 122, no. 5 (2007): 1603.

[8] And of course it’s data-laden, it was composed by Data, a Soong-type android, so basically a walking computer, albeit a mega-advanced one.

[9] “Transcript of President Trump’s CPAC Speech,” http://time.com/4682023/cpac-donald-trump-speech-transcript/

[10] Rosenthal, “Introduction,” 4.

[11] Ellen Gruber Garvey, “‘facts and FACTS:’ Abolitionists’ Database Innovations,” Gitelman, “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron, 90.

[12] Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact,” in Gitelman, “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron, 18.

[13] Rosenthal, “Introduction,” 1.

[14] Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact,” in Gitelman, “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron, 18.

[15] Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact,” in ibid.

[16] Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact,” in ibid., 37.

[17] Christine L. Borgman, “Big Data, Little Data, No Data,” MIT Press, 17, accessed April 7, 2017, https://mitpress.mit.edu/big-data-little-data-no-data. 

2 thoughts on “Ode to Spot: We need to talk about Data (and narrative).

  1. That’s the most interesting blog post I’ve read in a long time, and it is beautifully written too. Thank you. I stumbled on your page whilst looking for information about K-plexes and K-cores (Objective measures of cohesion in sub groups of networks) but this was a very rewarding diversion.

    I have worked in intelligence analysis for quite a few years, and struggle to reconcile narrative with data: Narrative is is required to make sense of the data (I think an argument could be made that placing the data into narrative represents contextualization / identification of implications) and it is definitely required in order to ‘sell’ intelligence product to decision makers – but on the other hand, narrative is where the cognitive biases creep in…. which of the multiple potential narratives that the data supports are you going to choose, and why?

    Excellent blog post, lots to think about! Thanks.

    Like

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks so much for getting in touch and for this feedback, it’s hugely appreciated! Very happy you found the post to be a rewarding diversion. 🙂

      We’ve been thinking and talking quite a lot about the relationship between data and narrative recently, I think your points about contextualization and implication are very apt, and certainly this comes very much to the fore when it comes to selling. But of course then we hit the problem of bias… 😉

      Many thanks again for reaching out!

      Warm wishes,

      Georgina (& the KPLEX team)

      Like

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