Class 5 (English 146DS – Winter 2021)

Class Business

  • Office hours
  • Feedback on Solo Assignment 1 (in GauchoSpace)
  • Looking ahead to Thursday:
    • Readings
    • Forming into teams:

Plan for class:  Discussion of the history of “data”  Arrow right  Discussion of the idea of data

Visual Epigraph for Class

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Data” from Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series (1987-1994)

Data “are” or “is”?

  • Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson, “Introduction” to “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron

Data are everywhere and piling up in dizzying amounts. (1)

The word data has become what is called a mass noun, so it can take a singular verb. Sentences that include the phrase “data is …’ are now roughly four times as common (on the web, at least, and according to Google) as those including “data are …’ despite countless grammarians out there who will insist that data is a plural. (8)

  • Daniel Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact”

Already in the eighteenth century, stylists argued over whether the word was singular or plural, and whether a foreign word of its ilk belonged in English at all. In Latin, data, is always plural, but in English, even in the eighteenth century, common usage has allowed “data” to function either as a plural or as a collective singular. (18-19)

The association of data with diagrams and graphs … and with numbers and mathematical functions … leads us to the general precept that data are abstract. While this quality can make it hard to think or write about data in general—that is, in the abstract—it follows from their abstraction that data ironically require material expression. The retention and manipulation of abstractions require stuff, material things. (6)

This leads us to a second general precept, that data are aggregative. They pile up. They are collected in assortments of individual, homologous data entries and are accumulated into larger or smaller data sets. (8)

Implications for Data Stories

oral storytelling scene

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, “The Forager Oral Tradition and the Evolution of Prolonged Juvenility” (2011)

One way that foragers share information is by “telling the hunt” … —that is, by recounting and listening to others recount their hunting experiences. (2)

Narrative is a highly memorable verbal format …; as such, it might plausibly be used as a means of storing and transmitting foraging knowledge. Due to this verbal nature, however, storytelling is better suited for transmitting certain kinds of information than others. (9)

Here another analogy may be helpful. Like events imagined and enunciated against the continuity of time, data are imagined and enunciated against the seamlessness of phenomena. (3)

“story” : “plot” :: “raw data” : “cooked data” (?)

“Data is given . . .”

  • Daniel Rosenberg, “Data before the Fact”

The word “data” comes to English from Latin. It is the plural of the Latin word datum, which itself is the neuter past participle of the verb dare, to give. A “datum” in English, then, is something given in an argument, something taken for granted. (18) [cf., “Analyse des données”]

In these early years, the term “data” was still employed, especially in the realm of mathematics, where it retained the technical sense that it has in Euclid, as quantities given in mathematical problems, as opposed to the quaesita, or quantities sought, and in the realm of theology, where it referred to scriptural truths — whether principles or facts — that were given by God and therefore not susceptible to questioning. In the seventeenth century, in theology, one could already speak of “historical data,” but “historical data” referred to precisely the sorts of information that were outside of the realm of the empirical. These were the God-given facts and principles that grounded the historian’s ability to determine the quaesita of history. (19)

… from the beginning, data was a rhetorical concept. Data means—and has meant for a very long time—that which is given prior to argument. As a consequence, the meaning of data must always shift with argumentative strategy and context—and with the history of both. (36)

It is tempting to want to give data an essence, to define what exact kind of fact data is. But this misses the most important aspect of the term, and it obscures why the term became so useful in the mid-twentieth century. Data has no truth. Even today, when we speak of data, we make no assumptions at all about veracity. Electronic data, like the data of the early modern period, is given. It may be that the data we collect and transmit has no relation to truth or reality whatsoever beyond the reality that data helps us to construct. (37)

There are important distinctions here: facts are ontological, evidence is epistemological, data is rhetorical. A datum may also be a fact, just as a fact may be evidence. But, from its first vernacular formulation, the existence of a datum has been independent of any consideration of corresponding ontological truth. When a fact is proven false, it ceases to be a fact. False data is data nonetheless. (18)

  • A look ahead to Class 10 in our course