In Ancient Rome each male citizen had to register with the state every five years. He had to list his holdings – money, slaves, and wife (yes, wives were “possessions”). This Census, as it was called, was a way of the state knowing, among other things, who constituted the populus and how to tax them. This list of citizens could get very long. When needed, the list could be presented in a way that extracted useful information quickly. Maybe the 100 richest citizens and the amount of gold they possessed. It was an infographic.
Things have gotten a bit more complex since then. But we’re still counting and still needing to make sense of all that is counted. And we are producing more infographics than ever. I would say we live in the age of infographics. Nothing symbolizes our current era of computerization and networking quite like it.
Computers Counting and Talking All Over The Place
Every 10 years the federal government sends out hundreds of thousands of people who go out and collect data. This information is then compiled in a central location, and nice tables and charts are made. Unfortunately, these tables and charts are giving us a lot of bad news these days – rising inequality and entrenched poverty. But that is another story. Now, instead of going out and surveying people, and then aggregating that information through human labor, we just ask all the computer chips we’ve got tucked away everywhere to count this and count that.
Because we have gotten so good at building small, but powerful computers we can put them almost anywhere. With the coming of the “internet of things” we will have numerous computers tucked away in all kinds of appliances, gathering data.
These computers will be networked, talking to each other, and exchanging the data they’ve collected. Imagine that you have a fitness device – with a tiny computer installed counting calories, steps, time of day, etc. The computer in your coffeemaker is also fit with a computer, and counting. Maybe how often you brew, when you brew, and so on. These things will eventually all be networked through your wi-fi, and talking to each other:
“Rod has just ran 6 miles, he will be home soon.”
“OK. I’ll brew coffee.”
Several months of this and a nice infographic about people like me, complete with fancy graphics of coffee consumption, and exercise can be produced.
Of course, some infographics are high on graphics, but low on info. Here is one that promoted the movie Thor: The Dark World, with some “data” on superheroes:
But the best infographics combine data with some type of visualization that helps us understand that data. Here is an infographic from Austrialia describing cybercrime trends in that country:
And that is why they are so useful. We are awash in information, and we’ve got to make sense of it somehow. Infographics are the best tool we have of explaining complex data to a mass audience.
Meet Your New Boss – the Chief Data Officer
Infographics have become so important that many of our most powerful companies and organizations make high profile hires of “data chiefs” or “chief digital officers” or “data editors”:
- Earlier this year the New York Times hired Chief Data Officer is Columbia University mathematician Chris Wiggins
- This summer The Guardian hired Alberton Nardelli, founder of Tweetminster, as Data Editor
- Think it’s all about newspapers? Meet Coca Cola’s Chief Information Officer Esat Sezer
If you are interested in seeing the who’s who data, think about attending the Chief Data Officer Summit in New York on the 3rd and 4th of December. I wonder how many black rimmed sunglasses, skinny ties, and overpriced Macs will be in that room?!
Promise and Peril
As a sociologist, the age of the infographic makes me optimistic. If sociology departments get on the bus early enough, they will be perfectly suited to produce data officers for generations to come. Sociologists are good at knowing the groups that matter and what factors affect those groups. In other words, they know what data is important. Also, sociologists learn ways of analyzing macro data. And so they know what to do with that important data. Maybe my discipline will enter into a new golden age very soon.
But as someone who occasionally wears a tin-foil hat, I worry that there is far too much data collection going on. At my new position, I am confronted with having to use only authorized computers on the school’s network – these are machines they can remotely control, monitor, and collect data from. There is no open wi-fi, and I must always be logged into a verified user account – IP activity can be monitored unless I use some kind of encryption. And even the use of the copy machine is monitored! I have to swipe my ID card – so that the number of copies, and maybe even what is being copied itself – can be monitored. My fear is that in a world of data collection we will all be reduced to infographics being monitored by Big Brother.