What Visualisation Can’t Show Us

Publishing Blog

Humans have always been engineering more innovative ways to convey information, though the process has evolved greatly since the introduction of the internet. Data visualisation projects have benefited greatly from this interconnected era, as they are immensely reliant on large amounts of information. This is because it increases the accuracy of their representation (so long as the information is both relevant and accurate).

Defining an untruthful representation may be more difficult than it seems. The issue of content reliability is ancient; Plato’s Sophist questions if “when we say that he deceives us with an illusion, and that his art is illusory, do we mean that our soul is led by his art to think falsely…?” It is agreed that using an image to misconstrue something is a form of lying, and such has been accepted since Plato’s time. The difficulty in visualising a concept ‘truthfully’ lies in the way it may be interpreted (due to how varying elements are represented) –the value for one thing over another, while not a direct lie, can easily lead to misconceptions. This is dangerous whether done purposefully or not.

Guy Debord suggests that “The function of… celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner”. The performative nature of celebrity culture very much mirrors Plato’s concept; that things are often not what they seem. Just as we don’t know a celebrity as more than their public persona, we also often don’t know the validity of the information visualised for us. Understanding what isn’t visualised in a representation is as important as seeing what is. An article by Alison Abbott, titled ‘Humanity’s cultural history captured in 5-minute film’ very much embodies this issue. Evidently, there is something lost when visualising 2600 years of human history in the span of five minutes. The 120000 people represented are quite a small group relative to the scale of time, and were chosen due to the availability of their birth and death locations. Even if we are to set the sample size aside, what sort of representation does this give us of the people who are shown? It only tells us as much of their lives as the visual information.

There is definitely a use for such visualisation; despite the lack of causal information; seeing the results represented in such a way may teach us something about both the past and the present. The most important thing to bear in mind is that, like any data, it is a representation only of the participants – assumptions based on what is often shallow information can be misleading, and misrepresent people easily.



[online] Abbott, Alison (2014) ‘Humanity’s cultural history captured in 5-minute film’, Nature, July 31st, <http://www.nature.com/news/humanity-s-cultural-history-captured-in-5-minute-film-1.15650&gt;

[online] Debord, Guy (n.d.) ‘Unity and Division Within Appearances’, The Society of the Spectacle <http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/3.htm&gt; [parts 54-61]

[online] Plato (n.d.) on ‘art and illusion’ in ‘a snippet of a dialogue: Theodorus – Theaetetus – Socrates – an Eleatic stranger’ from Sophist, <http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plato/plato-sophist.asp?pg=34&gt;


[First published 13 September 2015]


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