The Line Graph and the Slave Ship: Rethinking the Origins of Data Visualization


In the world today, when we encounter a line graph or a pie chart, we tend to think of the role of visualization—if we think of it at all—as simply revealing the meaning of the data underneath. The reality, however, is that the act of visualizing data generates meaning in and of itself. “The Line Graph and the Slave Ship” returns to the origins of modern data visualization in order to excavate this meaning. Exploring two examples of early data visualization—the line graphs of British trade data included in William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas (1786) and the Diagram of a Slave Ship (1789) created and circulated by a group of British antislavery activists—this talk will connect Enlightenment theories of visual and statistical knowledge to contemporaneous ideas about race and nation. By examining and re-visualizing the data associated with these charts, I will further show how data visualization always carries a set of implicit assumptions—and, at times, explicit arguments—about how knowledge is produced, and who is authorized to produce it. Placing this visualization work in the context of my larger project, Data By Design: An Interactive History of Data Visualization, I will conclude with a consideration of the ethics of visualization in the present. Through a discussion of contemporary examples, I will show how data visualization can bear witness to instances of oppression at the same time that it can—if intentionally designed—hold space for what cannot be conveyed through data alone.

About the Speaker

Lauren Klein is Winship Distinguished Research Professor and Associate Professor in the departments of English and Quantitative Theory & Methods at Emory University, where she also directs the Digital Humanities Lab. Before moving to Emory, she taught in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Klein works at the intersection of digital humanities, data science, and early American literature, with a focus on issues of gender and race. She has designed platforms for exploring the contents of historical newspapers, modeled the invisible labor of women abolitionists, and recreated forgotten visualization schemes with fabric and addressable LEDs. In 2017, she was named one of the “rising stars in digital humanities” by Inside Higher Ed. She is the author of An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and, with Catherine D’Ignazio, Data Feminism (MIT Press, 2020). With Matthew K. Gold, she edits Debates in the Digital Humanities, a hybrid print-digital publication stream that explores debates in the field as they emerge. Her current project, Data by Design: An Interactive History of Data Visualization, 1786-1900, was recently funded by an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant. 

Date: Wednesday, February 15 at 2:00-3:15pm
Speaker: Lauren Klein


Event/Exhibit Information
February 15, 2023 - 2:00pm