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

Thursday, March 30, 2023 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm
Sterling Memorial Library
120 High Street
New Haven, CT 06511

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. In her talk, “The Line Graph and the Slave Ship,” Lauren Klein 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, Klein 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 her larger project, “Data By Design: An Interactive History of Data Visualization,” Klein will conclude with a consideration of the ethics of visualization in the present. Through a discussion of contemporary examples, she 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.

This event is being co-sponsored by the DHLab, the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, and the Department of Computer Science. Due to technical limitations it will be held in-person only and will not be streamed.

Speaker: Dr. Lauren Klein, Winship Distinguished Research Professor and Associate Professor in the departments of English and Quantitative Theory & Methods at Emory University