Data is essential to the acquisition of new knowledge and the accurate transfer of this knowledge to wider audiences. In his lecture, Hanlon defined data as “a thing given.” This is accurate, because data is so often taken for granted. The research and intent behind data collection is forgotten as the numbers, percentages, and predictions are blindly accepted. It is easy to forget that before data was widely used, illustrations and descriptions were the main form of evidence, making knowledge much more difficult to convey with accuracy. The more unsavory aspect of data revolutions, as Hanlon mentioned, is the accompanying decline of the meaning associated with the numbers.
Hanlon cited Robert Hooke’s Micrographia as an example of the pre-data depiction of research. Hooke used images from a microscope to explain his findings, and directed readers to the image when words did not suffice. This combination of images and written explanation requires readers to think more deeply about the information presented, whereas facts and statistics can be glazed over and easily forgotten. Since the information is more difficult to thoroughly present this way, more thorough thought is required to understand it. If a researcher has to interpret a picture or long explanation, the information is much more powerful.
Today, however, information is conveyed much differently. According to Hanlon, the use of the words “data” and “information” increased significantly around the year 1950, and there was no accompanying rise in the use of the word “meaning.” This suggests that data and information are becoming more prevalent, which implies progress and an increase in research and applicable science. However, meaning is becoming detached from these words. Just like the graph Hanlon presented, where the line representing “data” sloped upward and the line representing “meaning” remained stable, data and its meaning are diverging.
The trajectory of this graph can perhaps be attributed to trends occurring in contemporary society. The data revolution, it seems, can be connected to the technological revolution. This is possible because the use of the word “data” increased around the year 1950, which is about the same time as the invention of the computer. These revolutions may have built on each other, and together contributed to a rising impersonality of information. The computer, for example, made immeasurable amounts of data available at the click of a button; it became easy to find the information one sought. Similarly, as data revolutionized from words and images to numbers and statistics, it became easier to digest- researchers did not have to read deeply as frequently to seek out the purpose of the information. This detaches researchers from the process behind the acquisition of knowledge, the connections behind different pieces of information, because bits of data are so readily available.
The data revolution encompasses the progression from image and written observation-based information to graphs and numerical data. This is scientific progress and shows a growing understanding of information- on the part of those who actually collect it. Those who digest it, however, are discouraged from thinking deeply about it because they do not have to.