Hard Data: The Erotics of Infographics

What is it about charts and graphs that get us hot around the collar?

Jack Koloskus
Ben Lee
Plotting

In his introduction to The Best American Infographics 2016, NPR correspondent and former Radiolab host Robert Krulwich confessed, “The best work in this field grabs those eyes, keeps them glued, and the grip is sensual.... Sometimes the images are just so gorgeous you want to linger and explore and caress them.” Everywhere we turn, data visualizations are flirting with us. Health and fitness tracking tools purvey data on sleep, nutrition, heart rate, and stepping frequency with colorful line and bar graphs. Banking apps and credit card bills are replete with pie charts showing spending habits. Sports broadcasts are punctuated by flashy animations of ball paths and spray charts showing made and missed three-pointers.

Journalistic outlets have joined the orgy. Marquee publications from FiveThirtyEight to The New York Times seduce readers on a daily basis with elaborate infographics that promise quantitative revelations. In an article for Vox, its founder Ezra Klein remarked, “The best visualizations help you see things you never thought the data would tell you.... Some of them genuinely changed the way I think about the world.” In his foreword to The Best American Infographics 2014, Pulitzer Prize winner Gareth Cook extolled the animal pleasures of data visualization. “The best infographics are so satisfying,” he mused. “When the pattern emerges and we see the point, we experience the same primal thrill as a hunter who sees an animal track in a line of broken grass.” Election coverage hinges on infographic explicator Steve Kornacki, a “chart-throb” and “map daddy” who was named one of People’s 2020 Sexiest Men Alive. Interactive line plots and stream graphs showing economic health, approval ratings, and drug deaths draw us in with their curves. We wait with bated breath as election needles quiver and build toward climax.

In business, marketers of data visualization dashboards such as Google Analytics and Chartbeat promise to help customers expose “real-time business insights,” exploiting the hype of “big data.” “Tableau's intuitive and powerful analytics will enable millions more people to discover actionable insights across their entire organizations,” remarked the CEO of the popular data visualization software company in 2019. Here, too, the language is erotically charged: Tableau’s promotional materials describe how data is “dirty” and must be “cleaned” and “tamed” in order to gain insights faster. Tableau is not alone in spreading this language of suggestive domination. “Embrace the power of data visualization,” reads the title of a recent Deloitte blog post. “Data visualization brings data to life, making you the master storyteller of the insights hidden within your numbers,” says Microsoft in advertising its latest business intelligence product, Power BI. In whitepapers, the company speaks of solutions that are “fun” and “sexy” “self-service creations.”

There’s no denying data visualizations have a fetishistic following. The Reddit community r/DataIsBeautiful, a place for ogling infographics, has over 17 million subscribers, making it the 36th most popular subreddit on the entire site. There, readers binge on maps, charts, and graphs with titillating animations and stimulating colors.

The explosion of infographics speaks to an all-encompassing obsession with data visualization that goes beyond a simple aesthetic appreciation. The Harvard Business Review has proclaimed the data scientist as “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” CNN op-eds offer data visualization pointers on “How to Make Data Sexy.” Countless blog posts call infographics “eye candy.” Wired UK offers monthly showcases of favorite data visualizations under the title of “infoporn.” The subreddit r/MapPorn has over a million subscribers.

We have succumbed to an erotics of infographics.

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Spend ten minutes browsing visualizations offered by data-driven newsrooms and media outlets, and you, too, might be seduced. It is the outcome of a visualization-first approach that results in stories pursued not based on their editorial merit but simply because the numbers and spreadsheets are available to create an arousing image. Main offenders include widely-read sites such as The Upshot, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and FiveThirtyEight, the online data journalism outlet long praised for its use of infographics (in a nine-month span of 2014, the site published over 2,000 charts, graphs, and maps). On these sites, you will find entrancing but depthless infographics of sports, trivia, and a potpourri of cultural opinions derived from freely available polling data, web search statistics, and the like. Consider FiveThirtyEight’s countless visualization-based riffs on which sports teams’ fans are happiest, most partisan, or most disappointed by regional TV coverage, or the 2014 infographics on the most common street names, the states with the worst drivers, or the fraction of people who pee in the shower. The topics are in service of flirtations with intriguing graphical representations of data: trellis plots, cumulative treegraphs, chord diagrams, and other experimental plot types abound.

Data journalism’s masturbatory indulgence of infographics lays bare an all-consuming fetishization of data. The website description for FiveThirtyEight emphasizes the use of “hard numbers” in order “to tell compelling stories.” The Upshot’s manifesto stresses that because “the world now produces so much data,” data journalism “deserves to be a big part of the news,” including “unearthing data sets” and “analyzing existing ones.” Hard numbers, datasets, analysis – these are the sexy buzzwords of the data-driven age. Accordingly, these publications’ self-descriptions substitute a lust for data in place of a more rigorous journalistic stance. Surely, this data-first worldview risks perpetuating the fallacious and well-worn trope that “numbers don’t lie.” But more importantly, through the promise of uncovering insights, this worldview imbues data and data-driven analysis with powers that are fundamentally unfounded. We are led to believe that important stories can be illuminated simply by crunching the numbers and visualizing them. It is no surprise that this data-first sentiment is reminiscent of tech culture writ large. The data fetishism embedded within the journalistic practices of FiveThirtyEight et al. is a particular instance of broader fetish beliefs surrounding technology, which geographer David Harvey argues arise “because we endow technologies—mere things—with powers they do not have (e.g., the ability to solve social problems, to keep the economy vibrant, or to provide us with a superior life).” Indeed, it is precisely this fetishism of technology, refracted through the promises and hype of “data analytics” and “big data,” that elevates data journalism’s infographic dalliances from an aesthetics to an erotics.

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The past decade and a half have inundated us with refrains that the solutions to all of our problems – whether political, societal, professional, medical, or emotional – lie in the data, if only we crunch the numbers harder and visualize them properly. A few quick Google searches return a flood of headlines manifesting this data solutionism:

Claims about the “power” of data have crept into every facet of our lives, well beyond just media and business: better recommendations online will make us happier; individual health tracking will increase our lifespans. Given that information visualization is the very practice by which these unhinged promises of data are brought to life and imbued with color and shape, an erotics of infographics is not only consequential but central to the proliferation of these promises. Infographics are a powerful aphrodisiac for ingratiating us to data’s supposed power. The erotics of infographics transmutes the experience of interpreting data – typically portrayed as a cold, sterile, clinical, and objective form of analysis – to one rife with thrill and stimulation.

TED talkers like to say that “data is the new oil,” a crude resource in the form of raw spreadsheets and databases that must be refined through analytics and visualization in order to be properly commodified. The sentiment can be found among CEOs and pundits alike, who have leaned into this language surrounding the commodification of data (“Information is no longer a scarce commodity,” declared Nate Silver in the preface to his bestseller, The Signal and the Noise). “Data is the new oil” is much too reductive, but it gets one thing right: at the end of the day, much of the obsessive interest in data lies in its monetization. And yet, it is no coincidence that whether the endless data-driven solutions deliver or not (and most often, they fail), the beneficiaries of the spotlight end up being the analytics firms and business interests who purvey the solutions in order to generate hype and revenue. Contrary to what the adage would have us believe, it is neither analysis nor number-crunching but rather the erotically-charged promises surrounding the power of data that are the true engines that convert data to dollars.

Data fetishism — the endowment of data with powers that extend well beyond its intrinsic utility —is the crucial link between the erotics and economics of infographics. This is not to say that the creation or dissemination of any particular flashy chart or graph is driven by a direct attempt to cash in – though one can certainly point to examples, such as Tableau’s dashboard demos or Amazon Web Service’s flashy infographics that appear on live NFL broadcasts in order to advertise the company’s analytics services. Rather, when taken as a phenomenon writ large, the erotics of infographics not only extends the seductive promises of data’s power that underpin data fetishism but also further entrenches the lucrative industries of data analytics and artificial intelligence within our daily lives. The end result of the erotics is to undress us, exposing more and more aspects of our existences to monetizable data-driven “solutions.”

Last year, Forbes named “Visualization is a Commodity” as its #1 trend “that will dominate data analytics for the rest of 2021.” “Data visualization is everywhere and in everything, and a recent report projects that the market for visualization tools will expand from $8.85 billion last year to $19.2 billion by 2027,” the article reported. It is here, at the convergence of the economic and the sexual, that the dual sense of “fetish” comes into true focus.

Many scholars have critiqued data visualization as a practice that risks prioritizing form over content and obscuring arguments behind aesthetics. To these critics, the logical response to this aesthetics of infographics is interpretation: a return to content through analysis and hermeneutics that goes beyond the glossy colors and shapes in order to reveal what an infographic is really communicating. “If we find a data visualization beautiful, and acclaim it for its aesthetic qualities, it is at the same time germane to encounter the visualization and its context with a critical eye and mind,” concludes Sara Brinch in Data Visualization in Society. Countering the erotics of infographics, however, necessitates a more substantive and urgent intervention: it requires stripping infographics of fetishism in both the sexual and economic sense. To do so, we must challenge the incessant claims surrounding the power of data and remind ourselves of who, precisely, benefits most from them.

Ben Lee is a writer living in Seattle. He is finishing his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Washington.