Thursday, February 14, 2008

Machines and Data

Sometimes you stumble on something, but you don’t know if it is anything. While browsing through the book “Designing Modernity” from the Wolfsonian in Miami, I was looking at some of the artwork from the 1920ies and 1930ies that glorify the emerging world of the machine (and human’s interaction with them). I could not avoid the impression that data has become the glorified “Machine” of today’s decade. There is just fewer direct artistic expression of this glorified item “data”, but we seem to speak with as much reverence about it as the artists have portrayed the positive power of machines. But even beyond this potential substitute of machines with data as the underlying power of progress, there seems to be an intricate relationship between machines and data.

The rise of the machine enabled the accumulation and manipulation of a larger amount of data than ever before. But what is a machine? Wikipedia says that a machine is any device that transmits or modifies energy. In common usage, the meaning is restricted to devices having rigid moving parts that perform or assist in performing some work. Machines normally require some energy source (“input”) and always accomplish some sort of work (“output”).

One could argue that the most dominant modern machine, the computer, uses data as its core energy and transforms it into a new set of data. Data becomes the internal mystique and energy of the computer. This might explain why machines are slowly being replaced by data as the symbol of cultural achievement and modernity. We don’t take photos of data or draw quasi realistic images of data interacting with humans in a heroic as artists have done in the 1920ies and 1930ies but our lives are surrounded with screens of data, from CNN’s situation room, to the White House ware room to the two Bloomberg screens that drive our financial world.

The definition of data leads us to a similar view. Wikipedia says that the word data is the plural of the Latin word “datum”, the past participle of “dare”, meaning to give. Therefore it is best translated as “something given”. These givens can be numbers, words, images, etc. Data seem to represent a fundamental truth of life (=something given) whereas machines are purely transformers of energy into something else. Data is replacing machines as the metaphor of today’s life style because computers as the ultimate modern machine do nothing else than transforming data into new data sets, into “new givens”. Computers become pure enablers of creating new data realities, they become just a vehicle and are not anymore the center.
I don’t know if I found something while browsing through these old images but clearly machines and data are tightly linked in today’s modern universe.

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