Connor Thompson on Data and Art

By The Digital Humanities Editorial Team

My love affair with the digital humanities program at UCLA began with a spreadsheet.

Day one of DH101, I arrived to class in a funk. Like many DH students, I had an extremely vague idea of how the minor and overall discipline would go. As an economics student, my education at UCLA so far had been limited to logic and metrics. I felt lost in my own education, eager to use a different part of my brain.

By the end of the second week of class we were put into teams and given a single spreadsheet – 200,000 records relating to acquisitions at the museum of modern art. We had one task: use our spreadsheet to develop a research argument and support it with a strong digital narrative.

I had never coded before and thought of excel as “that thing that annoyingly opens when I really want Word,” not exactly a tool for large-scale analysis. The notion that I was supposed to learn to code and design in 8 weeks was daunting to say the least.

However, over the next few weeks, I learned that being successful in DH isn’t about how well you code or conduct analyses – it’s about understanding the context that our analyses exist in. An algorithm is only as strong as its data, and our data is manipulated by our biases and perspectives.

Ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and history all play a crucial role in understanding our digital world, and we cannot equivocate data to truth. Knowing how to analyze data is just a start; taking that data and viewing it through a humanist lens makes all the difference.

By our final week in DH101, my team and I had developed a website and a series of data visualizations highlighting the history of Japanese Acquisitions at MoMA. The skills that seemed so foreign to me just ten weeks prior were now an integral part of the way I approach research, and the world.

DH has been the singular focus of my education and career. I started my journey with the program data-illiterate, with some vague ideas around visualization and technology. Three years later, I’m leaving DH as a designer, analyst, and digital humanities scholar.