Stalin’s PowerPoint
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Stalin’s PowerPoint

Information design has entered the mainstream in the past decade. No longer the exclusive domain of scientific literature, tables, network diagrams, scatter plots, and polar graphs are now a routine occurrence on the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The tools for creating such graphics are increasingly accessible to the non-specialist. These range from “canned” charts in spreadsheet and presentation software, to powerful interactive data visualization platforms like Gephi and Graphviz, to fully-customizable programming languages and language libraries like D3.js, Python’s matplotlib, and Processing. And yet, data visualization, conceived as an object of study, has been slow to penetrate academic literature, particularly in the humanities. A researcher working with quantified visual methods may be expected to wield the tools, but will find it a difficult task to consult an authoritative history of their usage. The widely available series on the display of quantitative information by Edward Tufte’s is often recommended in this regard, but constitutes more of a style guide than a book of history or criticism. His methodology usually consists of analyzing an ad-hoc corpus of illustrations, culled from the annals of space exploration, cartography, advertising, newsprint, and propaganda, with the purpose of making a normative point related to the best or worst practices in the field. My treatment of the Soviet materials in this article aspires to make a modest contribution to a particular teaches courses on narrative in the history of modern art. The larger ambition is to stage a new thematic, influenced by the contemporary practice of data visualization. Such an experiment in history making leads to a rich archive and to novel explanatory models that avoid some of the limitations of traditional historiography. [End Page 253]

Thin data

For those not familiar with Tufte’s work, a good place to start is his pamphlet on The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. This short—30 pages or so—work offers an elegant argument against certain pernicious data-presentation practices pervasive among corporate and government bureaucracies. The problem with PowerPoint, according to Tufte, is in its template system. The program encourages sequential, low-density, “thin” information, organized in neat bullet points that can be read from far away. This method of communication works well for a corporate sales pitch, but is problematic when used by NASA engineers, for example, as illustrated in the case of the space shuttle Columbia. Tufte argues that in analyzing what seemed to be a relatively minor take-off accident, NASA engineers presented their findings in PowerPoint slides (instead of printed technical reports), which served to obscure crucial information that could have prevented the disaster. The consequent report by the Columbia Accident Investigation board largely agreed with Tufte’s findings, recommending against this practice, which it called, derisively, “engineering by PowerPoint.”1

For the historian who finds this type of analysis convincing, Tufte’s work contains several important implications. The first is thematic. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and its companion volumes contain a wealth of historical material that does not normally find its way into the history books. Tufte does not aim to write a history, however. Similar in purpose to William J. Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style, VDQI is a manual of sorts. It is a collection of best (and worst) data design practices. Where Tufte includes the illustrations to make a normative point, he also begins to outline a systematic history of data visualization. Despite the contemporary ubiquity of bar graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, and network diagrams, little critical attention is devoted to the phenomenon outside of the data design community. However contemporary the figures seem to the reader, Tufte’s compendium shows a glimpse of a vast and still-unexamined historical archive. The scholarship of Johanna Drucker, Ian Hacking, Lev Manovich, and Warren Sack, among other select few researchers, has breached the subject. But the output remains largely theoretical. Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics is the closest thing we have to a comprehensive synchronic treatment of diagrams, networks, and maps. Seminal diachronic work is absent for even the basic figures.

“Critical understanding of visual knowledge...