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  • Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 by Orit Halpern
  • Elisabeth Engel
Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945, by Orit Halpern. Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2015. ix, 342 pp. $99.95 US (cloth)1, $27.95 US (paper or e-book).

The question of how information and communication technologies affect society has been a much-debated topic since the inception of computers in the 1950s. Orit Halpern justifiably suggests that we consider the problem from a historical perspective. In her book, Beautiful Data, she traces the rise of digital infrastructure since World War II and argues that it documents a "shift in attitudes to recording and displaying information" that made data appear aesthetic, valuable, and therefore ideologically powerful (1). Halpern's focus on the look and feel of data distinguishes her work from historiography that often examines technological devices as key elements of the ongoing digital revolution. Her research objective is, instead, to reveal the "historical construction of vision and cognition" (2) that is implied in digital representations of information. Framed this way, Halpern asserts her narrative as one that registers transformations in governmentality, such as the managing and training of perception or the fashioning of the user as a new subjectivity.

The object of Halpern's analysis is cybernetics, a transdisciplinary field of study that deals with the discovery, design, and application of principles of regulation and communication. Defined as "the language used to describe a transformation in life and a new technological condition related to, but not reducible to, digital computers" (39), Halpern tells the history of cybernetics as one of "paradigms" (29) and "patterns" (31) that spread across, and thereby connected, diverse fields of activity and expertise in the second half of the twentieth century. This narrative involves a wide array of case studies and contexts. One trajectory concerns built environments, such as the city Songdo in South Korea, which was built from [End Page 656] scratch in the 2000s, the ibm pavilion at New York World's Fair in 1964–1965, the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, and the sculpture gardens designed by the environmental artist Isamu Noguchi in the 1960s at the ibm headquarters in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Another trajectory engages the intellectual writings of significant innovators in various disciplines who shared an interest in communication theories and computing. Here Halpern includes the cybernetician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), the artist György Kepes (1906–2001), the urban planner Kevin Lynch (1918–1984), the designers Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988), the political scientist Karl Deutsch (1912–1992), and the neuropsychologist Warren McCulloch (1898–1969). Finally, Halpern's account is characterized by a large number of illustrations. The selection of fifty-five diagrams, flow charts, dot stereograms, aerial surveys, perceptual maps, and many others shows that cybernetics was not simply about visualizing data, but about developing graphic ways of reasoning.

Halpern organizes the historical material into four thematic chapters. Titled "Archiving," "Visualizing," "Rationalizing," and "Governing," the arrangement prompts the reader to see an "accumulation of densities" in which findings are related in a synchronic as well as diachronic fashion. According to Halpern, this approach serves to challenge a history of "deterministic relations" and to emulate "the new infrastructures of knowledge and aesthetics" that she explores (36). While this method honours historiographical critiques of causality, it tends to obscure the case studies' temporal and geographic contextualization.

The first chapter introduces key concepts of cybernetics, such as feedback, control, and communication, as conceived during World War II at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and differentiates them from modern ideas of knowledge and techniques of archiving. The second chapter engages cybernetics from the perspective of mid-century designers, artists, and urban planners, who emphasized sight to achieve interactivity between observers and environments. The third chapter looks at the transformation of cognition in the human and social sciences that originated in cybernetic experiments with replicating functions of the brain in technologies that could then improve human reasoning. Chapter four revisits examples from previous chapters from the angle of governmentality to argue that postwar reconfigurations of vision and cognition had a bio...


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