Friday, April 25, 2008

Revealed preferences

Helen DeWitt on the preference for pie charts:
While the data may or may not show a strong preference for expatriate life, anyway, the presentation certainly demonstrates a strong preference on the part of the author for telling a story using miniature pie charts. We know this not merely from the use of a handful miniature pie charts, but from the fact that the author has gone out and paid good money for an Excel plug-in which generates miniature pie charts. (That's not all it does: it also generates miniature columns, miniature bar charts, miniature line charts, miniature win-loss charts and a couple of others that I forget.)

This is a preference that actually says quite a lot about a character: the character may be unable to explain things in words, not because she is inarticulate but because patterns of data are better presented in a graphic array. We don't see graphic arrays very often in modern fiction, which means a) that we literally don't see patterns of data about characters that can best be presented in graphic array and b) that texts don't represent a mode of thinking that is characteristic of the type of person who thinks in terms of patterns of distribution.

This is actually rather odd. There are other styles of thought and communication that can't get far using words - music is one very striking example. Musicians can play together without speaking a word of each other's languages; it's very powerful. But that's something one could only represent in a medium that made use of sound; you can't get sound off the printed page. Graphic arrays, on the other hand, are made to be seen; we just never see them.

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