Counting, Collaborating, and Coexisting: Visualization and the Digital Humanities

Michael Correll
13 min readSep 24, 2019
Patron Saint of counting, the muppet Count von Count

Do not knock — Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility.

— Theodor Adorno, “Do Not Knock,Minima Moralia.

Context/ tl;dr : I was asked to give a keynote for the upcoming Workshop on Visualization for the Digital Humanities. I take keynote duty as an opportunity to make as provocative a point as possible. The particular Hot Take I’ve decided to go with is that visualization is a bad neighbor to the digital humanities: it exacerbates the worst tendencies of DH scholarship and promotes parasitic, technocratic collaborations. I think we need to tear down and then reconstruct the power-balances, epistemologies, and scope of visualization’s connection with digital humanities.

The Curse of Counting

Joseph Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death,” spent an initial part of the post-war period hiding out in a farm under an assumed name to avoid the victorious Allies and any chance of accounting for his crimes. During the war, he was frequently responsible for “selection duty” in Auschwitz, dividing those who were to be gassed immediately from those who would be spared, however briefly, for work details or his own “experiments.” After the war, on the run, stripped of his rank and power, he could not entirely suppress this instinct to count, select, and classify:

One had to take a scientific approach to sort out the edible, fodder, and seed potatoes. The frequency of the various sizes follows the binomial distribution according to the Gauss diagram. The medium sizes therefore are the most plentiful, and the very small ones and the very big ones are much less frequent. But since they wanted more medium-sized potatoes I moved the border of the selection for the potatoes for consumption accordingly and in this way I obtained more potatoes for consumption than usual. In this way my mind was kept active.

— Joseph Mengele, from his personal diaries

This absurd urge to count reminds me, a little, of the common folklore about thwarting the undead that shows up everywhere from the Romanian vampire to the Caribbean soucouyant: throw a little rice or sand…

Michael Correll

Information Visualization, Data Ethics, Graphical Perception.