lev manovich

DATA BEAUTIFUL (An Adventure in Info-Aesthetics)

According to Info-Aesthetics Doctrine (www.manovich.net/IA), the society in which gathering, processing and distribution of information play central role needs its own art forms. These forms should take into account information behaviors and information interfaces employed by people in their everyday life, such as a search engine, a Web browser, email, GUI, databases, data visualization, and so on.

How can we create these new forms? We can take the clue from early twentieth century modernists who understood that the new aesthetics of industrial society has already existed in the industrial realm. They admired the forms of motor cars, bridges, grain elevators, aircraft's propellers; and they begun the project to carry over the logic of these forms into the realm of design, architecture and art. "Ornament is Dead," "The House is a Machine for Living," "Form Follows Function" are some of the slogans they designed to describe this new industrial aesthetics.

Similarly, I postulate: A Web crawler is beautiful. Quantitative data is beautiful. Multiple windows of GUI are beautiful. Email clients are beautiful. Instant Messenger is beautiful. Information is beautiful.

Let the thousand data windows open; let the thousand gassian curves spring up; let the thousand pockets move through the network; let the thousand matrixes multiply themselves. Information tools and information interfaces is the future of aesthetics.

Normally we think of Web crawler and data visualizations as functional tools. Web crawlers classify the Web; data visualization In contrast, we are told, art is non-functional. (Of course this rarely has been true: not only art routinely has been used to propagate various ideologies - Christianity, Capitalism, Communism - but artists also taught people how to interact with complex bodies of information. History of art is the history of research in information interfaces. Giotto was the leading information designer of his days.)

So how can we make art out of a Web crawler and data visualization tools? In my project I de-functionalize them.

Firstly, my Web crawler does not look for any particular "content"; its goal is simply to generate a data set, which will lead to a beautiful visualization. Whether this data set consists

Secondly, I think of the "walk" crawler takes through the information space of the Web as an elaborate dance, and something beautiful in itself. In other words, the goal is to discover the beauty of the trajectory, rather than to treat this trajectory simply as a means to an end.

Think of this as pure "data formalism." Modernists artists treated a figurative image as an abstraction, i.e., a collection of shapes, colors, lines which are arranged together and which also happen to represent some familiar reality. Similarly, behind the seemingly functional search trajectories and search results of Web crawlers lie abstract patterns, as beautiful as compositions of Kandinsky and Pollock, the shapes of Frank Gerry and Iseey Miyake, or the sounds of Philip Glass.

Yet remember that this is just a first step towards discovering info-aesthetics. Ultimately we would not to submit information to the standards of conventional, classical beauty. Ultimately, we will have to discover what the new beauty of information is. It may turn out to have nothing to do with a smile of a girl on a beach or the shape of iMac or the machine-like sounds of Kraftwerk. If we are unlucky, it may be something that even our machines will find ugly. At this point, we just don't known yet.