What are the costs and benefits of digitizing analogue data?

Ben Schmidt’s blogpost from which the above video was taken is absolutely fascinating. He says that “the essence of digitization is abstraction. Abstraction necessarily entails loss; but it also enables new connections by making things directly comparable that weren’t before.”

He makes some key claims in his post, he asserts that …

  • There is no strict ‘line’ between analogue and digital data; that there is a spectrum between the two not a ‘switch’,
  • That digital doesn’t mean 21st century – digital sources (like ships logs) go back centuries;
  • That it is a myth to think of digital data as being neutral. People decide what should be digitized and how it should be digitized. This process in itself involves bias and prejudice.

What do you think? Watch the video that tracks all the US whaling ships routes in the 19th century and shows them in a never seen before format. What insights does it give that other data forms wouldn’t show? How does it add value to our understanding?

Lt. Matthew Maury produced a whole set of “abstracted’ diagrams based on the rich ‘analogue’ data from ships log books. These in turn helped shipping / whaling companies to plan the quickest routes utilizing the trade winds. As demand for his charts grew, international shipping companies would submit their logbooks to Maury in exchange for them. Soon international standards emerged to do with things like the distinction between ‘fresh’ and ‘strong’ breezes.

What Schmidt has done is to provide an info-graphic based on the charts and logbooks that gives us a different perspective on the US whaling industry in the mid 19th century. The question is what does the process add and what does it lose?

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