data visualizations – appearing to be useful

Sometimes that’s all they’re doing.
Case-in-point: Stephan Thiel’s B.A. thesis at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. He attempts to understand Shakespeare through visualizations:
understanding_shakespeare_romeo_and_juliet.gif
I ran this by my brother Mark, because he’s long been a huge fan of Shakespeare. This was his take (via email):

Shakespeare’s not very difficult. Probably the hardest part of reading Shakespeare is the learning curve: there are a lot of words in his plays that have fallen [into] disuse…so you have to learn a bunch of new vocab. Once you have those down it becomes much more manageable. Also, some of the plots can get convoluted, though that’s where a lot of the comedy (and deceit in the tragedies) comes from. i.e. “She’s disguised as a guy, but this other guy doesn’t realize it and he’s talking to her like she’s a he, etc…”
I can’t imagine how these visualizations are of any use.

I agree with my brother. I feel that Thiel’s thesis is very high-level and doesn’t help me understand Shakespeare any better.
It brings to mind one of the many great data visualizations from the New York Times, The State of the Union in Words: A Look at the 34,000 State of the Union Words Delivered of George W. Bush.
nytimes_state_of_the_union_address.gif
What we get with the NYTimes graphic is context. We can tell what the focus was for different years, repeated themes and we also can click on a specific word and get the exact place where it was used in the speech.
I should make it clear that I find the quality of Thiel’s thesis top notch – from data mining to final printed output. It’s beautiful. All he needs now is more context, more questions answered. So he did all this work – what is his conclusion? His insight?
Other than pattern recognition, I walk away from his thesis not knowing any more about Shakespeare than I did coming in.
The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind:
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

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