Jessica Johnson, Humanity in Data


This post is building upon @jkagan16‘s post on Jessica Johnson’s presentation.

A while back, I attended Jessica Johnson’s presentation on history and memory in a digital age. As someone who has focused mainly on a STEM career at Amherst, one of the most impactful moments in her presentation was when she spoke about data. She presented figures with data on slavery and the slave trade, speaking on behalf of the abstraction of slavery’s atrocity to this numerical form and that form’s effectiveness. What I feel becomes abstracted is the emotional impact, perhaps signifying human ability to process the micro but not the macro.

I thought of Jessica Johnson’s talk during the opening credit sequence of Chiraq. Lee presents the viewer with statistics that give us a quantitative concept for the violence occurring in Chicago. It gets a strong and important point across, but I wonder how many individuals can process 7,365 murders from a place most of us are not from. How do other viewers process this piece of data that occurs before we see any of the stories behind the data that Lee is about to present? For me, the numbers helped strengthen the affect of Chiraq; it gave me a sense of the macro and then the micro without overwhelming me with too many of those numbers.


Last semester, in learning more about the violence in Chicago, I came across a website called The site is absolutely overwhelming in its dense presentation of a variety of statistics and more notable in presenting them with a strong bias: the “HeyJackass” website’s tag is “illustrating Chicago values” and the site uses figures with titles like “2016 Shot-In-The-Junk O-Meter.” I compare this piece of material culture with Chiraq’s opening statistics and wonder at what point data starts to strip human understanding. That is, when does the micro become the macro. Why does data feel so inhumane as a form when it represents human lives?

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