Data, Writing, and Time

Handwriting is a funny thing. When I think back to those early days of school and all those lined sheets where we would write out our A’s our cursive capital Q’s and eventually sentences - I remember getting the paper back. In my memory it was often filled with small little circles where I had crossed the line or mis-shaped a curve in my haste to finish and get back to the fun part of school - reading and racing to be the first one done with sum tables so I could draw castles on the back.

Yet that is the foundation of all my writing. All the essays, emails, blogs, articles, odd notes, love notes, poems, reminders, and more all trace back to repeated tracing of D’Nealian workbooks. My handwriting is a foundation of my data.

Data is a funny word. It’s all around us, stored about us or by us, we give consent to its use when we use a website, we are taught about its implications and its uses. Data is from a latin word. It can be translated - given things, or gifts. Data is a gift.

Now if data is a gift that has some implications. The largest one is that data is not something that originates with us. You could say that if we’re following this entomological rabbit hole that is is inherited.I went down a rabbit hole after writing this sentence where I Iearned that the first known English use of the word data is by a Royalist minister named Henry Hammond during the time of the English Civil War. Although given we live in a data-driven world it seems that far too little has been written about this connection.

One of the things that is inherited about data is its forms and standards. I had little choice in the type of handwriting I was taught. We also are given most of the forms we use to store data today. Whether that’s UTF-8 or the annoying HEIC, iPhone photo format that never seems to open on my Windows work computer when I’m trying to attach a receipt to an expense report. The data we work with, collect, and attach to forms is in a received format — and often those received formats are…frustrating.The history of how we store text digitally is so fascinating. There’s many interesting videos on this but this one sticks with me as a good introduction: Computers, Symbols and the Unicode - Computerphile

The data we receive is tangled over a long history that predates even the first usage of the word data in a theological treatise in the 1646.The best source on this I found was this article by Daniel Rosenberg. And we leave a tangled web of data in our wake — filesystems we’re going to organize eventually, emails filled with advertisements and precious notes from dead grandparents, the W2s we meant to scan but stay in that filing cabinet, and not to mention our library of photo memories.

And eventually all of our data are gifts for somebody else to sort through, pick up and wonder what it was for, or to throw away. And like many things we are given by those who came before us, they are often at their best a bit of a glorious, mixed bag.

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