Data, capta and astonishment

I’m starting today with a digression about data and a slightly mind-boggling quote.
The quote is from an article by Richard L. Lanigan, “Capta versus data: Method and evidence in
communicology”, Human Studies 17: 109-130, 1994. (If nothing else, doing an MSc teaches you to cite, cite, and cite again.)

“Like most other human practices, research is largely a symbolic activity
in which “evidence” is mediated by converting experience (“observation”)
into consciousness (“measurement”) and calling it “humanistic” or
“naturalistic.” Postmodernity has come to favor this methodology and
names the evidence thus produced as capta (quod erat inveniendum; which
was to be found out). Capta is that which is taken as evidence; it is the
methodology of discovery (Lanigan, 1992:215).”

OK. Have you recovered? Basically, I can summarise his position as data only has meaning once it has been organised, whereupon we call it capta (not a term that has made much headway in the world, as far as I know). Organised data, plus significance, equals knowledge.

So,  a string of numbers is data. An organised string of numbers can identify your bank account.

Letters can be organised into random arrangements, into words, into sentences, into this blog. But they only have meaning if you have the knowledge, the mass of education and culture and abilities and humanity to read them. And they only have value to you if they stimulate some response. Interest, amusement, anger, whatever…

It is your emotional response that matters here. Boop boop a doop
Why did the turkey cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off….
Arise, ye starvelings from your slumber, arise….
My country, tis of thee

And so on and so on and so on. Maybe each one of those organised clumps of data triggered some sort of response in you. And from our shared culture, I might have a pretty good idea about what they might be. Perhaps I’m even toying with you, setting up one expectation to enjoy watching it crash and burn.

And I can hear quote my favourite user experience recommendation (wherever I roam, I get back to UX eventually) by Harold Thimbleby “the principle of least astonishment”.

In normal life, we love being astounded, amazed and delighted. It’s rare that this is a good scheme in user interface design. Much like the rubber chocolate biscuit or the exploding cigar, an user interface that thwarts our expectations makes us feel that the world is a little less to be trusted, that our understanding of how it works is not as reliable as we wished.

I’m not going to say anything more about it.

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