SIFK 2019-21 Postdoctoral Researcher Alexander Campolo studies the technologies that model our world through numbers, statistics, and visualizations. These knowledges transform our politics by introducing new ways of observing populations and governing with data. From the upward curve of global temperature to widening disparities of wealth, images of data cut across disciplines.

Campolo’s current book project, Steering by Sight: Data Visualization and the Birth of an Informational Worldview, analyzes the emergence of data visualization as a computing field in the twentieth century. Drawing on original archival research, Campolo traces transdisciplinary connections between a network of computer scientists, psychologists, statisticians, and geographers in France and the United States. He shows how techniques and concepts from the Annales School and Parisian structuralism collided with cognitive psychology at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in Silicon Valley, where data visualization crystallized, laying the groundwork for today’s data sciences.

This project reveals a set of surprising transformations in Cold War computing cultures. In a moment where thought itself seemed mechanizable and objectivity ruled the day, data visualization posited that human perception and judgment were necessary to make numbers meaningful. It promised to reveal visual truths imperceptible via calculation alone and obscured by new scales of data. From inception, visualization also brought political objects—populations, races, and public opinions—into view in new ways.

Related SIFK Courses

KNOW 40307: Seeing and Knowing (Spring 2020)

Learn more about Alexander Campolo.