Part 5: Special data types

Many representations seem so simple and straightforward that we fail to notice them. For instance, we do not care about the properties of our numeral system when checking our bank accounts, hardly notice the spelling of words when reading an exciting story, or rarely consider the peculiarities of dates when planning a picnic or a holiday.

Having extensive experience with particular representations differs from the situation that we have encountered with Color. In Chapter 10, we noted that most people habitually perceive colors, but have no idea how to encode them. With numbers, text, and representations of time, we do not feel as unprepared. As our education and schooling conveys particular representations, we learn to calculate, read and write, and interpret dates and times according to the norms established in our society. However, the impression that these representations are simple is deceiving, as it is mostly owed to our intense familiarity with specific representational formats.

As philosophers have pointed out, we mostly tend to notice (or “see”) representations when they break down. When we cannot compute the result of a calculation, fail to understand a written message, or realize that our clock no longer shows the right time, we become aware of the properties and preconditions that we usually take for granted. And while becoming aware of representational properties can be challenging, it also enables us to evaluate and look for alternatives.

When working with data, we must de-familiarize ourselves from familiar representations to discover and understand their underlying mechanisms. This process requires effort and has similar effects as explaining a joke or a magician’s trick: Replacing a surface phenomenon by its elementary details first seems pedantic, technical, and laborious. However, it is a necessary precondition for gaining deeper insights and eventually performing similar tricks ourselves.

In the following chapters, we will disenchant three special types of data:

  • Chapter 16 discusses numbers and factors;

  • Chapter 17 addresses text data; and

  • Chapter 18 covers data that denotes dates and times.

Our method for discovering key properties of representations lies in blurring the boundaries between them — by treating numbers as symbol sequences, manipulating the visual appearance of words and texts, or performing calculations with dates and times. Hopefully, this will reveal the mechanisms in a playful and entertaining fashion.