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How is Data Changing the Way We Write Poetry?

Data Stories Profile

February 03, 2020

Reading time: 5 min

Lora

by

Lora

Access to data is changing the way in which we all work. Opendatasoft launches a new monthly series of interviews to capture the power of data at work. Here is Mr Gee’s story, a London-based poet whose job it is to find beauty and art in data. 

Access to data is changing the way in which we all work. What better way is there to understand its impact than to speak to professionals who rely on data for their day-to-day activities? Opendatasoft launches a new monthly series of interviews to capture the power of data at work.

Here is Mr Gee’s story, a London-based poet whose job it is to find beauty and art in data. 

Name: Mr Gee

Profession: Poet

What do your day-to-day professional activities look like?

I wake up, kiss the sky and then check my inbox. I'm generally either conducting workshops, performing or writing. So my day usually revolves around whatever is the most pressing concern at the moment. Sometimes I'll have days where I'm doing two or three performances in a day, whereas other days I'll be away inside my head entertaining notions. This interview might go a bit abstract, but hey... I'm a poet, abstractness tucks me into bed every night.

How would you define data?

Today's data is the unformed memories of tomorrow that can't yet speak their own name. Once something is given its true name, it will know its true purpose.

How do you incorporate data in your day-to-day professional activities?

If data is the acquisition of facts and figures and information is active usage of such data. Then as a poet I am taking in data all the time: dates, times, reports percentages, memories, broadcasts, sayings, statements. My mind is constantly trying to absorb everything that it can about the world in which we live, in order for it to compile as much data as it can and condense it into a usable piece of information. To dream up the metaphor you must first observe the real.

Once, when I was writing poems on the Russell Brand radio show, I incorporated the Black Hole theories of event horizons and collapsed stars to describe the futility of celebrity. Poetry is beautiful because it allows you to complete such aesthetic equations.

Have you always been data-enthusiastic?

I have a degree in engineering so certain theories weren't alien to me but I didn't really know much about the data industry until I started working with the Open Data Institute. At one of their functions I had an amazing conversation with Sir Nigel Shadbolt who gave me a copy of his book The Digital Ape. It highlighted the fears and misconceptions behind the reality of artificial intelligence. Many of the concepts that he was elucidating, I could relate to as a poet. I see poetry as being the ever evolving language of the human soul. So, if poetry can absorb the advent of the printing press, radio and television airwaves, YouTube, podcasting & instagram, then surely whatever evolution of technology that awaits us around the corner, poetry will be there to greet it.

How has access to data changed the way in which you see your profession?

Having been invited to participate at a number of data summits, I've been learning about the concepts of the "Farmland" & the "Oil-Field" approaches to harvesting data. I even coined the phrase "Data poet" to encapsulate my new role. I've listened to data analysts explain how the current availability of data has allowed them to problem-solve and cross check discrepancies which has facilitated more informed decisions within their industry. But I've also seen how the pre-existing biases of yesteryear have still managed to creep into our evaluation of certain data that has simply replicated the prejudices of the past (and even been used to validate them). I think that there will be a need for more Data poets to help comprehend the changing tides of the industry.

There is a beautiful new world to experience and explore, and poetry must try to help make sense of it all.

What kind of skills do you use to incorporate data in your work?

My digital poetical art-piece Bring Me My FireTruck aimed to try to use the artificial intelligence of Google Translate in order to provide multiple re-translations of William Blake's poem "Jerusalem". This resulted in many words being altered and the meaning of the poem transforming into something else . The languages used within the piece constitute the 23 main languages used within the E.U. In art mistakes and discrepancies often bring forth new ways of thinking and different viewpoints and should be celebrated as such. In my piece AI is represented as an airport arrivals board, showing these flawed versions landing as airplanes. Thus by watching a program actively mistranslating a classical piece of English verse, I aim to show the innate fears that stem from perceiving the free movement of people.

To help with the coding and the layout I had Dr. Julie Freeman & Stephen Wolff to make the idea real (i.e. to turn the data into poetical information).Mr Gee_Bring Me My Firetruck_Final translation in English_DAC ODI 2019

What other skills would you like to have in order to use data even better?

I think that I would like to really immerse myself into the current concepts and ideas that underpin the world of data technology. As a poet I believe that I can find art everywhere and I can genuinely see a distinct relationship between the world of data and the world of poetry. Both are trying to use the basic words afforded to them to create something which has a larger meaning than previously thought. It's about observing trends, noting relationships, quantifying patterns... these are poetical skills!

I've read a few books and literature provided to me by the ODI and the result was the composition of a few poems that mainly dealt with our relationship to Open, Closed & Shared Data. But as with all things, the more I read up into the subject the more art I can express. 

Looking into the future, what kind of impact do you think data can have on poetry writing?

This is a bit of a difficult question for me. because on the one hand I think that the relationship between a poet and their words is eternal. The basic mechanism of delving into your thoughts to conjure up something artistic will always be the same. But on the other hand, the subjects that influence such words will inevitably be swayed by the technology of the current day and data will be the currency of the future. Our relationship to our data will change the way in which we view ourselves and each other. And this change in perception will inevitably have an impact on the poems that we write. But what kind of impact? That is for us all to discover.

 

Are you interested in learning about how data is changing the way we work?

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Read Our Interview with Tommaso Vitale How is Data Changing the Way We Research?

 

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