Over the past few weeks, the world has been awash in graphs tracking the spread of the coronavirus. Many of these graphs have been elegant and beautiful even if the data they represent are grim. Graphs, as it turns out, are one of the most important ways of understanding the spread of the virus. A good graph can visually demonstrate the difference in effectiveness between China’s response to the pandemic and the US’s response, for instance. We need good graphs in order to fight this bug, and we need graphs that are scientifically rigorous and politically neutral. People everywhere are falling ill, many are dying, and those who have been spared so far have lost time, money, and quality social time. But the battle against the coronavirus will be won, not by human stories of suffering and redemption, but by abstracting those human lives into cold points on a cartesian plane. In our current situation, our futures are determined by the arc of a line through the void between the X-axis and the Y-axis.
Graphs that represent human data are often political even when they are intended to be neutral. We want our graphs to be neutral, but graphs are complex expressions of ideas, each with their own symbolic history. Each graph attempts to rid itself of that history in its own way, and for good reason. A graph that attempts to be politically neutral stakes a claim to its small sliver of reality. It is a declaration of truth. In that way, the claim a graph makes is not limited to its content per se but extends out into the context in which the graph is presented. A graph ideally expresses the same content in any context and is in that sense as universal as the truth value of the propositions it represents. For instance, an ideal graph of the number of new cases of coronavirus per day in the US should be useful in any context where such data needs to be expressed. It would have a universal utility in the same way that a brick does: just as a brick could be used to build any wall, a politically neutral graph could be used to build any argument. The problem is that graphs, like words, have pasts and futures, and insofar as those things matter, they ensure that even the most balanced graphical presentation of data contains within it a political history of some kind. Peel back enough layers, and it will reveal itself eventually.
To be clear, the political nature of graphs often comes not from their content but from their design. Of course, there are ways to manipulate the graphical presentation of data to convey contradictory propositions using the same data. There are many well-documented cases of various Media outlets providing misleading graphs in order to further their own interests.
But the graphs of the Covid-19 pandemic are scientific, and therefore strive for the ideal of neutrality, rather than manipulation. These graphs aim to be the true ideal of unbiased communication: a series of marks on a page, tokens of a universal type. They are, then, nothing more than the avatars of ideas. And just as the cover of a book presents the words of the story in an intentionally designed work of art (book covers are works of art), graphs are the artistic expression of data. The politics of graphs, especially the graphs that attempt to be neutral, then, often operate on the level of formatting: fonts, colors, the thickness of a line. At first glance, these things may seem arbitrary. A line is a line, and a font is a font, right? Not so fast. Fonts are particularly fraught with political baggage. Consider the most popular font of all time, for example: Helvetica. Helvetica was developed after WW2 in Europe as a font that would be clear and not distracting. It’s proportions have been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of Design in history. Helvetica quickly became the universal font of corporations and governments and came to symbolize the modern post-war world. Wherever it appeared, it erased local fonts and replaced them with the sterility of corporate culture. In a small way, any graph that uses Helvetica fonts participates in this political history whether it means to or not.
But if the design elements of a graph can be effectively neutralized against the weight of their historical antecedents, the fact of their use and its social implications cannot be escaped. The very use of a graph is itself an overtly political act. After all, the use of a graph to convey some information already excludes from the communicator’s audience anyone who can’t read graphs. There is a latent assumption that the people who see the graph will have enough time, education, and interest to read it. But of course, many people have none of those things. And the choice of the graph as the mode of expression proves by demonstrating the exclusivity of its audience. Graphs are complex mathematical objects. In contrast, the contents of graphs can be described in words, which are not complex. Words are, by their very natures, accessible to all in a way that graphs are not. Most of the time, whether or not a graph is comprehensible to the general public is not important. As long as it’s intended audience can read the graph, its purpose has been fulfilled. But there are times when the information a graph contains is relevant to all audiences, such as when the information in the graph is a matter of life or death. That is the situation with the graphs that have come out documenting the spread of the coronavirus. It’s not that the graphs are important for everyone to understand; it’s the information inside of them that is important. The choice to show the spread of the coronavirus on a graph versus describing it in words has political ramifications to the degree that the people who need the information are underserved.
The elegance of graphs is encapsulated by the cliched phrase: a picture is worth a thousand words. But the myth of the politically neutral graph should be abandoned. That is not to say that graphs are partisan. They are simply tools of expression, and like any symbol in the human repertoire, graphs come with their own unique set of sociological, political, economic, and artistic commitments. To claim otherwise is to treat a graph like something it is not: the idealized form of an abstract concept. Instead, graphs are physical representations of ideas, and accompanying their imperfect physical forms are the same sorts of flaws and features that accompany all human works: by translating an idea in the mind to a physical manifestation, it becomes a part of the symbolic heritage of our culture. The use of colors, lines, and other such formatting can tell you a lot about the politics of the author who created a graph. So the next time you look at a coronavirus-related graph, remember to check the font.