Metaphors of Data

When scientists and practitioners try to explain matters about data, they very often refer to metaphors from the physical world. Most of the terms have been established long before the digital era, they come from commerce (“data storage”, “data retrieval”, “data mining” or “data harvesting”) and nature (“data explosion”, “data is the new oil”, “Datenberg” (in German)). Han-Teng likes to speak of “data massage”. He uses the term to describe the manual effort of getting raw data (!) into the right shape before it can be further processed.

The terminology of data is full of metaphors. And – as it lies in the nature of metaphors – they are never never precise, because the words are taken out of context, they stem from another sphere of meaning and should explain entities that are difficult to understand otherwise. For instance, the “new oil” comparison is inadequate because data is (usually) not a finite resource.

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