Coalesce – a datapoem

This datapoem considers how social media facilitates the formation of groups that share their own version of reality. Such groups often attract members through a shared narrative about the world, for example political views or fringe beliefs such as conspiracy theories. These become mutually reinforcing as more members are added to form an ‘echo chamber’.

We all belong to such groups to some extent as we naturally gravitate to those whose views or company we enjoy. We tend to reject things that don’t support our existing beliefs and seek out things that make us feel good about those we hold. This is normal human behaviour, but its amplification on the internet can lead to fractured and polarised societies, susceptible to manipulation.

The poem is a haiku. The imagery references the ‘web’ of the internet with communities represented as droplets on the web, distorting objective reality to form their own truths.

Spark – an experimental poem

This is an experimental poem concrete about ideas that take on a life of their own. The design is based on a sperm fertilising an egg under a microscope, and also suggests lighting the fuse on a bomb, in recognition that some ideas can have uncontrolled creative and destructive potential.

Instagram users also stated that the spark represents the attraction between two people that eventually coalesces into a new person. I didn’t think of that but it’s a great interpretation!

Cradle – a datapoem

Cradle is a datapoem attempting to combine 3 topics – the deep sea, the march of technology and environmental degradation, which were originally suggested in a Twitter survey. The theme that emerged from the synthesis is that humans evolved out of the oceans, but have grown apart from it. Our increasing technology is both a source of pollution and a means of reconnecting with that environment.

Unusually, it takes a speculative turn and extrapolates to a future where robots leave us behind to settle in the deep sea, powered by currents and with ample cooling for their processors. It suggests they are humanity’s children and will become estranged from us, as we are from the ocean.

The blending of 3 topics necessitated a longer and therefore more traditional structure of separate verses. The datapoem retains some idiosyncratic elements such as the data overlay depicting the ocean layers, a pictorial representation of robot submarines, and the control cables (possibly severed) trailing back up to the surface. The cables are intended to represent the parent/child relationship and the binary on the subs spells ‘AI’ in a loop.

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Escape Velocity – a datapoem

Escape Velocity is a datapoem about attempting daunting goals. It uses data from NASA on the speed required to escape the gravitational clutches of the different planets in our solar system. The escape velocity depends on the mass of the planet, with the ringed giants requiring the greatest speed. I included Pluto as a planet, but recognised its ambiguous status by placing a question mark alongside it as the final line.

Visually the datapoem is intended to evoke an Icarus-like figure flying towards the sun. Icarus of course plummeted to Earth after the wax holding his wings together was melted by the sun. The poem asks is it really the magnitude of your goal that prevents you from achieving it, or could it be fear of success, like Icarus getting too close to the sun?

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Malaise Traps – a datapoem

Malaise Traps is a blackout poem on the declining insect population as reported in Hallmann et al (2017). Unlike traditional poetry, which is an additive exercise, a blackout poem takes found material and subtracts portions to leave a poem behind. In this case the material was the abstract of the paper, and 75% was eliminated to reflect the loss of insects over the period covered.

The title comes from the ‘malaise traps’ used to catch insects in the study. Poetically the phrase suggests an inescapable sickness and the poem references materialism (abundance and decline, status and trends), which underlies the degradation of the environment.

Insects are vital components in all terrestrial ecosystems and food webs, as pollinators, scavengers predators and prey. It is alarming that such a reduction could occur without the general population noticing, although many have commented on the loss of specific species. Complex systems tend to have feedback loops and balancing mechanisms that can accommodate changes up to a point; but once that point is passed, the consequences can be catastrophic.

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Breaking Point – a datapoem

This datapoem looks at the biomechanics of skin and the disintegration of identity under increasing pressure.

The graph is a stress-strain diagram used to record how materials stretch or compression (strain) under a given load (stress). In skin, collagen fibres are initially wavy coiled, but align and are pulled taut as they get stretched. Eventually they snap and the skin tears.

Skin is the barrier between us and the outside world, defining the boundary of our physical bodies. It also allows us to sense the world through touch and temperature.

Under psychological pressure our sense of self can begin to break down, as we struggle to compartmentalise things and our emotions surface in unpredictable ways.

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Ouroboros- an animated datapoem by Kev Pluck and James Stone

Ouroboros depicts rising global temperatures since 1880 in the context of a cycle of consumerism and estrangement from nature. The title references the snake that eats its own tail. This hints at the self-destructive cycle of consumption that fuels anthropogenic climate change and also the unusual circular form of the poem, made possible by the animated ‘barrel’ data visualisation.

This piece was a collaboration between Kev Pluck, a coder and data analyst who developed the data visualisation, and James Stone, an amateur poet and founder of Poetry in Data.

Kev says “I’m a software engineer who has, in the past year, become obsessed with climate data trying to find new and innovative ways of presenting it to the general public. I like that after 20 years of coding experience I am still learning techniques especially now that I have started animating data. I feel that what is happening to the environment is too important to ignore and that these animations are my small contribution to nudge people into improving it.”

Kev can be found on Twitter: @kevpluck and has a site at medium.com/@kevpluck/

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Asymptote – a datapoem

Asymptote explores the mathematical concept of getting infinitely closer but never touching.

The structure of the poem suggests pairs: before and after, and each of the two parties involved in an encounter. The asymptote itself, the point of maximum closeness, is both the barrier they cannot cross and a point of reflection. This reflection is both literal, a mirror image in time, and psychological.

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Conversion – a datapoem

This datapoem looks at the cycle of creation and annihilation at the quantum level, where matter and antimatter collide to produce pure energy, which can then turn back into matter and antimatter.

This process is illustrated by a Feynman diagram. These diagrams are named after their creator Richard Feynman, a brilliant physicist and science communicator. They show how subatomic particles such as electrons, photons and quarks move through space and time, where they collide or exchange information, and what is produced. They are a much simpler way of showing some very complex equations.

The diagram in this datapoem shows the annihilation of an electron (e-) and its antimatter counterpart, the positron (e+), into pure energy in the form of gamma-rays (the wavy line labelled ‘γ’). The gamma-rays then shoot off in opposite directions and may convert back into electron-positron pairs when they pass by an atomic nucleus.

The quantum world is a very strange place, with counter-intuitive rules and unexpected results. We are of course made of matter that is subject to quantum phenomena, but we don’t notice its weird effects at the macroscopic level. We are beginning to unravel its workings however and harness tremendous creative and destructive power as a result. Practical applications include transistors, lasers and nuclear power, but also weapons based on these technologies.

Ultimately, as we gain mastery over the fundamental forces of nature, we will become capable of creating great things, or annihilating ourselves, reflecting the quantum world. This poem proposes that the difference between the two outcomes is love, a characteristic that distinguishes us from the unthinking quantum realm, but which might be in short supply.

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