“Hindsight Is Always 20/20”

I’ve visited this installation twice now, and I’m fascinated by its data-as-art example. (Is this a common trend in art that I just haven’t gotten around to yet?) It’s in the newly renovated American Presidents wing at the National Portrait Gallery, which is a treat in itself to visit.


“Hindsight Is Always 20/20” is a fairly standard word cloud gimmick, using eye charts as a way to visualize frequency of words. I’ve never really thought of distant reading as hindsight, but I suppose DuBois may be onto something here. Of course, I have many questions about how effective this actually is. For one, you can’t tell what the difference is between each line’s frequency. It’s also unclear if DuBois has filtered any words from this (He has, and he’s also made it so that words don’t repeat.) What does that do to this as a review of these charts?

The phrase is, of course, pretty great for this installation – but I think I love it more because of the use of eye charts. Because these are tests of vision – in the same way that State of the Union addresses represent a test of vision for a President as they enter a new year of the administration. (DuBois goes into this in more detail on his site, but it just feels really clever that I had to point it out myself.)

I’m also interested in the fact that the description notes this installation as “the lexicon of each presidency.” I really want to see someone take these apart historically – go back to the SOTU addresses, connect them with their histories or historic events. I mean, just as distant reading normally functions, this can be used as a jumping-off point to understanding these presidencies. Combined with the portraits, we can perhaps reconstruct a president’s self-image and vision for the America he sought to shape.  And how do those relate to the way we view these presidencies now – either as a public or as historians?

Taking it further that DuBois points out, the lexicon of the presidency as a position. What issues can we glean from viewing these as a set in addition to individuals? Names of countries come up often, probably in reference to foreign diplomacy. Sometimes subjects are references explicitly – banking, economy, Indians, slavery – but many of these are related words, for which we must reconstruct. What words do we use to dance around other subjects, like war? And is hindsight always 20/20? What about the words that show up lower on the chart? What about the words that repeat.

Check out the Learning Lab for all the eye charts

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