The Eugenic Rubicon

Eugenics Data Through Sound and Touch

In addition to exploring visualization strategies for the California dataset, we have some very early stage work on sonification -- turning data into sound -- as a way of presenting and exploring the data. The first effort in this area is Jacqueline Wernimont's sonification work with a two year subset (1922-23) of our larger dataset.

Sonification can be used in a couple of different ways, one as a means to explore complex data collections, as discussed below, and two as a way to perform or present the data. For presentation purposes it is useful to reduce the complexity of the data in order to make particular features or elements clearer. In this example, Wernimont pulls out two data fields, gender and consent, and limits the sample to just the first two years of records in order to create a piece that gives people an opportunity to hear the ratio of consent/non-consent as it plays out with respect to gender. 

The sound file is 95 seconds long (click the x if you get a soundcloud front page to move onto the player). Where we have a record of explicit consent the tones are higher and less resonant. The two lower, more resonant tones represent no known consent to sterilization, with women's non-consensual sterilization as the lowest of the four tones. Importantly, this is not unambiguous data. Some people consented to sterilization as a means to achieve discharge from hospitalization or as a means of voluntary reproductive control in an era where there were few other options. A lack of consent may be the product of gaps in record keeping, rather than an active resistance to the procedure. 

The image below maps out the values in visual space as a kind of key to the sonification. The values are “arbitrary” in that they are designed to create a relative scale that will map onto a sonic scale and the values are optimized for the haptic portion of the project (privileging lower frequencies that are easier to feel). The selection is rendered at a pace of one record/tone per second and progresses chronologically through the selection.


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  1. Sterilization Sonification Sample
  2. Sterilization Sample Sonified