Thursday, March 19, 2015

What drives the our tendency toward visual expression?

"As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes." –Denis Diderot, "Encyclopédie" (1755)



What drives the our tendency toward visual expression is our natural knack for it. Human pattern detection makes us good at inferring meaning from what we see, and we’re good at sharing information this way. When things get too complex to express with alphanumeric symbols alone, we recruit methods that use our inborn talent with the visual.
It’s a traditional way of dealing with information overload.

Late in the Enlightenment, Diderot and d’Alembert published their Encyclopédie to preserve and share the sum total of scientific knowledge of the time. This was very ambitious. The printing press had driven an accelerating cycle of information creation. It had a contagious power to make ideas and facts multiply and travel and mutate and multiply again. So much had been written down already, and there would soon be much, much more. Diderot and d’Alembert recognized that we were going to have to learn how to learn faster to keep up with data creation.

The Encyclopédie kept pace with the speed of information by using a an 18th century data visualization system that processed tons of information from books, letters, and conversations, of the appearance, nature and function of phenomena in the real world and their relationships to each other. Multiple perspectives and dimensions were used simultaneously, in arrangements that engaged our visual pattern detection. At a glance you could understand how daylight moved across the earth’s surface. You could learn how your heart worked. These visualizations were diagrams. They contained great densities of data. They helped you learn faster than by reading text alone.

It’s been a long time since we’ve given up the ambition of having one encyclopedia of any number of volumes holding all that is known, but we’re not done trying to keep pace with the acceleration of information.

Because it knows how human communication organizes itself, Darwin’s technology handles information overload by revealing the flow and evolution of information over time. This offers the ability to analyze and visualize the patterns of information form and evolve around topics. The information we share contains our insights, preserves our experiences, and communicates what we are aware of. All of it is discoverable now.  

What diagrams did for people reading the Encyclopédie, analytics and data visualization do for all of us now. And just like then, the point isn’t the tools themselves, but how they are used and what happens afterward. The innovations that these tools will make possible will open up a whole new world. We’re at a very special moment in the story of technology. What a time to be alive.

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