New Modalities of Understanding

modalities

While doing research on the links between information architecture and information design, I came across a video clip of Richard Wurman talking about the origin of the term he has been credited with inventing. It isn’t the first place he’s told the story, so this particular video didn’t seem earth-shattering… until right around the 5:40 mark. Spurred by an apparent disdain for the sorry state of web design, he ventures into a discussion of modalities (ways of perceiving and experiencing), and particularly how new technology is often mistaken for a new modality in the way we experience information. He cites the iPad and the Kindle as examples of new ways of repackaging content, but not fundamentally better or significantly different ways of absorbing information. Reading is still reading, only now you can swipe and scroll through pages on a small screen instead of thumbing through a paper codex to do it.

What we have yet to achieve, he argues, is a “new path to viscerally understanding information.” This realization, that there is a whole frontier of human understanding that we have yet to venture into, is a critical one at a time when the notion of human progress is so sharply defined by what technology affords us — smaller devices, faster speeds, greater connectivity, more content, more screens, and bigger data — and when the prevailing conversations around understanding still hover at the level of methods, tools, technical issues, and other tribal/territorial concerns within data visualization, information architecture, information design, visual thinking, etc.

In my own research and work in information design, I’m constantly nagged by the feeling that not only will confusion continue to reign in the wild and wooly world of understanding professions, but that our heads will remain buried in the sand when it comes to forward thinking about the real future of understanding. Why does it seem like every other tweet, blog post, or magazine article these days questions or defends the validity of some visualization technique, complains about the “big data” phenomenon, stirs debate about good and bad infographics, or just cheerleads about “the power of [ fill in the viz ]” when the next chapters in understanding are hardly being written. How did we get so myopic?

I think that one way to start thinking about the future of understanding is by “going off the reservation” of conventional study and practice and becoming reacquainted with the underpinnings of understanding, through studies of cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, among other areas. The pursuit of “why” can lead to some interesting journeys:

  • Why do we understand? What makes understanding work?
  • Why are humans such visually-oriented creatures? Why don’t we use taste, touch, and smell more as information channels?
  • Why do writing systems work? How did so many different writing systems develop?
  • Why don’t we tap into dreams and the sub-conscious to aid understanding?
  • Why isn’t extra sensory perception explored more seriously?

The realm of science fiction can also provide food for thought and stimulus for research. A willingness to imagine wild new possibilities, regardless of practicality or basis in fact, can open doors that mundane patterns of thought might inhibit:

  • What if you could learn some difficult skill by uploading it to your brain, like in the Matrix?
  • How might a non-human alien species transfer knowledge?
  • What if there was a way to teach babies before they were born, to accelerate their learning?
  • What if you could smell a story, in vivid, accurate detail?
  • What if the concept of understanding went away because every idea and concept was instantly understood?

With so much untapped potential for exploration, I would be deeply disappointed, saddened even, if the pockets of discourse on and activities around understanding remained entrenched in self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-promotion. There is already growing enthusiasm in learning from the past (Lascaux caves, Inuit carved maps, Playfair, Priestly, Snow, etc.), so why not set our sights on the horizon and start discovering “breakthrough ways in the journey of understanding”?

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