Tag: humanity

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A Life Less Designed

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“What the hell am I doing?” I ask myself on a Sunday morning, half-covered in grass clippings. The weather is warm and immaculate, ideal for a hike or picnic or lazy stroll through town. Instead, here I am clutching my Sears Craftsman line trimmer, dutifully mowing my overgrown lawn. There are blisters forming on my rawhide-gloved hands. I’m sneezing uncontrollably from all the pollen in the air. My legs are sore from the frog-like hopping about to tear weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk. I see my neighbors on their way to brunch (their landscaping is all concrete, no grass) and wave my most neighborly wave. Behind my smile, I’m seething with envy.

My ego tells me I’m beyond this grunt work. I’m a designer, for heaven’s sake! Why spend my free time on mundane chores when I should be free to pursue the finer things, as any cultured, creative person should in this day and age? Would I prefer to scroll through those saved-for-later long articles? Or would I rather enrich my mind with literature, art-making, or a bit of writing? Maybe all I want is to not think at all and enjoy a documentary or TV series, guilt-free? Am I not entitled to these and more choices in the year 2016, rather than feel burdened by antiquated chores?

Despite my ego’s bourgeois indignance, I can’t deny that this yard work is maybe kind of fun. I’m outside, physically active, using muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m taking pride in my handiwork as a home owner: the clean edges where green meets grey, the uniformly level height of grass, and the sense of order restored. I’m in awe of the smallness of insects marching on the ground below and the vastness of the cerulean blue sky above. It’s just me and my natural environment — at least, whatever a semi-suburban residential neighborhood can afford — with little else in between.

The fact that something like yard work can be both annoying and fulfilling is a reflection of the larger issue we face with the nature and quality of progress today. On one hand, many think a better life is one of minimal inconvenience and maximum enjoyment: frictionless experiences, pre-anticipated needs, and adaptive systems that respond to our every desire. Plenty of work has gone into building that idea of “better” through research and investments in everything from motion-sensing bathroom fixtures to voice-activated devices and self-driving cars. If I fully subscribed to that vision, I’d happily welcome any sort of liberation from horticultural busywork. Some clever tech startup could easily capitalize on that “unmet need” by building an outdoor Roomba — an app-controlled grass-trimming drone that could trim and sweep my grass every few weeks. Lost time reclaimed!

But on the other hand, maybe that wasn’t lost time at all. Maybe in eliminating that task I’m actually paying a bigger price: I’m losing a part of my life in which I feel more connected with myself and what’s around me.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the solutionist thinking that pervades discussions of design, technology, and progress overlooks the value of common problems humans might actually need to have in order to retain our human-ness. Cameron Tonkinwise, the Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses this topic in his Medium piece, Contempt by Design: When Empathy turns into Hatred of Everyday Life. Design empathy can be a means of understanding people in order to design for them and with them, but it can also lead to design decisions that work against them. For instance, he describes the typical habit designers have historically fallen into and the consequences of solutionism:

Every time designers notice pain points, obstacles, or even just opportunities for things to happen a little more productively or pleasantly, the outcome is another thing…. Our societies are unsustainable because mass production has allowed designer empathy to go unchecked.

Design, in this sense, is a tool of commercialism: it fuels consumption (and waste) under the guise of making life better. Rather than seek to enrich life by first understanding what a better life really means and how people define it for themselves — before any type of intervention is considered — design, and the players driving it, tend to take any chance to insert themselves into the everyday human narrative. A highly cynical distillation of the current formula in play might look like this:

  1. Crank up the “creative” to spark desire and keep people buying stuff they never thought they needed.
  2. “Innovate” when you hit a sales slump to jolt the market with something new.
  3. Repeat as needed.

More problems arise on another level, when design presumes to know what’s best for all of us and cushions our lives in pseudo-utopian bliss. Tonkinwise counters rampant design solutionism with a call to action for design to seek a deeper understanding of its role in everyday life and even question where it does and doesn’t belong:

This is the greatest danger of design empathy; that its concern for humans and its insight into materiality end up being contempt for all the friction and finitude of everyday life. To counter this we all, but especially designers, must learn to empathize with the activities of everyday life. We must use design thinking not to eradicate all the hardships of everyday life, but rather to find existing everyday pleasures in material practices. We must be prepared to listen to people when they say that they do enjoy doing some mundane tasks. We must accept that not everything needs to be disrupted, that some things need not be changed.

Maintenance activities like doing laundry, washing dishes, and sweeping a floor have a dignity to them, a timelessness, and even philosophical meaning. Accepting them as an essential part of life, just like other human-scale manual activities that have been around for generations, is becoming harder and harder because the apparent benefit of not having to do them (and ease of access to “solutions”) outweighs the deeply-ingrained sense of displeasure attached to them. Especially for those with the means (even more modest means), it is almost unthinkable to do some of these things by one’s own hand any more when it costs relatively little to minimize the problem.

On a personal level, I honestly don’t look forward to every chore, but once I’m engaged in the flow of an activity, the feeling is practically zen-like. Instead of contemplating some other fun thing I could be doing and getting annoyed that I’m not doing it, I try to stay in the present and focus on the task — on how I can perfect the movements and what small hidden lessons I can extract from just becoming absorbed in the moment. My mind sifts through fragments of thoughts generated throughout the day, makes connections, recalls loose threads, and basically catches up with itself. No matter what the task is, there’s a minimum of stuff necessary; save for the grass trimmer and my washer and dryer, it’s usually low-tech, low-end design: a broom, a sponge, a trowel, a dust pan and brush. What’s great about those things is that they are designed to help me do something — they don’t remove me from the equation altogether. And using them is, in a way, part of the fun.

We need to celebrate the joys of a life less designed and protect the necessary boundaries between the collective entity of design-business-technology and human experience. If we continue riding the runaway train of “progress,” if we tacitly agree to the intermediation of every effort, every gesture, every thought with a design “solution” — without making better design decisions for ourselves — what then will be left for us to do? What will be left of us?

 

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Bridging Generations

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As someone who’s slowly inching toward 40, I feel distinctly out of place with the present. It doesn’t feel like my present. The more I age, the greater the sense of anachronism. Three distinct realities are blurring together: the old world wisdom my grandparents conveyed to me during my childhood, the analog-to-digital transition through which I have come of age, and the Web revolution whose rapid escalation has left virtually no part of my present life untouched.

It seems to me that the faster technological “progress” happens — and the more I notice it — the less natural it feels and the more alienating it becomes. Every advance in technology that’s introduced into our lives appears to grant us some new luxury or capability that wasn’t available (or needed?) before, but when those novelties become normalities, what they actually do is erode a bit of the past to make a little more room for the future. Devices, apps, screens, texts, buzzes, beeps, taps, swipes, and every other new feature added to our tech-saturated experience claim to be human-centered in some way or another, and yet we’re forced to let go of what’s comfortable and familiar in order to learn these strange new tech-intermediated ways, adapt to them, and end up having our behavior altered by them. The hyper-computerization and hyper-connectivity that permeates all our waking and sleeping hours takes away more than it gives back, and what it takes are the things I’m not willing to give up — the ethos of simpler times.

I may sound like a grumpy old man, but no, I am not a Luddite ready to flee to a cabin in the wilderness, nor am I fearful of an impending techno-dystopia. Low and high technology is a good thing; I am just as profoundly amazed by wood screws, indoor plumbing, electricity, and wifi as I am grateful for them. The problem I see is that we are no longer shaping and molding technology to us as we used to — it’s the other way around. We’ve ceded control of how we live our lives — decisions about what fits and what doesn’t, what enriches our lives and what saps it — to the forces of corporate “innovation” and easy availability of tools like e-mail, wireless devices, social networks, and text messaging. Meanwhile, with each passing generation, I see growing indulgence in fleeting pleasures and mindless habits enabled by devices and further disconnection from now bygone values like self-restraint, hand skills and craft, deep concentration, listening skills, and the big one, human-to-human attention. (Far be it from me to level judgement on those poor younger generations wedded to their smartphones: I learned how to curb my device habit back when I had an iPhone 3G.)

There’s no point in reminiscing about the “good old days.” They’re not coming back. Regarding the past with warm nostalgic affection and preserving stories of yesteryear may help keep the memory alive, but it doesn’t do much good for everyone else in the here and now. What matters are the practices and attitudes that helped make those days “good” — the common sense that governed everyday conduct — and how to carry them forward. In my own lifetime, numerous aspects of life have radically transformed for the worse because of the pervasiveness of technology, such as how we work, how we learn, how we interact with each other, and how we spend our free time (of course, the good-vs-bad debate goes both ways). Reconnecting with old world / analog thinking might help restore some of the things we’re losing.

One area in particular troubles me the most today: communication.

Way back when (up until 25 years or so ago), communication was an art form:

  • Letters were lengthy, hand-written with care or typed on special stationery.
  • Conversation was rich with well-told stories, clever turns of phrase, and literary allusions, not to mention back-and-forth dialogue.
  • Phone calls were the lifeline of business, with protocols for answering and concluding.

Today, communication is broken into tiny little fragments:

  • E-mails, the sorry substitute for letters, are piecemeal, poorly written, and replied to at whim days or weeks later — sometimes regardless of the sender’s situation.
  • Conversation is regularly interrupted by the buzz, ring, or glow of a device that’s rarely out of reach, and then the problem is remembering where one left off.
  • Text messaging, chat, and social media updates have all but replaced phone calls, which are now dreaded by younger generations, in personal and work contexts.

How do we fold some of the past back into the present with a sense of balance? For starters, let’s be more considerate and deliberate in how we communicate. Here is some advice I follow from that little voice in the back of my head:

  • Write purposeful e-mails with complete thoughts and clear points, and keep the recipient in mind. If there’s a question or unresolved issue in a message you receive, address it in a timely way — the other person will almost always interpret a delayed reply negatively. On the other hand, if you really care and the message is personal, write out your thoughts and hand-deliver or mail them. The gesture alone matters a lot, and not just for thank-you’s, birthdays, and holiday cards.
  • Turn your phone off and put it away when you’re having a conversation. Take interest in the person you’re talking to face-to-face. He or she is a human being right in front of you, so respect their time and attention by giving them yours. Conversation should be interesting and dynamic — like “intellectual jazz,” as Richard Saul Wurman put it. Probe shared interests like travel, aspirations, art exhibits, books, nature, etc, before delving into talk of the latest Netflix show.
  • If you get an urge to text (or any sort of social media update), think twice. Does this thought require a text? Is it urgent or can it wait? Also, consider stopping off to the side of traffic (foot and vehicular) if you absolutely must read or write a text and avoid accidents. When you do choose to write a text, again consider who you’re writing to. It’s still writing and doesn’t excuse you from putting coherent thoughts together.

I know this sounds like a lot of tired old finger-wagging, but it needs to be said, generation after generation, from one context to the next. So we don’t forget. For those whose experience of life has been defined early on by the omnipresence of technology in their daily activities and interactions, it may be a fool’s errand to sell them on a philosophy of “slower, less, and more thoughtful” technology use, or heaven forbid, “as little as possible.” Someday, when they’re older, when the pace of change rattles their own sense of comfort, they might see things differently and long for their own good old days.

I am thankful for having known the past far enough back before technological progress started getting out of hand. I am glad to have developed a callus on my right middle finger from years of writing and drawing, not typing or tapping (although I’m kind of proud to have learned how to type on an IBM Selectric). I treasure the time of not having information at my fingertips, not always knowing what my friends or complete strangers are thinking or doing, not having an immediate solution to boredom in my pocket, and especially, not always being available to everyone. I enjoy talking to people twenty, thirty, even forty years older than me with whom I share the same tech-free experiences and delights, and I marvel at their stories of tougher times, when wars, economic depressions, political upheavals, and emigrations were the major forces of change in their lives. Above all, and despite my uneasiness about what’s happening today, I feel lucky to have experienced so much change in my still short life so far, to have learned the lessons of others, and to be able to translate some of the “wisdom of the ages” into what I do now. Maybe some of it will rub off on these young whippersnappers.

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Embrace the Wait

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Have you ever stopped to think about waiting? We spend so much time just waiting for some things to happen, other things to pass. Consider the moments of waiting that happen over the course of a typical day: on line at a register, in traffic, in a doctor’s office, on a plane, etc. The very concept of waiting — a momentary suspension of activity or delayed action until a specific event happens — seems to suggest that we have to be in some mode of action at all times during our waking hours. Being idle has come to be a bad thing, and waiting itself has a generally negative connotation because the thing you want is not in the present but locked away in some defined or undefined point in the future. Time needs to pass before that desired state can come to be. And oh how we pass our time!

To me, commuting by mass transit is the perfect encapsulation of waiting, next to air travel. Commuting can be considered a form of routine waiting. It’s finite, scheduled, expected, and for that reason, we find ways to pour our lives and lifestyles into that span of time. Rituals, habits, indulgences all make their way into our commutes. Over the years as a regular commuter to and from New York City, I’ve observed a growing but unsurprising trend: devices have come to dominate the commuting experience. I regularly scan my subway car to see how many people are using a smartphone, tablet, e-reader, or other gadget. Most of the time, the majority of passengers are immersed in some tech-enabled activity: reading, listening to music, playing video games, watching movies. Signal permitting, people are chatting away, texting, snapping selfies, scrolling through streams of social media updates, or typing in updates of their own. It’s bad enough that we actually are capable of doing all of those things in a shared public space like a subway car or bus, that these are all options for things you can do when you have nothing else to do. The real problem is twofold. First, we haven’t yet learned how to distinguish what we should do from what we shouldn’t do in those situations. Second, and more the focus of this post, we don’t really know how to deal with moments of pause in an activity- and device-free way — to simply embrace the wait.

Reframing the meaning of those quiet, interstitial spaces in our lives requires an understanding of what we’re doing with the busy, booked-up blocks of time on our daily agenda and why. Most of us measure our personal worth or success by our productivity and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we get more stuff done, so we work very hard to do more and more. In school and at work, we often get rewarded not just for scoring higher on a performance scale (like an A+ or a 100%) but for occupying our time with as many extracurricular activities as possible. We try our hardest to exclaim to the world “I am NOT idle! I am highly driven and motivated to succeed!” but what we achieve in the end is little more than exhaustion.

Filling empty space to capacity is a common habit, whether it’s our calendars, our closets, or our stomachs. We do no different to our brains. I would argue that the concept of information overload has less to do with us being bombarded by information from lots of external sources than with us deliberately saturating our own attention with more information than we need. If we’re drinking from the firehose of information, as they say, we’re also the ones holding the hose to our own mouths and controlling the valve. Devices that connect us to the plethora of information in the world and in our lives are not necessarily at fault. They just make it far too easy to indulge in our existing impulses, especially when we think there’s nothing better we should be doing than funneling our attention into a small glowing rectangle that’s conveniently within arm’s reach.

So what else should we be doing if we can’t play with our devices? My simplistic answer: Do as little as possible or nothing at all.

If sleep is the chance we have to rest our bodies and sort out all the memories we’ve collected during the day, what chance do we have during our waking hours to reset our minds and make sense of our experiences and our lives? Sure, there’s meditation, yoga, running, hiking, and many other mind-easing pursuits to help us gain perspective and focus, but what about those in-between waiting moments sprinkled throughout the day? I like lists, so here are five techniques I find useful:

  1. Create and capture rather than consume: Carry a notepad or small journal and write out what’s on your mind (yep, with a real pad and a real pen, no apps). It doesn’t matter whether you write or draw or both, and it doesn’t matter if it looks/sounds good or not, so long as you allow yourself to express whatever has accumulated in your head. Even sitting somewhere and describing what you see can be interesting.
  2. Do some creative visualization: I wrote about this technique in an earlier post, but it’s worth resurrecting. Whether you believe it works or not, it’s a remarkably calming exercise to envision a goal or end result you want to achieve in as crisp and vivid detail in your mind as possible. Give it form, color, texture, smell — whatever will bring it to life. With repeated practice, you might be surprised with the outcome.
  3. Work out unresolved issues: Unpack a problem that’s on your mind. Don’t simply replay what went wrong over and over. Look at it from different angles, step outside your shoes, identify the things you didn’t know or understand clearly.
  4. Move around: Lots of waiting involves sitting for prolonged periods. Movement, even in small ways, can be beneficial. There are many kinds of simple, low-impact exercises that can be done while seated or that require little space.
  5. Daydream: Really, why not? Let yourself stare out the window of a bus or train, watch the clouds go by, observe people bustling about, or just take in your surroundings.

Waiting can be about much more than waiting, and it can certainly involve more than the digital pacifiers we carry around with us. We need to reframe waiting as an opportunity to disconnect from the task-driven part of ourselves that craves stimulation and reconnect with the other, quieter part that longs for stillness, peace, and reflection. Maybe we can start to think anew about waiting as the space between notes of music, a deep breath after a steep climb, a blank page dividing chapters of a book, or a welcoming patch of green space in a towering, grey city.

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Public Space

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Sometimes thoughts need the right space to happen, the right space to live in. We may choose to distance ourselves from one dimension of our reality to experience another, to have new ideas or gain perspective. At other times, life decides which side of reality we must confront, and so our thinking conforms (or resists).

In this moment, I am writing from Washington Square Park. My thoughts are in many places — work, home, past, future — but right now, I’m immersed in the ecosystem of the park. The weather is pleasant, the heat of summer mellowed to a comfortable level — and a signal that fall may not be far. NYU students are back from summer break, or just starting their college experience. Old friends are reconnecting, new friendships are forming. Technology is everywhere: students smiling at text messages, calling family back home, or working deadpan on their laptops, tourists shooting photos or videos of the whole scene, and me, typing this into my iPhone. Jazz music, performed only by a sax player and drummer, sets the perfect backdrop to this afternoon confluence of people and place, a shared sequence of moments in a small but timeless patch of NYC.

One moment, hidden among so many parallel realities, struck me this afternoon. As I finished my lunch, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a furry caterpillar begin a perilous journey across a heavily-trafficked walking path leading to the fountain in the center of the park. I looked around and realized I was the only one watching him attempt to cross. Slowly he (or she?) inched forward, arching then flattening his fuzzy brown body. He barely made it three feet, out of the ten feet he needed to cover, before an unsuspecting student clipped his head with his bright white sneaker. In one final arching motion, the caterpillar’s journey ended, and all the while, the scene continued. Friends laughed, dogs walked beside their owners, a breeze flowed through the trees, and the jazz played on. It wasn’t long before he “blended” into the ground, flattened by the waves of footfalls up and down the path.

Life goes on, indeed, but it mustn’t go unnoticed. I don’t know the caterpillar’s greater purpose in the grand scheme of things, unless he was destined to become a butterfly and start a butterfly effect. Where did he come from? Where did he think he was going? Why did I just see that? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and looking for deeper meaning, but I can’t ignore the significance of that moment.

I come to this park, as I do other public places, to see my world differently — but really, I come to see the world. In fact, I always see many different worlds, macro and micro, overlapping, colliding, coexisting. In the space of a lunch break, in the space of a public park in NYC, many things can happen if you just tune into the worlds around you.

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Advancing the Human Journey

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The concept of the journey spans cultures and traditions around the world. Journeys form the core of ancient and modern narratives, from the hero’s quest to the experience of life from birth to death. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the connection between the philosophical and functional aspects of the journey construct, and where a new understanding of the past and present might be possible. How might we build upon and extend the notion of the journey as a narrative framework for self development and growth within the context of information design and sensemaking? Going further, how might we expand the notion of information design to advance human potential?

The seed idea for this post came from an article in The New Inquiry titled Playing Outside, which discusses the strained evolution of video games as an art form and as a means of social change. What immediately caught my interest was a reference to a game called Journey:

an indie game based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the sentimental concept of unvoiced collaboration with strangers.

They had me at “monomyth.” How did I not hear about this game when it launched in 2012? Finally, video games are growing up and exploring fresh new territory! The author digs into the problem and challenges the video game establishment later on:

The idea that at the end of the day, games are obligated to serve the purpose of “fun” above all others has been the main wrench in the works of the gaming industry’s machinations for legitimacy. Why should games be mature, cope with social issues, reflect society, or demonstrate the genuine artistic vision of a grown-up creator? At the end of the day, they’re just for fun, say gamers when they’ve run out of defenses against the mainstream industry’s embarrassing, stagnant homogeneity.

Why remain locked in a market-safe model that indulges teenage male power fantasies with graphic violence and vicarious conquests? Why not push the medium to it’s fullest potential and experiment with new forms of interaction and experience — possibly new modalities of learning and understanding?

My discovery led to a highly unproductive (but mentally stimulating) afternoon reading reviews, watching video after video of Journey gameplay and behind-the-scenes videos of thatgamecompany explaining their approach to making the game and their over-arching philosophy. Then I read the mission statement on their humble and un-flashy website:

Create timeless interactive entertainment that makes positive change to the human psyche worldwide.

What a paradigm shift, and what an exciting frontier to explore! I don’t own a PS3, but if thatgamecompany continues to live up to their mission and push the boundaries of “interactive entertainment,” I may be persuaded to get one.

What Journey does so elegantly is tap into human themes of discovery and self-attainment and elevate them beyond the ordinary and the everyday: epic, dreamy landscapes, semi-familiar cultural references and symbolism, magic as a creative and communicative element, and best of all, the sound effects and music, masterfully composed and performed. Every design decision, from the color palette to the character design to the sound effects, enriches the visual and emotional texture of the game and demonstrates exceptional craftsmanship.

In a way, the creators of Journey deliberately practiced anti-information design to make a more engaging, universal experience for any audience, regardless of language. The actual gameplay is driven by “learning by doing,” so most of the action is looking around and trying things out — play in its simplest form. The player-to-player interaction eliminates language barriers by drawing on universal social principles: shared ultimate goal/purpose, cooperation to achieve the goal, trust, etc. (Of course, without a mechanism for aggression or violence, players are left with fewer other choices in this utopian game scenario.)

Abstracting human experience to superhuman or meta-human level is not easy. The short behind-the-scenes videos hint at the tremendous intellectual, creative, and technical effort it took to create the unique world of Journey. When I look at the game from an information design perspective, I see elements that information design has been missing — or has been slowly maturing toward:

  • Multi-sensory methods to amplify understanding and meaning – We’re only starting to understand what “online” means for information design, and the push towards sophisticated programming languages and visualization software is only uncovering part of the picture. Video games, by virtue of all that technology under the hood, immerse us in dynamic visual worlds, and even transport us away from our own time-space reality. How might we push video and audio even further, and how do we employ our other senses — and feelings — to enable understanding?

  • Responsive and truly interactive experiences – The evolution from static to dynamic knowledge creation and transfer is still ongoing, yet there are opportunities to expand how we think about interaction and direct manipulation of information. What if visualizations moved beyond sliders, check boxes and toggles, and enabled fluid, intuitive exploration? How might we make information experiences less rigid and more responsive to enable instant feedback, physically and virtually?

  • Personal change and growth – Commercial information design serves an important function, by helping people navigate spaces, learn new concepts and skills, and do their everyday work. But we could be thinking more about how information design thinking can support individual development and sense-making throughout life. My biggest gripe about information design is the “so what?” factor. Popular information design, in the form of “infographics” (or decoratively illustrated lists of facts) and abstract data displays appeal to the eye and may enable some understanding, but what happens next? The metaphorical notions of “consumption” or even “digestion” seem to be the end state for information design these days, but if we carry the thinking further, are we metabolizing that information and is it fueling any action? How might we nourish the intellect and the individual, instead of just manufacturing visual confections and feeding appetites? How might we focus on outcomes instead of just outputs?

The more I reflect on this topic, the more I feel that information design should embrace a greater purpose. It continues to prove its value to businesses and organizations, but it can — it must — also benefit individuals and society as a whole in deeper and more engaging ways. But to accomplish that doesn’t require more content to be formatted and displayed or more data to be mined and filtered through analytic software and spit out onto slick futuristic interfaces. The “new” and widely untapped frontier that awaits information design is a refocus on maximizing human agency by enabling and expanding what people can be and do in their lives.

The journey that lies ahead for information design should not be guided solely by technology, market trends, or passing fancies. The journey should be grounded in what matters most to people and their lives — their struggles, their aspirations — and it should be guided by understanding, from within the realm of understanding-based professions and from without. Cooperation, collaboration, and a respect for the timeless, universal things that bind humanity will help guide the way forward.

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New Modalities of Understanding

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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”?