New Modalities of Understanding

April 1, 2013

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”?


Leaving Twenty Ten

January 1, 2011

twentyten

To say it’s been a long, difficult year is the understatement of the year. Few have been spared from the thrashing waves of change and misfortune that coursed through this year, whether it’s continued joblessness, lack of health insurance to cover necessary medical treatment, or the shock of sudden natural disasters. In my own life, I’ve been dealt a number of blows in fairly rapid succession. Since I’m not one to divulge every detail of my life to the world, I will only say that no other year has been as mentally draining or as psychologically challenging as 2010. I am grateful to have made it this far without resorting to substance abuse or public fits of berserk rage (it always helps to vent to someone who’s willing to listen).

What I will carry forward with me in 2011 is what I want to focus on in this last post of 2010. Every challenge has yielded some truth about human nature, the world, and the complex machinery of life. Some lessons hit me over the head, while others sunk in gradually as I made sense of a situation. I’m not done fully processing all that has happened this year, nor do I expect to glean all the answers anytime soon.

For now, here are the headlines for my twenty takeaways of 2010:

  1. See the world as it sees itself
  2. Get over yourself (practice humility)
  3. Live a principled life
  4. Remember what’s important, and make time for it
  5. Take responsibility, whether it’s chosen or not
  6. Accept a little imperfection
  7. Know the limits of reason
  8. Appreciate the role of faith (acknowledge the 1% you can’t explain)
  9. Be patient when the speed of life doesn’t match the gear you’re in
  10. Leave room for the unexpected
  11. Look up at the stars sometimes, for perspective
  12. Encourage humanity in the face of incivility
  13. Abolish self-doubt and thoughts of defeat
  14. Always seek answers and solutions (don’t dwell on problems)
  15. Embrace those closest to you
  16. Never be satisfied
  17. Strive for excellence
  18. Seek truth and avoid cheap substitutes
  19. Listen carefully
  20. Don’t be so hard on yourself — enjoy life once in a while

I could elaborate on every one of these points, but I think the message is pretty clear. Looking forward to better things in 2011!


The Mind of the Seeker

February 7, 2010

galacticmandala

M74 Spiral Galaxy photo by Simon Dye (Cardiff University) overlaid with Shri Yantra Mandala.

Humanity’s search for knowledge, in its many forms, has always fascinated me. Spanning geographies, cultures, faiths, and generations, the enduring pursuit of truth and insight into the diverse realms of human experience has yielded some of the greatest works of science and art — from the sequencing of the human genome to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Each school of thought or path of study carries its own distinct challenges, “great questions” and intellectual rewards, but it is the same mind that is driven to find answers.

Several months ago, I had read a New York Times article about Carl Jung’s Red Book, a hauntingly personal collection of writings and paintings exploring the depths of his unconscious. Despite the little knowledge I have of Jung’s work (I admit), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see this long-lost treasure up close at the Rubin Museum of Art. When I finally made it to the museum over Christmas vacation, I decided to start at the top floor and take a quick walk through the other exhibits first, saving the “best” for last on the bottom floor (surely, I thought, some trippy mandala paintings and multi-limbed Hindu deity sculptures couldn’t hold my attention for very long, fascinating though they may be).

I was quickly proven wrong.

Almost every exhibit blew me away, but one resonated with me the strongest: “Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe,” up until May 10, 2010. Here’s a Flickr photo set of the exhibit.

While perspectives shifted greatly from spiritual to conjectural to empirical, the quality of execution and level of diligence in constructing coherent visual narratives were remarkably on par across all works. Metaphor and symbolism were as vital as brush and ink in depicting Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies; the artists behind these works employed the tools of design to depict the interrelationships between physical and ethereal planes with such compelling clarity as to affirm their reality. Turning to the early Western astronomers, meticulous drawings of their observations with the naked eye and with simple telescopes helped demystify the heavens and bring humankind’s grasp of the world beyond Earth within reach, religious controversy aside.

Rounding out the survey of astronomical study was a series of typically dazzling photographs of distant nebulae and galaxies marking our present level of achievement. A projected Powers of 10-style video of The Known Universe flaunted the astonishing accuracy with which we now claim to know the universe and our place in it. On the same wall as the projection but directly above was a giant mandala painting (part of the exhibit “Mandala: The Perfect Circle”). I don’t know if the juxtaposition on the same wall was intentional, but graphically and thematically, the two images made perfect sense together.

Reflecting back on that day, I realized that it is the same quest for knowing that links the devotional artist, the scientist, and the modern information designer. The content, the context, and the methods may be different, but all of these individuals share the same purpose: to model reality — be it physical, spiritual, or otherwise — for human understanding and enlightenment. (Even Jung, in working through his inner turmoil, used art and writing to make sense of what he experienced. Psychological information design?)

Today, the skill of modeling reality has been professionalized into many discrete roles, including information designer, infographic illustrator, data visualization expert, CG artist, et cetera. Technology continues to enhance our understanding of the world and expand the means by which we can communicate. Slowly, what our brains actually do is still evolving: how we perceive what is and conceive of what could be, as well as how we construct understanding. I wonder what a “Visions of the Cosmos” exhibit might look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now. What new models will we create? What new understanding will we reach? What will our universe look like then? Will it still be a “universe”?

(Along the lines of how we know what we know, the Rubin Museum of Art is running a pretty amazing event series called Brainwave 2010. I wish I could attend every session!)


Escaping Flatland

May 25, 2009

flatland2.jpg

I usually put more effort into coming up with titles, but this time I settled on what was nearer to hand (thanks to Edward Tufte). In a metaphorical sense, the idea of escaping flatland sums up much of what’s been on my mind lately: breaking free from the mundane “two-dimensional” aspects of daily life and experiencing the world in multiple dimensions. And by that I don’t mean the Michio Kaku sense of alternate realities, but by improving the here and now.

Flatland, to me, is marked by a largely functional existence — just getting by, day after day after day. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this applies to fulfilling the lowest 2 levels of needs: physiological and safety. I would venture a generalization that many people these days are worrying about and focusing more attention on these 2 levels than the other 3 (social needs, esteem needs, and self actualization needs).

From personal experience, work, finances, and other related matters have absorbed most of my attention for quite some time. The economic decline has caused quite a significant shift in priorities, leading to more frugality and thrift. Consequently, I’ve been visiting my local library more often, partly to curb my book-buying habit, but also to find a brief escape in works of fiction like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The same applies to listening to music, watching movies, and going to art exhibits — in bits and bites, they’re enjoyable, but momentary distractions nonetheless.

So how does one truly escape flatland — even in times like these?
(I’m still working on this, so bear with me.)

The first step for me was to identify the activities that are no longer taking place, or that ought to be part of everyday life but got pushed aside. What was missing for me were the things I enjoyed long before the “real world” took center stage: drawing, painting, playing music, cycling, travel, hiking, and many other pursuits that made life multi-dimensional (sorry if that sounds cheesy). They used to happen spontaneously, without too much thought or effort; several of those activities were once a regular part of my day. Now, many years later, I realize how important they were and seek to bring them back. While travel may have to wait a while because of cost, I’m looking into doing more art-making as well as more light hiking in nearby parks. If I can re-work my schedule to balance out all the pieces, I think it might work.


Thinking about Thinking…

February 16, 2009

phrenology2.jpg

I tend to do a lot of thinking. Not a moment passes when cascades of thoughts aren’t flashing across my mind like channels flipping quickly on a television screen. I suppose it’s both a cause and a symptom of working in a creative field and constantly being attuned to all things visual and verbal (I was never one for kinesthetic activities like sports).

There are different patterns or types of thinking — linear, circular, random or non sequitur, among many others — but the kind that burns the most cerebral calories for me is recursive, or thinking about thinking (I’m sure there’s a more accurate term for this somewhere). To continue the television metaphor, it’s the mental equivalent of pointing a video camera at the television screen it is connected to, or placing two mirrors directly opposite one another. Images repeat to infinity, containing their own image, contained within their own image. Recursive thinking need not continue to infinity, as in an Escher print — just one or two degrees out or in from where you are is all it takes.

Recursive thinking is an attempt at objectivity, though not quite free of personal bias or perspective. Outside of any rigorous studies in philosophy, psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I find the best description of this phenomenon by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto “Mens conscia recti,” emblazoned his own front with the words “Men’s, women’s and children’s conscia recti.”

Some of my favorite works of art, cinema, and literature deal with nested repetition of the same reality (also called the Droste effect):

And although this isn’t exactly recursive — unless you keep your own Earth-level consciousness in mind as the film’s perspective zooms out and in — The Powers of 10 by Charles and Ray Eames (1977) best captures the experience of shifting one’s perspective:

(best viewed in high quality)

So does anyone else out there have any personal insight into thinking about thinking, especially folks in the design field? I’d like to collect examples of how this is depicted visually and maybe share them in another post, so comments and suggestions are welcome.

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UPDATE, 1/30/10 – Here’s an interesting example of geographic recursion.


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