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Monday, April 29, 2013

Take your Code Back to the Stone Age.





I love beautiful things.  I'm especially attracted to complexity, intricacy, and recursive patterns.  Physical forces and biological systems tend to leave complex, intricate and recursive footprints of data.

But our job is to bring that world back to people.  At AIS, we spend much of our time thinking about human problems, and creating perspective for change.  And I'm always in a daily struggle to find the right balance between my love for the world of organic patterns and design, and the strained impatience of human perception and attention.

Where's the answer?  I often look to literature for the answer; it's one of the strongest, most enduring, unifying threads of humanity.  It's responsible for more peace in this world between humans than perhaps anything else.  In particular, I always marvel at Mark Twain's elegant and beautiful reduction of the qualities of great literature:

A good story, well told.

We can learn a great deal from this simple sentence.  I've been focused these days on the 'well told' element.  As information visualization professionals, we are storytellers.  We have many audiences, and we must be able to reach them all.  Mark Twain was just as skilled at writing novels as he was at capturing the attention of a sodden bunch of tavern drunks with a simple joke or turn of phrase.

Back to information visualization.  For all of the super-coded, fantastic representations of data out there today, I'm seeing more and more information visualizations that I would call works of computational art, rather than well told, good stories.  There are exceptions: Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams's  Million Dollar Blocks is a wonderful balance, a spectacular visual so grotesque and sad that it has surely moved the heart of even the most stone-hearted economic purist.  More recently: Pitch Interactive's fantastic success with their chilling call for transparency in their drones visualization.

But, as with most human expression like cinema, music, and painting, we go through surges of showmanship and wizardry that draw audiences but leave us merely dazzled, rather than changed.  Many offer the rationale that the dazzle is the carnival barker for the main event.  But in most cases, the tent's been empty.

Hans Rosling offers a refreshing lesson in the alternatives.  His impromptu TEDxSummit talk in Doha where he offers a 30 second explanation of the worlds economic inequalities - and their implications for the future, is stunningly simple.  I continue to ask myself, each time I finish a project: can this be expressed as elegantly and simply as Rosling's Stones?   The answer is usually - yes!

Meanwhile, the balance is elusive, and despite the well-learned groans and moans of the purists who lay down the straight and narrow, I'm still moved to throw in some carnival barker dazzle in what I do.  But once you've passed into my show, I keep reminding myself that it has to be: a good story, well told.

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