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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

John Belushi and Data Visualization.

It’s been over two years since we reached the point where we ended up with 16 infographics about infographics.  Since that really bad moment where I read that thing, I've wondered how we can make things better. Maybe it’s time to figure out how to be sharp and dangerous again. 

We need unadorned, working class treatment of important things that will make them utterly simple and memorable.

There's plenty of lectures out there on morality, aesthetics, and good taste.  I chose the opposite.  Here’s some of John Belushi’s best acts, re-interpreted for data visualization and information design:

1. The Samurai Delicatessen

(i.e. The Unexpected)

Although anyone familiar with Belushi knew something weird was about to happen, we weren’t sure what.  And for those who weren’t familiar, it was even more surprising when he drew his sword on Saturday Night Live and hacked Buck Henry’s sandwich to pieces.  I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of visualizations over the course of my career, but most of them are dull, repetitive, and just confirm the expected.  What gets me excited?   Something that hacks my understanding of the world to pieces. 

Slicing out the signal from the noise can be shocking.  There's the poignant retelling of the space shuttle disaster that Tufte showcased in his travelling shows during the ‘90s.  When he retold how Richard Feynman isolated and re-arranged the O-ring performance as related to ambient temperature, the stark threat to the lives of the seven astronauts was laid bare.  Although their presentation of the problem has since been heavily debated, it still pointed out that we are often lulled into bad decisions through muddled presentations.

But we can also be just as surprised by a synthesis of information.   Go to John Snow’s analysis of the1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in Soho, London.  Snow made a connection between human behavior, resources, infrastructure, and biology.  People in a neighborhood converged on the closest well to get the common denominator of life: water.  The well that delivered the water to the neighborhood was also the delivery system for the cholera.  It was a compelling challenge to the miasma theory that prevailed at the time.   It was that sudden, ‘aha’ moment where we made a connection that only existed in the combination of the distinct pieces of information. 

Belushi literally hacked convention to pieces, and then made us laugh with relief when the violence was only a joke.  How about these visualizations?  They also hacked up convention.  One timely, another far too late, but both startled us out of ignorance, complacency, and groupthink.  

2. Animal House

(i.e. The Truthful)

In 1978, if you were willing to sit down and watch a movie tagged with National Lampoon’s notoriously highbrow but tasteless humor, (remember, these were the days where you really had to commit to watching the thing, either in a theater or on TV without Tevo, or rewind), chances were that you already had what it took to become hopelessly endeared with Belushi's John "Bluto" Blutarsky.  

Whether it was his gluttonous and grotesque stroll through the lunchroom, his sudden outburst of violence toward a strumming troubadour, his painful comeuppance for his peeping tom activities, or his final Delta House pep talk before he led them into the bitter end, we didn’t want to stop him; he was on a roll.  And why not?  He was absolutely devoid of any pretense.  And that generates: an ironic trust.  

We have to be simply truthful.  Kaiser Fung has helped us get there.   Compared to the other curmudgeons out there, he at least can occasionally have a glimmer of wry humor when he delivers his devastating simplifications of overwrought visualizations.  But if he's the George Burns of data visualization, expertly delivering straight-man comedowns and Dumb-Dora foils, we still need the outrageous.  XKCD's getting closer.  He’s awesome.   But still…we need something both highbrow and working-class.   To be continued.  

3. The Thing That Wouldn't Leave

(i.e. The Persistent)

OK, this one is probably a bit of a stretch, because in truth the Saturday Night Live sketch celebrated one of our somewhat uniquely American cultural problems: the frequent and horrible collision of the naïve and the polite.  We are equally tortured by Belushi’s nearly autistic oblivion over having worn out his welcome, and by his pathetically kind guests that can’t ever seem to be…direct.  

Getting back to visualization: the point is that we need to be willfully persistent.  We need to make something intensely memorable.  Metaphor is the most powerful tool for persistence.  For example, why is the much-maligned pie chart still used?  Because it’s a perfect metaphor, so vividly representing a share of the whole.  Pie slices add up to a whole, and each slice is a share, fair or unfair.   They are incredibly simple to make and draw; they can be just as easily rendered on the back of a napkin as they can on a sophisticated graphing tool.  

Another example: Charles Minard’s Carte figurative des pertes successives en homes de l'Armee Francaise dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813.   It’s not a simple sketch, and it involved a huge amount of labor.  But why is it so memorable?  Because it’s a metaphor for death and destruction, and we literally see the brutal waste of humanity across the western Russian plain.  

On that note, there’s doubters and detractors that are going to point out that at age 33 Belushi crossed the line, destroyed himself and left behind some real pain for others.  I don’t have a good answer to that, other than to say that maybe the difference between a aesthetic survivor like Gene Kelly and a rambunctious legend like John Belushi was a matter of risk-taking.   Gene Kelly's dancing was beautiful; John Belushi's dancing was brilliant. 

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