19 November 2009

Visualization, Flickr and Look Magazine

I was thinking recently about the emergence of visualization as an important trend. Visualization is gaining mindshare rapidly among academics and information technology people. The overwhelming volume of data on the network is prompting this interest in visualization as way coping with this emergent, crushing tidal wave of data. There are billions of digital photographs online. I remember when I could see nearly every historic photograph with online access in week. There are trillions of texts and billions of images. The only way to make sense of this data, the only way to organize and explore this data, may very well be through visualization.

Visualization is not photographs or illustrations. It is making data visible. Numbers, statistics, metadata, information about texts or images, the activity of users, authors, creators, contributors, visitors, etc. It is using visual means to make this kind of statistical data and the architecture of information visible and comprehensible.

I like to think about how to organize and present images and text. I was thinking about visualization in comparison to the way magazines organized text and images. In the heyday of the photographic magazines, the images were the most important thing, so they were printed large and allowed to run freely through margins to the borders of the paper. The texts were small captions. This was an ideal, expressive and easy to comprehend presentation (note that presentation is not visualization). It allowed photo editors to engage in the creation of visual narrative, through the juxtaposition of images. Using montage and arrangement on the page, the editor could create a mood or a story. Although text was secondary, it is essential to understanding the meaning of the content in the images. A photograph is just a jumble of meaningless or misleading objects without context.

It occurred to me, that if a way could be found to tie the presentation of the photo magazine (Life, Look, etc.) to the idea of visualization, it could create a powerful new kind of experience. What if the presentation of pictures and text could be as satisfying and transparent as that of the picture magazines, but the mass of data the pictures and text are drawn from, from a collaborative photo and text site (Flickr, for example), could be exposed and explored through visualization? How could these two elements be combined?

18 November 2009

Koans, Cavaliers and Facebook

We are raised in a culture that teaches us to always look for answers or winners. We are taught to expect the purpose of a question is to find the answer. We expect the goal of a game is to win. In Zen practice, students are given questions to ponder in the form of stories, called koans. I was taken aback when I realized the purpose of the koan was not to find an answer to the question, but to measure the progress the student has made in understanding zen. It was a shock, for this rational and scientific minded person, to consider there might be some other purpose to a question than to find the correct answer. Although one can find cheat sheets with common answers to zen koans, there may be no correct answer to a koan. The answer, although interesting, is not the important point of practicing with a koan.

A koan is a measure, just as for those who believe in 'fortuna' culture (a common belief among Virginia cavaliers was that each person was born with a certain amount of forunta or good luck, which could be modified by charms), games of chance are measures of how much fortune one possess. The aim of games of chance, such as dice, is to discover how one's own fortune measures up to the other players, not to win. Sometimes a zen student will supply a stock answer to a koan, but the experience is missed if you get the answer to a koan from a cheat sheet. A koan is there to help understanding. When Helen Keller learned the meaning of "water," she experienced a profound moment of realization, which ordinary children might never experience when learning the name for water. If she had used a cheat sheet, she would have only learned that water is water and not that cold, liquid on her hands was water, her understanding, if you could call it that, would have been divorced from experience.

It was a new concept for me to absorb, how people are interested in tests telling them something about themselves, measures of who they are, yet I should not have been surprised, since such quizzes are popular on Facebook, such as what are your guilty pleasures, what would you do if you could go back in time, what superpowers would you choose, and the ultimate question is probably How Well do you Know Me?