Monday, 9 January 2012

Knowledge and the Performance Art of visualisation

Whilst all those graphs of Twitter connections are very pretty, I can't help wondering that they're probably useless: it is hard to see how a map of Twitter connections can lead to informed and effective decision-making. Visualisation is about decision and control. It is about managing the complexity of the world, which (thanks to technology) is now too great for our outdated modes of governance, and outdated approach to data collection and analysis. The hope for visualisation is that powerful representations of the world can yield deep collective insights and coordinated action. Most deeply, the problem that visualisation tries to address is one of the human intellect and human organisation.

Thinking about my last post, where I alluded to a passage in Newman's "The idea of  a University" where he talked about knowledge (which I found quoted by Edward Said), I've now found the fuller quote. I think this is relevant to thinking about visualisation:

The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause.
In visualisation, we make the sights (of course, only sights... why not sounds?) upon which the intellect of managers might act. Our governance problems rest on the fact that our intellects "sieze and unite" the inadequate statistics and graphs we are presented with, and consequently give them the wrong meaning and the wrong idea.

In the business of management, of course, there is always a disconnect. The surrogate world of the statistics jars against the real world of real people. The conversations muttered in corridors hide the back-story behind a sloping line in the graph. Those managers who listen best to what's going on on the ground will try to reconcile the difference between the graphs they see and what they actually hear. But their problem is always that the graph alone exists as a shared representation; it alone is defensible. Intuition isn't.

What can be done? I want to draw a kind of metaphor here to highlight what I think is the real problem. Fundamentally, I believe the problem is to do with the difference between straightness and curvedness. All the statistical representations we examine are straight: whether the straight lines linking twitter connections, or the lines showing the link between different student satisfactions rates. Intuition, on the other hand, is curved: it is felt as a movement which ebbs and flows as the intellect considers the reality of experience in an act of empathy.

This is where I find Newman's allusion to music most interesting. "It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole". That's what intuition (which may be the proper functioning of the intellect?) does. That succession of notes is a curved unfolding. It is in the curved unfolding that the idea is borne.

But what can be done? Is there a way in which the unfolding of experience can be shared? Of course, music does just this (as do all the performance arts). Does that mean visualisation needs to become a performance art? Thinking about the presentations by Hans Rosling, I think there's more sense in this than at first appears. Our question then should concern the ways in which the performance art of visualisation can be made more powerful.

1 comment:

Sheila MacNeill said...

Hi Mark

Thanks for this - I agree we need to get past the "prettiness" to mutually understands, guess the old "statistics, damned statistics and lies" adage never really dies.

I posted a bit on networks relating in particular to CETIS and how they allow us to start to make our communities, and more importantly, our connections to them, more explicit