The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Data Tells Stories

Still keeping with the theme of the power of data, the video below by Dataveyes is a beauty. It is a promotional video but it is well done and illustrates the point very well.

“Dataveyes is a start-up focused on interactive data visualization.

Data visualization turns large volumes of raw data into a meaningful piece. It creates a visual, esthetic and kinetic interaction, which directly reaches out to the user’s intelligence.

At Dataveyes, we want to create a new visual grammar, a new way of telling stories with data. We think this appears as necessary, for complex information is better memorized by the human brain through a visual form than words could ever be.”

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Revealing Hidden Knolwedge

This Ted talk by David McClandless is worth watching. I agree with his observation that data visualization is really the process of using Design as a means of solving problems and creating elegant solutions. He points out that information overload is now a very serious problem and data visualization is one powerful way to make sense of it.

I agree and will even go further and suggest that without data visualization (an important new emerging industry), we will experience paralysis.

Enjoy – as with all TED talks it is no longer than 18 minutes.

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A Visual Essay

In this video, Paul Jenkins tells the story of a photograph. There is great skill in deconstructing meaning and putting the story together that is captured in the metaphors in the photograph.

The video is about 14 minutes long.

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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Interface as Culture

To make better sense of this post – I suggest you read the previous one here.

“The 19th century culture was defined by the novel; the 20th century culture was defined by the cinema; and the 21st century culture will be defined by the interface.”

Previously, I looked at this statement from an economic point of view. Admittedly this was from a poststructuralist perspective and it was more of a critique. In this post, I will explore the interface as evolutionary culture and visual artefact.

Firstly, culture is a complex term and carries specific meanings in different disciplines. I will restrict myself to exploring culture as a sociological concept. From this perspective, culture refers to the entire texture of a society. This includes how symbols, meanings, beliefs, values, language and rituals organise social behaviour.

Mexican Dancer by Lemonpink

Mexican Dancer by Lemonpink

The question one has to look at in order to address the statement above is: how do cultures change? To do this, and considering how sociologists explain cultural change, the issue that stands out is that in attempting to analyse patterns of behaviour in any society, one needs to consider how individuals communicate, think and create meaning. This is a massive undertaking and it would also be necessary to extrapolate what the individual does and then relate it to the wider social structure.

One needs to refine the definition of culture and look at a more contemporary one. Briefly, it has evolved from meaning:

  • the tending of crops – cultivation – in the 15th Century;
  • the cultured mind, manners and a high standard of civilisation – 16th Century;
  • social class particularly reserved for the wealthy Europeans – 18th Century;
  • this meaning has extended into the 19th-20th Centuries, especially with reference to painting, sculpture, literature, music, film and sometimes philosophy. There being a distinction between high and popular culture;
  • popular culture referring to mass media, TV, sports, popular music, newspaper and magazines (the argument gets complicated – but not for this post);
  • starting in the 18th Century, and stemming from the Enlightenment, culture was used to describe the secular development of social life;
  • Herder qualified this and emphasised the notion of cultures (plural) – acknowledging the fact that there are many cultures who share different values – this was in contrast to the then prevailing worldview of Europe as being the superior, dominant civilisation;
  • The late 20th Century meaning of culture focused on shared meanings within groups and nations within which there are sub-cultures. It concentrates on the symbolic dimension, as well as what culture does rather than what culture is. It is a state of being. This way of thinking of culture is rooted in language, which is seen as fundamental to the production of meaning (Saussure).

The current 21st Century definition of culture takes the 20th Century definition and adds to it. Firstly, the notion of communication is central; and secondly, the notion of language is extended (not written and verbal only) to include signs and symbols (Lévi-Strauss).

Visuality (in the sense explored in this blog) takes centre stage – a process of symbolisation, which enables humans to communicate meaningfully about the world. The focus of culture being about the practice of meaning production.

Could this be a memory from the future? Pop-up book by Phillip Ficklingpaper engineer/illustrator — New Zealand

Could this be a memory from the future? Pop-up book by Phillip Fickling
paper engineer/illustrator — New Zealand (I have seen Philip’s work, it is fantastic). Source:

Now that we have a better idea of what culture might be, let’s analyse the statement above. From the brief survey of culture, we can easily see how the novel and film dominated society.

With the celebration of secularisation and science, culture became more about the general process of social development. The ‘novel’ became the vehicle for the spreading of ideas and those associated values for the betterment of the individual.

As society on mass became aware of itself as a quantity with shared values, meanings and ways of life, the cinema became the perfect carrier of such shared meanings in society – the key form of expressing cultural content.

The part of the statement that is of particular interest to me is ….21st century culture will be defined by the interface. Let’s explore this. Culture of the 21st Century concentrates on the interrelationships between the components that make up the cultural practice in question. The how has become important – how is the interface to express culture?

At this point, one needs to do a sidestep and confirm what is meant by interface?. Steven Johnson proposes that it is a defining metaphor of our times that art and technology have become inseparable. There are many types of interfaces. For this post, I am referring to the GUI (graphical user interface), which has become the standard computer interface.

It refers to software that enables people to communicate with a computer through the use of symbols, visual metaphors and pointing devices. I would agree that its components have themselves become unmistakable cultural artefacts. It is ubiquitous.

It can be argued that the interface as an innovation has and will continue for some time to shape our cognition, interaction and communication with each other. Steven Johnson argues that it is a new spatial environment where the new landscape is worth living in. Its visual illusions being as important as the functions they signify.

Interface designers translate the raw digital data that we do not understand by using metaphors. The metaphor of architecture is one. Another is where documents and folders are located spatially as in a galaxy around planets (Apple’s Planet X).

Using spatial visual relationships allows us to imagine and create meaning. We therefore have a way (the how) of how we create new culture. Visuality has now taken centre stage in the culture of the 21st century. We need to look for meaning in the arrangement, the patterns, the symbolic structure of the interface.

Visuality is not only about image. It is also about metaphor and space. The space between is not empty – it has meaning. We have a new set of values that are created and shared at a rapid pace where time space is compressed. All this is new and it will define who we are becoming.

Eye of the machine by Agsandrew

Eye of the machine by Agsandrew

The interface has become the new narrative. It is the portal to the different meanings, spaces and values created and recreated by us. The novel replaced the oral tradition of telling the story (encoded message passed on between towns and generations), becoming a very efficient way of passing the meaning more accurately. The cinema added other dimensions to its power of passing on the story (sound and visuals).

With the interface, we are individually in control of our own production of meaning – the shift of passive consumers to active participants in our culture. Jean Baudrillard need not be concerned – our culture will not implode but rather emerge into exciting new forms.