Art for the Mind’s Eye

Is this art? I think so, accidental or not.

As a byproduct of the deluge, data miners and graphic designers have brought a new burst of ingenuity to the problem of seeing the patterns—which is to say the meaning—in apparently senseless masses of information. The resulting images have a way of tickling whatever part of the brain it is that cries “Beauty!”

Naturally there are websites devoted to this phenomenon. Some of my favorites: Information Is Beautiful; Data Mining; and Visual Complexity.
We’re way beyond fever lines and pie charts here. Cf. David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful: “My pet-hate is pie charts. Love pie. Hate pie-charts.” We’re talking about heat maps and tree maps, choropleths and dendograms, hyperbolic geometry and multidimensional scaling. No need to look any of that up. You’ve seen the pictures. They are products of enormous computational power, and they extend our insight into realms of distant abstraction. They do for the mind what a motorcycle does for the legs. Only motorcycles aren’t as pretty.

When they succeed, these modern infographics are hypnotic. Perhaps, too, we’re naturally drawn to this sort of thing. It’s what we’re made for, after all: coping with a deluge of information by finding the patterns, the connections, and the meaning.

When they fail, of course, they can be ugly or deceptive or both. The man who has taught us the most about that is the undoubted master of the whole business of visualizing information: Edward Tufte, statistician and artist. “The commonality between science and art,” he says, “is in trying to see profoundly—to develop strategies of seeing and showing.”

Tufte, in turn, likes to quote Salman Rushdie (Haroun and the Sea of Stories):

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; …  and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe.

(I’d say that Rushdie, in turn, is channeling Borges, but that’s another story.)

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