The Real Point of Visualizations: Managing Data Overload Without Algorithms

By Alexis C. Madrigal
Will Wright may be working on a way to help you manage your consumption data without so much help from computers

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We are awash in information. James Gleick called it a flood in his celebrated book, The Information, for a reason. The kilobytes turned into megabytes, gigabytes, tera, peta, and on up the Greek-Latin scale towards zetta and yotta. People's natural inclination has been to say, "Well, computers crunch data well, so let's use them to simplify things." That's where you get algorithmic filtering like Google and Microsoft's search engines or Facebook's News Feed.

But information overload has been with us since we had these old eyes of ours, which bring immense amounts of information into our brains every second of every day. In preparing for my interview with Will Wright, I was struck by his statement of human intelligence in Scientific American:

If you actually look at the amount of data coming in through all your senses, there's something like 100 million bits of information coming in every second through your visual system and another 10 million bits coming through your auditory system and another one million bits coming through your tactile system. We're basically at any given time absorbing hundreds of millions of bits of data per second through our senses. We can manage this, because our conscious stream is only aware of a very tiny fraction of that sensory input, maybe a few hundred bits per second. Most of our intelligence is really a filtering process.

That is to say, it's not necessarily the amount of information that's daunting for us, but rather the form of it. We can scan a savannah and know what's important much easier than we can scan a bunch of Facebook posts. Mostly that's because the posts are made up of words, which require another level of symbolic interpretation before we know if we are interested in them.

But as the battles over Twitter's trending topics (why isn't #ows trending?) testify, our human intuitions don't always match an algorithm's. We place the emphases on different data than the machines do, at least some of the time.

Perhaps there are ways in which we can make all this data sensible to us intuitively, so that we can put our brain's filters to work instead of or alongside the machines' algorithms. In our interview, I asked Wright, who is notorious for making products that grew out of cultural ideas and books and theories, what he was reading. He told me that he's been rereading and looking at a lot of information design, stuff like Edward Tufte's work. Later, he revealed -- inasmuch as Wright reveals things -- that he wants to find ways to visualize our media consumption.

I thought I saw, for a flash, a future in which human beings did not outsource all the complex work of understanding our social relationships or consumption to algorithms. I don't know precisely what Wright is working on, but it seemed like he was hinting at a way to display information that would harness our brain's built-in filters, the intelligence we know we have but can't consciously access.

Image: Angela Waye/Shutterstock.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/10/the-real-point-of-visualizations-managing-data-overload-without-algorithms/247085/