How Humans Have Seen the World, Through Data

PBS Off Book explains the long history of info visualization.

"The history of visualizing data," Edward Tufte says, "is very substantially a history of science." As we develop new ways to observe the world, we develop new ways, as well, to render it -- to recreate it and make sense of it. Google Maps, which Tufte describes as the most widely seen data visualization in the world, is a particularly telling testament to this: It takes the stew of knowledge we have about the natural world and the human infrastructure built on and of it ... and renders that information as a picture. It converts complex circumstances into simple, if not simplistic, images.

In that, according to the latest of PBS's Off Book video series, Google Maps is part of a long line of efforts to conjure the world. From the earliest forms of data visualization -- maps scratched onto rocks, cartographers' renderings of the world -- to the most current and cutting-edge, dataviz has long had a power to explain and inspire.

And it's a power, importantly, that our minds are primed for. "We evolved to see things and make snap decisions," says O'Reilly Media's Julia Steele. The mechanisms that make the human brain exceptionally good at telling the difference between grass blades that are moved by caressing winds and grass blades that are moved by crouching lions are the same mechanisms that give human-rendered images their power. "We react to design and to art and to the aesthetics of a piece just as much as we react to the information contained in it," Steele puts it. "And so if you want to change someone's mind -- if you want to change someone's behavior -- sometimes presenting the information in a visual format is the fastest way to get them to engage with that information."

And yet when it comes to data visualization at its best, information will always trump beauty. As Tufte puts it, "style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content." And beauty, as a result, is simply "a biproduct of the truth and goodness of the information." This isn't the art of information so much as art for information. "Look after truth and goodness," Tufte says, "and beauty will look after herself."

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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