My (stupid) fear we may, one day, become irrelevant

[Be warned: this is me in a somewhat depressive state after the deep stress I have endured by submitting too many papers at VIS’14 yesterday. I hope you will forgive me. In reality I could not be more excited about what I am doing and what WE are doing as a community. Yet, I feel the urge to share this with you. I will probably regret it in a few days :)]

I happen to click on one of the last links in one of the popular visualization blogs. I am excited. The title looks cool, the data looks cool and the design of the visualization looks super cool: sleek and clean, the way I like it. I give a look at the demo and you know what? There’s nothing there to see. Empty. No new knowledge, nothing to learn, nothing you can absorb. Nada.

This is not an isolated case. And that’s the reason why I am not happy to disclose which particular project I am talking about. First, because it would not be fair (I hate throwing shit at people). Second, because, as I said, this is not an isolated case. Third, because this particular project is only an expedient to talk about something much larger.

The way I see visualization is as a super powerful discovery tool. Stealing words to Fred Brooks, visualization for me is, ultimately, an intelligence amplification” tool: interactive user interfaces to observe the unobservable (or think the unthinkable?).

But many many visualizations out there show nothing. They are like modern food: empty calories. We, as a community, spent and still spend lots of energy debating whether one particular way of representing a given piece of information is better than another but we seem to forget that what is really important is what we decide to show in the first place. Ultimately, the yardstick should be: did you learn something watching this? Is there any kind of nutrient that enters your brain?

Let’s put it this way: if it was possible to observe exactly what kind of changes happen in the brain of a person when exposed to some new piece of information, through visualization, what would you like to see there? I would like to see a Pollock-like explosion of spreading activation followed by a difference. A delta. A sweet and tiny new brick of knowledge.

I see too much ambiguity out there. We talk about telling stories, about beautiful visualizations, and we talk a lot about wrong ways to visualize data. But what I would like to talk more is about: are we making a difference? Not a difference in the market or on twitter or whatever. A difference in people’s mind. In their brain actually.

I think the answer is mostly yes. I think … I believe … Or I like to believe. But sometime I fear we are not. The biggest fear I have, and this is the real sense of this post, is that if we will not be able to teach people how to create nutritious visualizations we may become irrelevant. Maybe it’s just a stupid thought, I don’t know, but that’s the way I feel when I get depressed by watching empty calories visualization (btw, maybe this should have been the real title of this post). The allure of pretty picture one day will end and I am not sure what will be left to see.

Creating visualizations to change people’s brain significantly is not an easy task but it’s also the only thing that really excites me about visualization  [Added note: Alberto and Gregor in the comments pointed out there is no way NOT to change your brain anyway when you are exposed to a visualization. They are right. So this is more of a colorful image than a good representation of what happens in reality. Yet, I like the concept anyway. Just don’t take to literally!]. And now that I think about it, maybe I am writing this post more for myself than for you. I want to remind myself that my ultimate goal is to help people do remarkable things with visualization. It’s so easy to forget it in the day-to-day. I want to be able to literally change those neurons and synapses and make a difference in people’s brain. That’s what counts for me. Isn’t that a more than worthy and magnificent goal?

And what is your goal by the way?

Take care,

13 thoughts on “My (stupid) fear we may, one day, become irrelevant

  1. Gregor

    Besides the fact that there is no way *not* to change the brain and “all those neurons and synapses”, I think I can get what you referring to.

    Short answer: I think those pieces are mainly created for self-promotional purposes.

    Long answer: some people just enjoy creating visualizations. I count myself to them, so let me share a personal story that happened lots of time. They all started with me looking around for some ‘interesting’ data, which many times I had to scrape first, and then I ‘played with it’, coding sketches, trying different things etc. And eventually I end up with a beautiful graphic. And of course, I am proud of it, so I upload it to my website to share it with the world. I tweet the link, I include it into my portfolio, and that’s it. People see it and, even though it’s not breaking news or telling them anything relevant, they at least learned this one thing: there is someone who likes to create data visualizations, he puts nice stuff on his website, so maybe we should hire him. And some of them actually did, so I could go on with my freelance business. So many of these works at least served a self-promotional purpose.

    Data vis agencies publish those kinds of ‘meaningless’, or ‘zero insight’ graphics, too, for a variety of reasons. They attract new clients, and at the same time it gives their designers a chance for experimentation outside of narrow client requirements. And since a lot of vis agencies do internal projects, which cannot be shared in portfolios, they also need to publish something “visible” for marketing purposes, and especially to attract new young, creative designers hungry to work for them.

    Those kind of graphics don’t change the world. And 95-99% of the people who see them don’t care about it. But the 1-5% who might be prospect clients or employees are worth it. And it’s fun, too!

    1. Gregor

      Having said all this, I have to add one thing: I got really tired of seeing those self-promotional pieces, too. Here are two of the nice things about working in the graphics team of a newsroom:

      First, we have a very strong “relevancy filter” by which we decide what we publish and what not. if it is neither a fascinating interesting story or something breaking new, it goes nowhere. This is what makes a good part of quality: the stories you decidedly did not run.

      And second, I don’t have to worry about self-promotion as I had to as freelancer. It’s a relief!

  2. Ilya Boyandin

    I think Gregor made a good point by saying that there is no way NOT to change the brains of the users. In one way or another you always do. It can be less or more memorable, but in any case the real question is what the change is. I once had an experience when many people saw something very different from what we were trying to convey in a visualization. So I learned that data can be “speaking for itself” in that sense, and that if you want your audience to learn a specific message you need to put the accents very carefully. There is a certain amount of manipulation in this, but it is the same amount as when you express any meaningful thought or opinion supported with good arguments.

  3. Dino Citraro

    I think about this quite often, too. It is very easy to become distracted and overwhelmed by the volume of infographics and data visualizations, and the weak definitions of both. The point you raise is important, though I’m not sure it’s unique to this field. I assume you could change the word “visualization” in this post to “book” or “painting” or “song” or even “conversation” and it would still be relevant.

    I’m glad you wrote this because your ultimate goal is the same as my ultimate goal, and if nothing else, perhaps you will know that you are not alone in this endeavor.

    I try to focus on the next good project. Sometimes we don’t get the luxury of having each project be inspiring and morally fulfilling (though I hope none ore morally draining), but we do get another opportunity to start over with each new client or personal project.

    I’m not sure we will ever get the opportunity to measure the impact our work has on others, but at least you can measure the impact it is having on yourself, and honestly, that’s probably a better measure anyway.

  4. Alberto Cairo

    That said –and I don’t want to be a pedant here– the metaphor of “changing neurons and synapses” is a bit shaky. Anything that you see/hear/smell/touch/taste/do changes “your brain.” I’d rather talk about increases in knowledge. In recent talks I’ve suggested that our ultimate goal should be to facilitate the discovery of insights that can “enlighten” people

  5. Bryan Connor

    “if we will not be able to teach people how to create nutritious visualizations we may become irrelevant.”

    In reference to the above I wonder whether we should be concerned about the people behind visualizations becoming irrelevant or visualization itself becoming irrelevant? What would be an apocalypse for the field of data visualization?

    I think we can overcome a lot of the problems raised here by inventing better tools for creating data visualizations. Tools that teach and really make a difference in people’s minds. It seems like there’s a new visualization tool released every week and as long as those tools seek to advance the field and not their bank accounts then I think we’re on the right track.

  6. FILWD

    No time now to answer thoroughly. I am so excited by all your comments! Thanks. I’ll be back here as soon as I can.

  7. Jurjen

    Thanks, this was good to read. I started working with data-visualization quite recent and I have been thinking a lot about this issue. I agree, there are a lot of empty visualizations out there, it makes you wonder if it’s all that relevant and if anybody is going to pay for it. But at the same time I believe a lot in the value of good visualizations and I know there is so much complex information out there in need to get visualized.

    When you visualize something for a client they can get so excited. They can finally see what is going on and can now communicate it to their clients as well, showing them: look this is what we do, this is what it’s all about! And I think that’s very valuable and indeed very relevant.

    Nonetheless you do have a point, so how do we stand in this? I wrote down my thoughts around the subject on my site. Not sure whether it will make any sense to anyone else than me, but if you’re interested you van read it here:

    1. FILWD

      I am reading your post. I like this: “A visualization itself is not a product, it’s the information and the insight that is the product and the visualization is only the medium.” Wise words :)

      1. Jörgen Abrahamsson

        Depressed? Count me in. Have been working for more than 10 years in visualization and did at one point believe that it was something that could in itself make a real difference. Change the world, if you like. I worked with Hans Roslings Gapminder stuff so you can see how I could get that idea.
        Now I believe visualization is the least of our troubles. The complexity and pure power and “coolness” of computer aided visualization tools and big data and what have you are just lead us away from the real issues.
        I am a fact-sceptic now. I hardly believe anything, even less that it is a fact. ok, some really basic math or logic ring true to me.
        When it comes to anything related to people or society I think information (any story, narrative, “data” or “fact”) is far from being material for building bricks of knowledge in your brain. It is more correct to think of it as a power struggle of realities. What set of experiences and random disposition we call personality will manage to have the right to call its cognitive fabrication of reality fact.
        So dont believe anything presented as information, dont believe your own lazy thinking even. :-) We are stupid and easily fooled and we know very little and the worst of our misbeliefs are that we dont know as much.
        Seen this way, visualization is actualy a problem, dressing up data and statistics in a nice, likeable, visual form, giving it a less abstract and thus more “real” feel.
        Empty calories would be a good thing. It is more like slow poison.
        Suddenly I realise I should like the data-art visulizations better because they treat information the right way, as something of no intrinsic value. Just something to use if you like and if it suits your needs.

        Still I do work in this field. I put most of my effort in deconstructing fact and using sense-making methods. Visualization comes later.

  8. FILWD

    First of all. Gregor and Alberto: you are right on the shaky metaphor! Yet, I needed some powerful image to convey the message and I counted it as a license ;) But sure I got the point and added a note in the post.

    There is one thing that did not come out of the post. I think many people intended this as the usual rant against usual junkcharts. But honestly the piece that inspired this post can hardly be recognized as junkcharts.

    What concerns me the most is that there are a lot of good designers out there who still publish this kind of self-promotional stuff that does not inform at all. It’s becoming subtler and harder to recognize. It’s no longer this bubble gum super colorful 3D junk, it’s more nuanced now.

    And finally I think it’s worth to keep repeating the same thing over and over again: ultimately every visualization should try to inform at least a little (and my standpoint is that even the most artistic ones should strive to do that because they are more beautiful this way).

    And the self-promotional stuff Gregor mentions: sure I get it fully! I like to do that myself too of course. But knowing the standards you and other people like you are up to I doubt you would ever publish a piece with zero information in it.

    I of course am not advocating that every visualization out there should be revolutionary. That would be stupid. But I think we all have to strive for higher standards.


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