Visualization Consumerism

by Enrico on July 5, 2011

in Thoughts

consumerismA few days after my post on indispensable visualization I received an email from Prof. Georges Grinstein (what an honor! he is one of the fathers of visualization) asking for explanations about my use of the word “visualization consumerism”. I defined visualization consumerism as visualizations found on the web, used solely for communication purposes: mostly static, with little interaction and digested information.

Georges rapped a bit over my knuckles, and I understand why: “The largest applications involves mapping. Can you drive without some form of a map? Yes, but even GPS dependent individuals look at the images most often. That’s great consumerism.

Sure I see the point. I was a little too hasty in defining the whole set of visualization for communication “visualization consumerism” and I am ready to amend and apologize. But  “visualization consumerism” does exist and in this post I intend to explain what I mean.

Defining visualization consumerism

I define visualization consumerism the careless production and shallow consumption of visualization. Consumerist visualizations are pre-digested depictions of data with the only effect of generating an “how cool!” effect. They do not inform, they do not let you think. They do not even pretend you to spend some time thinking. At best they entertain, but only for a few seconds: the time to click, give a look, say “cool”, and leave.

Visualization consumerism is an interplay between the consumer and the producer. It’s an attitude. It’s a feedback loop between the two, like consumerism in general. Eventually, you don’t know whether companies produce crappy products because consumers want them or the other way around.

Consumerist designers don’t spend too much time thinking or simply lack the knowledge, culture and attitude necessary to build “sophisticated” artifacts.

Consumerist consumers are people surfing the web, maybe with a slight interest in visual things, who stumble across a visualization and just say “cool!”. Again, they lack the knowledge, culture and attitude necessary to appreciate good design and to distinguish it from crap.

The origin of visualization consumerism

Am I a dogmatist, fanatic, orthodox, conservative visualization theorist? No, because I don’t blame anyone for visualization consumerism. I just think we have to recognize it and act in a way to let a larger portion of our society be able to make beautiful stuff and appreciate it.

Visualization consumerism is not different from many other effects we observe today, especially in the way we consume information on the web. Reading full articles has become a luxury, we just skim over everything, and of course we do the same with visualization. Finding good articles has become a luxury (by the way, this is why I strive to write long quality articles instead of a kaleidoscope) and again visualization is no exception.

Who’s to blame for that then? No one. Really, I firmly believe the large majority of people are honest and well-intentioned. It’s only the system we live in that produces these effects. And by the way I have no intention to write a long rant against modern society because I totally love the 21st century.

It’s also not my intention to point my finger to this and that designer so that I can generate a lot of voracious comments between two gangs: the purists and the creatives. I am personally annoyed by Stephen Few’s crusade against David McCandless, I think it’s detrimental, narrow-minded and, more importantly, disrespectful.

What is to be done?

Said that, what can be done? Should we just accept it and passively complaint about how mistreated “pure” visualization is? No. I think we have to acknowledge the problem and do our best to educate people. But wait a moment …. educating people is a dangerous idea! I agree. But let me explain what I mean. When I say educating people I mean doing it bottom-up; by giving the right examples and striving for creating a thriving environment:

  1. Providing people with excellent study material
  2. Showing people sophisticated and enlightening visualizations
  3. Providing people with professional (and gentle) criticism
  4. Showing our radical passion for excellence

I know. It’s tough. But that’s the deal guys if we want to do something. I know very well from my own experience how many moments in life lead us to produce and diffuse sub-optimal stuff. I don’t deceive myself with impractical ideals, and I am not ingenuous, but I am convinced we have to lean towards doing great stuff. Always. And this makes a difference in the long run, I am sure.

Is visualization for presentation consumerism?

Going back to the initial question and Geoges’ email, a clarification is due. No, I don’t think using visualization for communication purposes is consumerism. My initial reaction is due to the fact that I see a disproportion between the use of visualization as an exploratory tool versus a presentation tool. Up to the point that people might get an impression that communication is the only purpose of visualization. This is what Georges had to say:

Visualization really fits into 3 classes which are exploratory, confirmatory, and presentation (see data vis book). Now exploratory visualization is only as good as the tool AND the analyst. A great analyst will be able to use visualization to generate many hypotheses. Once these are there then the next step of course is confirmatory and most often stats is the only too used. However combining stats and visualization provides a more grounded explanation of the variations in the numbers, more context, more connection with other hypothesis. Finally the presentation is what I would call your consumerism and we’ve not had many tools to make that fluid (from the exploration onto the presentation).

Totally agree. What is missing is the connection between communication and exploration.

We all encounter daily, daily, presentation visualizations. Most encounter confirmatory ones rarely as that’s the realm of researchers and statisticians. Very few encounter exploratory ones. But most often the presentation ones are the result of a great deal of exploration.

So true! I’ve heard so many visualization designers talking about the painful exploratory process needed to produce a visualization for communication. And I can testify myself that this is always the case.

But again, what kind of impression do we want to give to people? Do we want to send the message that the main purpose of visualization is communication? Do we want people to only consume visualizations made by others? Or do we rather want to empower people with powerful “tools for thoughts“? I still believe we have to help people discover how visualization can be an indispensable tool for them. I want to realize the big vision of augmenting the human intellect not to making it flatter.

Is visualization for the masses consumerism?

In his email Goerges mentions “visualization for the masses” as one of the main challenges for visualization. It’s a buzzword that started circulating a few years ago when ManyEyes was launched and, as far as I understand, it means giving people easy access to visualization and enabling collaboration through visualization.

I must confess “visualization for the masses” does not make my heart beat faster (I am sorry Georges). I think the word “masses” is really unfortunate and resonates too well with consumerism. Who are these masses? Do we really want to give visualization to the masses? No. I personally want to give visualization to Paul, Cindy, Frank, and Anne … people with a real face and a specific need. I think it’s very dangerous to think of a generic audience in need of visualization, because there’s nothing like visualization for everyone.

My opinion is supported by the large failures we have seen in developing general purpose visualization services on the web like ManyEyes and Swivel. Even big and successful product like Spotfire and Tableau, which seem to provide general purpose solutions, started with a very clear target population in mind. The way I see visualization used most successfully is when it is designed and targeted to a specific population (often a small one) not for a general audience. Even less for the masses!

But if visualization for the masses means trying to push for the diffusion of tools that can support the full data visualization process and allow some people learn to use visualization and not only consume it, that’s definitely great! I am not against it. But I just won’t call it “for the masses”!

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