“Some machine is always showing us mind”: looms, gandalf, and the promise of data visualization

Posted on 02/19/2011 by


Why do we ascribe so much socially transformative power to new technologies?  Simultaneously, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard will tell you that cell phones ushered in a new era of journalism and political activism during the Ukranian Orange Revolution, and Evegny Morazov will suggest that the U.S. should cease promoting internet freedom because dictators use the internet to suppress dissent.Both sides have legitimate viewpoints, but what does technology really do to us as individuals? Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker Magazine puts things straight in a recent article, “How the Internet Gets Inside Us.”  Machines are both dangerous and liberating (a position he terms the ‘The Ever-Wasers,’ or those who observe that at any moment “a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others”), and so:

[a]t any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy.

Because, ‘some machine is always showing us Mind,’ then that same machine must provide the source of our frustration; we turn to the machine of our frustrations and see in it the dark side of our relationship with technology. ‘Some entertainment derived from the machine,’ Gopkin concludes, ‘is always showing us Non-Mind.’

(Looms were once evil, too)

I think this speaks directly to data visualization. As the information available to us becomes more rich, more dense and populated by an ever-increasing swath of user-generated sources (in fewer words, more complex), we have become better at compressing that information. That compression, I argue, takes the form of visualization, which harnesses the pattern-recognition powers of the brain, in other words letting our brain decompress the information from visual patterns. To me, this idea makes Gopnik’s point even more relevant:

This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user…It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder.

What does reducing the machine’s presence imply? It is a matter of letting the brain take over in some of the computation. As such, the great danger of data visualization is its very nature of delivering information in a suggestive way:

[And] perhaps the instrument of the new connected age was already in place in fantasy. For the Internet screen has always been like the palantír in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”—the “seeing stone” that lets the wizards see the entire world. Its gift is great; the wizard can see it all. Its risk is real: evil things will register more vividly than the great mass of dull good. The peril isn’t that users lose their knowledge of the world. It’s that they can lose all sense of proportion. You can come to think that the armies of Mordor are not just vast and scary, which they are, but limitless and undefeatable, which they aren’t.

The danger is that we lose all sense of proportion. And therein lies the very promise of data visualization: putting into perspective that influx of data in a way that our brains understand (visual/spatial patterns) so that we can see the entire world in an understandable and immediate way (kind of like Gandalf…).