Thursday, April 30, 2009

The “business ecosystem” subtext

A feature in the new Christian Science Monitor on restoring the Galápagos to their state before the invasives arrived – rats, dogs, lizards, and especially humans – suddenly revealed to me why the “business ecosystem” rhetoric makes me uneasy.

Here’s the key passage:
“If an ecosystem is a community of life forms that have evolved together and achieved equilibrium, then the restoration of that ecosystem begins with the removal of everything that upsets the balance.”
Users of the “business ecosystem” metaphor perhaps aren't even conscious that their goal is equilibrium, but I’ve now realized that it’s a foundation of this world view. Everybody needs stability in their lives, even when they also crave novelty; this is particularly true for large technology companies.

Catastrophe is as much a part of complex system behavior as continuity, but it's something we'd rather not think about too much. Radical change is bad news for incumbents - and it's bad for all of us when the "incumbents" are rare plant and animal species on the edge of extinction - but it is good news for newcomers trying to make their mark and change the world.

P.S. Here’s the quote in a little more context:
Certainly, reconstructing nature is a prospect fraught with contradictions. Can it really be natural if it is created by human design?

Cruz and fellow conservationists operate on a simple formula: If an ecosystem is a community of life forms that have evolved together and achieved equilibrium, then the restoration of that ecosystem begins with the removal of everything that upsets the balance. And so, somewhat paradoxically, the conservation of Galápagan ecosystems inevitably starts with a meticulous campaign of eradication. Animals introduced by people must go. Once the slate is wiped clean, native species, some of which continue to exist only in captivity – like Lonesome George, the iconic giant tortoise who's the last of his breed – can be reintroduced. Then the community, a system of checks and balances honed to perfection over time – of grazing tortoises and plants, birds and seeds that need each other – can reestablish.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Visualization Literacy

Bommarito and Katz’s visualization of Senate campaign contributions is a wonderful demonstration of the potential for making large amounts of government information accessible.

Having focused successively on campaigns to improve literacy, then media literacy, then design literacy, compelling work like this suggests that the time may soon come for "visualization literacy": the skills a citizen needs to evaluate the information presented via data visualizations.

Maps are a long-established visualization tool. They may purport to be value neutral, but of course are not. Depending on who’s paying, some maps show churches, and others show hotels. Every map embodies decisions to show some things and hide others, which means that every map is trying to persuade us to see the world in a certain way.

In the same way, more recent data visualizations have a more or less hidden agenda by virtue of their choices of what to show, and how to show it.

Looking deeper, the data being visualized is itself a subset of all possible information, and its collection is based on a model of the world that entails various biases. Data has an agenda, not only in what was collected, but in how it was gathered, and how it is categorized.

Finally, the interface that one has to use to access the data ("interface" as the set of commands and messages, not the visuals) has an agenda. If software code implements an architecture, as Larry Lessig would have it, then the code interfaces place bounds on the architecture. Even if all data were accessible with a given interface, some things will always be easier to do than others. This biases not only the data that is represented, but also the ways in which it is represented.

Information at every level – from data selection, to interface calls, to visualization – comes with an agenda. By the “if I can imagine it, it’s already been done” rule, seminars in the semiotics of visualization have surely already sprung up.

Update 4 May 2009:

Courtesy, here's a recent example of how maps carry meaning: Historical maps of Japan from Berkeley's East Asian Library collection that were offered as layers that could applied in Google Earth have had to be sanitized to remove references to burakumin villages. David Rumsey, who oversees the Berkeley collection, acknowledged, "We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral; they always have a certain point of view."