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Staring Into the Abyss

June 19, 2006

I’ve given a lot of thought lately into visualizing and navigating complex data.  However, whenever I mention this to people, I realize how overgeneralized that statement becomes.  I’m realizing I should clarify what I mean by “visualization”, “navigation”, “complex” and “data”.  Furthermore, besides the “gosh-wow” factor of producing cool spinning plots and point and click interfaces, there’s a very deep and sincere motivation behind this focus.  In fact, motivation may be the most important feature of my focus, so I’ll start with that.

When taken as a whole, “data” is an imposing dark abyss.  Anything that can be digitized can become data (and perhaps digital information can become part of the “real world”… more so than just a print out).  If you could “listen” to the Internet, most of the sound you would hear would be packet description information… not all that interesting.  If you could decipher these packets, you would most likely be listening to Usenet, Torrent, or P2P traffic.  If you could decipher this traffic, you might be catching part of a chunk of a movie, game, or song.  If you got really lucky, you could catch an HTML page in transit (a small amount of Internet traffic compared to the rest), and see what a person was reading.  Basically, we as humans need a lot of buffer between us and the internet.  We need special programs that “expose” the data on the network through very specialized filters and visual/auditory/etc. audition programs, and even then it may or may not be all that meaningful.

Predating the internet was “the real world“, which still exists for most people.  This is a mess as well.  There’s a ton of periodic ambient (infra-red, UV, etc.) energy, plus a wide array of aromatic esters, and  textures. If you can decipher these chemical and energy signatures, you might be smelling a pineapple, or watching a sunset, or touching a tree.  If you could decipher these sensations, you might be standing in a field, or drowning underwater, or sipping a Pina Colada on the beach, etc.  We need special senses and cognitive capacities to sift through the constant barrage of stimulation in order to locate beneficial resources. These resources include food, shelter, mates, company, prey, etc.  However, these “beneficial” stimuli are surrounded by vast expanses of ‘junk’, and oftentimes in the distant past, things with teeth that wanted to kill us.  Our ability to locate, acquire, and control beneficial resources has led to our domination of the planet Earth, in addition to a whole bunch of other cool things.

The Internet (and the software environments we use to access it) is a “man made creation”, but it is a world that behaves very differently than the one we’re used to.  We often try to borrow techniques and concepts from our own real world to impose on this new world, with varying success (more examples to come later).  Interestingly enough, even though we have created this world of our own hands and minds, it is not an all-together “peaceful garden”.  There are still “things with teeth” that want to harm or impair us.  Luckily, they’re just starting out (compu-evolutionarily speaking) as computer viruses, but given enough time, they will become as vicious as our prehistoric predators.  I’ll end this post with the following “motivational” summary:  We must cognitively “adapt” to the Internet as intelligent agents if we wish to dominate this new world as we have the Earth.  Otherwise, we may lose it to the parasites and other viral life forms that were “born” here, and whom already exploit its characteristics.

I’ll admit, this sounds a little nuts to some, and to be honest, I won’t spend a lot of time thinking about counter-cyberterrorism, or antiviral algorithms.  I’m focusing on how we as human beings can best perceive and control what the Internet has to offer, and how we can identify and locate the resources that we need to thrive in the new abyss.

p.s. I am currently updating my blog… I re-initialized the RSS feed, and am (finally) fixing the comments section. Thanks for being patient, and sorry to planet info for inadvertently causing a flood of old messages.

From → HCI, Informatics

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