The Irresistible Appeal of Info Porn
by Cliff Kuang
For the opening illustration, Catalogtree wrote a program that rebuilt a photograph of an apple with an irregular print screen, visually similar to the irregular pixel pattern of a GIF file. The program re-drew the image using the actual hue values of the image pixels as screen dots. By using text and bars instead of normal screen-dots, the result is less detailed than the original.
About the Author — Cliff Kuang is a regular contributor to Print. He is a former editor at Harper's, The Economist, and I.D., and writes regularly for Popular Science, Wired, and Fast Company.
Forget for a second who you voted for last November and consider: Who were you watching on election night? If the ratings are any judge, you—and billions of others— were probably watching John King and his amazing touchscreen charts on CNN. It was a center-stage moment for ultra-sophisticated info graphics. In the last year, data visualization has inserted itself firmly in the national dialogue. The New York Times compiled interactive graphics that used election data to tell a variety of stories. The Atlantic backed a cover story about U.S. cities with online charts; The Washington Post created a massive graphic visualizing the $800 billion economic stimulus plan. Not to be outdone, CNN touts itself in ads that declare, “Only one network has John King and his magic touchscreen!”
“Some people call it info porn,” says Manuel Lima, the designer who created Visual Complexity, an online repository for these kinds of projects. “It’s a fascination with the simple fact of visualization.” In the decade since Edward Tufte released a trifecta of books on good information graphics in the 1990s, the discipline has morphed from the purview of cartographers and computer scientists into an aspirational field for young designers and honey for fickle consumers.
Early on, data visualization projects caught fire as viral forwarded e-mails. Barrett Lyon’s maps of the internet in 2003 depicted interconnections among network servers as a skein of branching neurons. The goal, as Lyon explained at the time, was to see if it was even possible to depict a mass of information whose underlying structure had been invisible. Today, many creators of data-based projects have the same goal: to visualize a world in data and awe viewers with a unique perspective. Others, such as Jeff Han, the New York University professor who invented King’s touchscreens, are developing graphs in which complexity is revealed only in layers as you zoom in for more detailed breakdowns.
Visualization of cultural financial data, Stadt und Kanton Luzern, 2008. Designer: Cybu Richli.
In recent years, the amount of publicly available data has exploded, and the social networking craze has led to greater sharing of this information. At the same time, the price of data storage has reduced drastically, halving every 18 months. “If we plan to use all that data, we have to find new ways of interacting with it,” says Lima. Meanwhile, the first generation of graphic designers who are as conversant in computer code as design has come of age. Processing, the data visualization software invented by Casey Reas and Ben Fry to give designers an intuitive way to code, had 250,000 active users last year. Reas argues that, to be useful citizens of the world in the future, we’ll need to process lots of data. “You have to be able to understand consequences and alternate outcomes,” he says. “Those complexities can only be conveyed by visualizations and simulations.” Understanding the real issues of the health care debate requires reading 1,200 pages of policy papers. What if we could sum it up with a few interactive visualizations? What would the debate be like then?
Catalogtree, a Dutch design studio that specializes in information visualization, has been creating simple, intuitive graphs that illustrate how quickly obscure information can become accessible and intuitive. In a graph of energy exports in Europe, countries are depicted as a pie chart, color coded for energy type, and clustered together with arrows depicting exports and imports. Another chart, for The Knoxville Voice, depicts nepotism in Tennessee’s government. Officials are listed in stacked bars; the bars themselves get connecting arcs showing family ties between county employees. Catalogtree co-founder Joris Maltha says that our online identities need to be made more tangible. “You need some way to explain this virtual world we’re a part of, to see this massive organism we’re participating in,” he says.
Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s “ Want You To Want MeI” installation for the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 2008.
Many data visualization projects try to map sociability in the most surprising ways possible, such as “I Want You To Want Me,” a project by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar that was commissioned for the Museum of Modern Art’s 2008 “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition. Harris and Kamvar mined self-generated profiles on dating websites; the raw data can be viewed in myriad permutations through a touchscreen interface. Harris calls it a “mosaic of humanity” that reveals, for example, what most 30-year-old men want, or where online daters most often go to meet.
The intimation of a grand pattern can be a spine-straightening experience for designers and non-designers alike. “We’re wired to make hypotheses from visual patterns,” points out Fernanda Viegas, a research scientist and computational designer who, with Martin Wattenberg, started Many Eyes, a website sponsored by both The New York Times and IBM. The site provides data visualization tools and allows users to exchange and discuss their own results; its most popular submissions so far are maps of social networks in the New Testament, which show how individual characters are connected. (Jesus is linked the most.) Another popular feature is Wordle, which allows you to upload text and then creates a cloud of the most commonly occurring words, with font size and weight denoting relative frequency. The most famous examples of visual data that affected discourse are the first red-state, blue-state graphs that became part of the national conversation in 2004. Political scientists and pundits alike pointed out that the original graphs hid lots of factors—population densities, voting behavior by income, voting by racial mix—and dozens of maps arose to pursue different strategies. Some of them shaded maps with intermediate hues—purples, pinks, and fuscia—to offer more nuanced colors to represent the political continuum. It’s difficult to imagine any written Op-Ed generating such a fervent or effective response.
Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns,” a collaboration with Wired and FlightView Software, shows flight path renderings organized by altitude, make, and models of more than 205,000 aircraft monitored by the FAA on August 12, 2008. It was originally developed as a series for “Celestial Mechanics” with Scott Hessels and Gabriel Dunne using Processing.
But what is it that makes info porn so titillating? “Data visualization has built-in interest because it pertains to reality,” says Aaron Koblin, a graphic designer and computer scientist now working on mapping research for Google. “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and you see that theme constantly in data visualization.” For graphic designers, always uncertain of their work’s effects, info porn is alluringly concrete, with both an aesthetic wrapping and an objective message.
A New York Times graphic depicts how often names were invoked in the debates leading up to the presidential election. Scrolling over a line brings up the relevant quotes from specific candidates.
But info porn’s dual promise—revealing hidden patterns and elevating public dialogue—carries one significant complication: Data is never neutral. “It’s easy to be drawn into data,” says Fry. “People can be easily misled or convinced when they see that data’s behind something.” Old-fashioned propaganda might be easy to spot, but not so much when it looks like science. The best practitioners, such as The New York Times, have a big, interdisciplinary staff. “Design is part of what we’re doing,” says Steve Duenes, the Times’s graphics director. “But a bigger part is journalism, thinking about the news and creating an honest impression of the data.” The 30-person staff includes five classically trained designers; the rest are statisticians, cartographers, and reporters. Few can match that horsepower. And, as Fry points out, we don’t have a workable criteria for what’s true—or even what’s relevant. Says Koblin: “The borders of the discipline, between politics and design, are in the process of being obfuscated.”
Perhaps the misleading (and merely useless) projects will fade as the discipline matures. Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at MoMA, compares it to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. “In the beginning of the web, people were drunk on possibility and there was a lot of crap,” she says. “But audiences aren’t stupid. They can tell the good from bad.”