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Knewton Reads: “The Information” and Data Visualization

Posted in Knerds on April 16, 2012 by



Last month, we started a book club at Knewton to jumpstart discussion on tech, education, and management ideas related to our work. Every month the whole company is invited to nominate and vote for a relevant book. “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick was our winner for the month of April. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll post a few reviews of each book on our blog each month; stay tuned for more reviews of “The Information” in the weeks to come! 

In “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” James Gleick explores some of the most groundbreaking scientific revolutions in history through the lens of the concept of “information.” The first anecdotes depict English anthropologists investigating the mechanism behind drum talk, a communication system based on drumming used by certain tribes in central Africa. It is a simple and brilliantly clear way to introduce the concept of information. Throughout the book, whether he’s writing about Ada Byron or Samuel Morse, Gleick builds on this theme like a composer at work on a grand symphony.

Gleick argues that the flood of information we have today will transform every single field in science and business. For example, Gleick describes the discovery of an informational basis for the genetic revolution, which turned biological sciences into strong information sciences, with codes and instructions defining the way we think about life and the role of individual beings in evolution. Later in the book, we learn about the birth of the information-based sibling of psychology–cognitive science–which approaches the understanding of the mind through information.

“The Information” is open to interpretation. One could argue that the book does not question the vision of a completely data-mined society. However, I think Gleick has a more nuanced aim in mind. “The Information” reminds us of the past, so we can understand the future in a broader context and be fully cognizant of the dangers, wonders, and possibilities of our age.

The third and final part of the book–the “flood” part–deals with the current work being done in the world of information: finding patterns, understanding them, and communicating them effectively. Gleick describes how there is a newfound need for additional layers of symbolic framework in order to make sense of the information rushing towards us. In other words, there is an increasing need to rapidly pack and unpack information as “the flood” shapes our society, our businesses, and the very foundations of our knowledge.

Data visualization is part of that abstraction. First of all, there is a need for understanding and describing the patterns behind data. Secondly, it seems natural to describe those patterns through visual relationships rather than linguistic ones. Thus I predict a much greater emphasis on the visual going forward (hence the burst of interest in infographics and interactive visualizations). To some extent, we need the visual to make sense of the data flood; we’ve entered an entirely new plane of reality where we’ll need to explore new ways to communicate the knowledge we possess. At the same time, we’ll continually need to draw ourselves back from the brink of total abstraction–back to the limitations of words and physical experience itself, so that we stay grounded enough to understand the tangible reality of the symbols that reflect that reality.