New Vistas of the Community Self
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely." E.O. Wilson, Consilience
Aggregation, Integration, Synthesis. These are the goals of tomorrow’s knowledge workers. Yet these are already the salient characteristics of today’s flowing data visualizations.
A clip from the BBC’s 2008 “Britain from Above” captures GPS Traces of planes in British air spaces and second-by-second tracks of British chatter.
Here we are, on the other side of Moore’s Law, our sophisticated technologies moving briskly up the now vertical arc to what Ray Kurzweil termed “The Singularity” - a time when technological change is so fast that our tools outstrip our ability to control them, when machines become more intelligent than humans. On our way up this curve, we also confront ourselves with another new phenomenon as our many-to-many global communication and sensing tools send images back to us from abstract space.
We can now speed up time to visualize the dynamic aggregations of collective thought, the strange attractors of knowledge, the pulsing nodes of communication and the buzzing, self-assembly of networked human activity. These patterns invoke shades of what Stephen Jay Gould described as the “punctuated equilibrium” of evolutionary behavior and reflect what Buckminster Fuller called the “partially overlapping scenario Universe.” This new genre of dynamic, illuminated visions have come alive with full-blown intensity before our collective eyes. These visions are at once disarming, evocative, enlightening.
Media artist, designer and researcher Aaron Koblin’s animation of flight paths across America - 2008
These fresh, dynamic vistas are bathed in patterned symmetry - a complex geometric confluence of color and light. Whether we look at the dance of orbs called “Universe - 6 Billion Humans, 6 Billion Colors” on the screen of our Nokia cell phones in the morning, or view the neon webworks of Britain’s flight paths over time on a larger screen, we can see the rapid pulse of planetary activity caught as never before. Similar to the first Blue Marble image of Earth from Space, these new visions of group movement in timespace unite broad swaths of the mobile connected human - the many - into a unified, multifarious identity - a groupmind. We are less the Singularity than The Multiplicity.
Like Kevin Kelly’s “One Machine” or OM, we have together found a converging technological palette that allows us to tell our story to ourselves through a new medium. And it looks beautiful. Artists, musicians poets, architects have long shaped the story of humanity in their sculptures, poetry, their paintings, songs and buildings. A new generation of aesthetic programmers, designers and Information architects now take the helm as the synthesizers, capturing streams of collective emotional intelligence, wrapping them with color and shape, in silky tendrils of light, letting them speak a new language – whispering visually the subtext of our species.
A new poetics of technology is born. Poetry, having always emerged in the space between chisel and stone, hand and brush, thought and pen, emerges once again, yet now between mind and code. Beautiful data. With the fusion of humans and their tools, the science of design and data mining reach a new milestone to become a new mirror of communitas. Design scientists, data artists, programmers such as Aaron Koblin, Chris Harrison, Jonathan Harris, Moritz Stefaner, Sep Kamvar, Jonathan Harris, Martin Wattenberg, Fernanda Viegas and Jeffrey Heer bring a fresh new face to collaborative data design and information aesthetics, the new language of connectivity. As mesmerizing as they are informative, their technological artworks render compelling the patterns of activity, capturing the mobility of thought.
What is both the driving force and the eventual result of these emergent visual mediums? Crowdsourcing, actionable knowledge and connective, distributed intelligence. I suggest the following formula:
Data is the key
Disciplined, strategic crowdsourcing is the methodology
Visualization is the language
Who is using this formula successfully? Some of our most seasoned media groups such as the New York Times, Time/Life, Wired and SEED Magazine. Who are the people to watch? They are young, fiercely aesthetic computer scientists and designers, often new professors in our best universities or graduate students immediately brought into the creative centers of Google, Microsoft, IBM and other industry leaders. Yet many of their technologies emerge as open source tools and are used and developed further by thousands of other programmer artists. Most of their images and videos immediately become viral. And often their projects, such as Aaron Koblin and Takahashi Kawashima’s Ten Thousand Cents, whose proceeds went to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, offer financial benefits to decrease the digital divide. This is why their work is so important – these projects both sow the seeds for and demonstrate the benefits of crowdsourcing.
CROWDSOURCING – In circulation for less than a few years, this broadly accepted meme will bring well over a million hits on a Google search. The neologism itself was coined by Steve Jurvetson in his one sentence entry on a public forum in one of the most robust of Web 2.0’s visual crowdsourcing tools, Flickr. A new meme was born. Crowd sourcing means community-based design or participatory, distributed design. Essentially it is the application of open source principles to things other than software – such as content or design.
There were many examples of crowdsourcing before there was even a term for them – the most well known example might be the SETI@Home Project that put out an open call for people to use spare processing power on their home computers. Through the distribution of free screensavers, the SETI Project attracted over three million users to help them search for extraterrestrial intelligence in space.
Wikipedia, WikiMapia and MediaWiki, Gigapan, Youtube and Flickr base their growth of content on the principle of crowdsourcing. Google has applied it often to help develop, enhance and scale their applications such as Google Earth. In the best sense of the word, crowdsourcing is the application of a phenomenon described by James Surowiecki as the “wisdom of crowds” and by Howard Rheingold as SmartMobs in his 2002 book by the same name.
Journalist Jeff Howe first identified crowdsourcing in his June 2006 article in WIRED. By early 2008 he wrote and published the first book on it and crowdsourced the cover art. Crowdsourcing has been criticized by some, called “digital sharecropping” or demoted as an applied way to amplify mediocrity. But it has also been seen as a direct outgrowth of collaborative Web 2.0 technologies and lauded by popular technorati blogs such as ReadWriteWeb where it is described as “a million heads are better than one.” Many new projects are catching the wave of applied crowdsourcing.
By late 2008 numerous crowdsourcing projects and portals had been launched, some already very successful, including 99 Designs to revolutionize branding, Threadless, a T-shirt design hub for the masses and the Intel/ASUS project WebPC whose aim is to crowdsource the community design of the dream PC. Even President Barak Obama’s campaign drew much of its power from the judicious and creative crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing was a common way to homestead virtual worlds in the late 1990s. When the ActiveWorlds virtual universe launched, they opened up to widespread building of 3D content by hundreds of users. The results were easy to see in the first satellite maps of AW over the first three years of its use:
Roland Vilett generated three satellite maps of AciveWorlds between 1996 and 1999
Here we see the same phenomenon happening in the real world as colorful meridians of the planet light up in one year of edits in OpenStreetMap. The OSM mapper was created by ITO, a UK-based company founded by Peter Miller and Hal Bertram. It is the largest open source map of the entire world – completely developed by crowdsourcing! It began in 2004, and by 2008 four times as many people were adding to it daily, autogenerating maps with GPS, adding satellite photos or out of copyright maps for every locale on the planet. Miller created a video showing the year of edits occurring in 2008 clearly showing in dynamic relief, the power and value of tools that harness distributed Intelligence, the “wisdom of crowds.”
It is already becoming clear that the new semantic social networks based around knowledge sharing (such as Twine) will leverage the power of intelligent crowdsourcing to a degree we have not yet seen. Although it allows only 140 character entries, one could easily call the microblogging tool, Twitter with its endless spinoff of applications around the API, the perfect crowdsourcing phenomenon. TwitterMosaic is a Twitterer who asks for people to follow him so he can regularly create mosaics with their snapshots using an open source tool. By July 6, 2008, he had mosaic’d the famous 1972 Blue Marble image of Earth with 1325 followers. At the time of this writing, he has 3259 followers.
FACES of EARTH - 1972 NASA Blue Marble image of Earth as a Twitter Mosaic.
Crowdsourcing as a Beneficial Tool for Change
"If success or failure of the planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do ... How would I be? What would I do?" R. Buckminster Fuller
To be a sustainable and benevolent force, the most ideal application of crowdsourcing works as a strategic and disciplined long-term strategy that benefits everyone involved. It should bring out the best in crowds by enhancing and supporting their individual and shared creativity. Visualization technologies allow us to take a peak at crowdsourcing phenomena, offering us a way to view its power and scope.
This profusion of crowdsourced activities using visualization technologies hit a tipping point with the inauguration of President Barak Obama in January, 2009. These visualizations showed the power of such open source tools, content and conversations, and embody the spirit of communitas in our own country and around the world. Some examples below show how they have helped us vision the sweep of a new zeitgeist.
A project of Flowing Data in January captured the flow of people’s positive comments around the world in realtime during the day of the inauguration.
Screenshot of Flowing Data’s timelapse animation shows worldwide Twitter positive comments on the Inauguration.
The amazing 3D photo mapping tool, Photosynth wraps photos taken by a diversity of producers together into a seamless mosaic. Layers of points of view are unified with aesthetic concision and the new image can be navigated from any point of view. Yet tools like this also beg the question, who owns what? We all own the final creation and can access its constituent parts. Photosynth is shown off in the video below with 613 photos taken during the inauguration on January 20, 2009.
The emergent status of copyright and copyleft crowdsourced visualizations has begun to push us into new territory that helps to redefine and extend our notions of fair use. With mashups driving the rapid creation of new forms of crowdsourced media, we will soon see the next iteration of Creative Commons’ efforts to support a global participatory culture of media sharing. Take the famous HOPE poster of Barak Obama as a case in point. When outsider artist Shepard Fairey created what is now called by its crowdsourced name, the “Hope Obamacon” during the primaries, he based it on an image of Obama taken by photographer Mannie Garcia and owned by the AP. At the time, Fairey didn’t even know who took the photo. But crowdsourcing created the demand for his powerful image during the year that followed and it became so popular that Obama’s campaign adopted it as the iconic image for the inauguration. Soon after, the AP, who owned Mannie’s photo took out a lawsuit against Fairey.
Now Larry Lessig, the law Professor who put a legal lens on the age of hybrid media by founding the Fair Use Project at Stanford University is crowdsourcing a resolution to the “fair use case” by representing Fairey and opening up his blog to public discourse and input on the source images. The most interesting side note of this entire affair is that neither Fairey nor Garcia received income from this now famous artwork.
Why is this important? Because within a few years, perhaps even a few months (in a Moore’s Law timescale) of this writing, we will see the next wave of the power of crowdsourcing. What these visualizations of one of the watershed moments in America’s history portend for the global future is important. With the rapid, distributed creation and sharing of media, we are becoming a self-reflexive human superorganism with the ability to look at who we are en masse. At first glance that statement may seam like hyperbole. But let’s look closer at the mainstream context of visualization and crowdsourcing.
On October 27, 2008, the New York Times opened their online public visualization lab partnering with the IBM’s ManyEyes visualization toolset. They now encourage their readers to discover and share their own visual representations of trends using the latest research and statistics on popular issues such as the global economy, city-based SAT performance or the presidential election results. Visualizations are added to an open archive with a comment function for each, becoming catalysts for further discussion and connective intelligence.
In January 2008, the Library of Congress decided to crowdsource undescribed photos from their archives. Publishing 3,115 vintage photos to Flickr, LOC appealed the Flickr social network for crowdsourced tagging of the photos. In November of 2008, Life Magazine in collaboration with Google released high resolution scans of 20 percent of their archive of 10 million mostly unpublished photos. These photos date back to the 1750s. With very little detailed annotations, crowdsourcing will be the phenomenon that brings a more detailed context to each photo.
On March 5, 2009 Barak Obama appointed his new Federal Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra. Kundra's work with crowdsourced data visualization tools (such as those from Tableau Software and Google Earth) for crime and disaster response was recognized during his earlier role as the CTO on Mayor Adrien Fenty's cabinet for the District of Washington D.C. In November 2008 Kundra had said: “When I first came on board as a Chief Technology Officer, I walked out of my place, went to the local coffee shop and I discovered sitting in that coffee shop that I had more computing power than the average police officer in the District of Columbia, the average teacher and the average person who was issuing tickets.” His emphasis is on amplifying the effective use of publicly available visualization tools to help the government serve the public's needs - now he will no doubt be doing this on a national scale.
SEED, a magazine that captures the zeitgeist as no other does, is now launching a visualization arm - the SEED Visualization Unit. They have hired one of the pioneer information aestheticians, MIT’s Ben Fry as its Design Director. They will partner with SEED’s research arm Phyllotaxis Lab, (their now famous Phylotaxis visualization was created by Jonathan Harris) as well as academic institutions around the world to provide education in the field of data visualization.
The few examples above begin to point to exemplars who use this formula:
Data is the key
Disciplined, strategic crowdsourcing is the methodology
Visualization is the language
Here is why the formula works. Often some of our greatest ideas and their original contexts get lost, or vastly modified on their way up in the companies and institutions, the hierarchies and bureaucracies, creating barriers of access to genius between brainchild and figurehead. Now in the age of timecoded public conversations on microblogs and lifelogs, many-to-many direct feeds are taking place in a new “Agora” of public discourse. A new type of distributed genius is being picked up. We have entered the age of Collective, Connective, Distributed Intelligence. Crowdsourcing is a modus oprandi for the brilliant generativity of our emergent digital commons.
When the shared creativity of the human spirit is unleashed and sees its reflection at the same time, we are offered a new vision of the collective self, of communitas in action. As we send back these crowdsourced images to the community self, we can begin to SEE the organism. We can make out its shimmering presence, and it is beginning to speak back to us.