This Summer solstice weekend, the conversation grids of Twitter and other social media networks brightly light up to align an international community of human revolutionaries - in solidarity with Neda’s compatriots worldwide.
At this very moment, millions are uniting with their brothers and sisters in the streets of Iran. From thousands of miles away, the Internet brings information immediately between continents and countries as if from the same local community, unencumbered by spatial constraints and political borders.
The hashtags, #IranElection and #Neda become top trending topics on Tweetgrid, linking the Twitter community together to share the latest news minute by minute. Some offer links to the newest updated videos or blog posts, others share Google maps of Embassy locations for the wounded, others, through rapid access to indelible images and video streams, share the immediacy of their heartbreak over the victims - sons and daughters of our international online community.
A borderless community grid of hearts and minds strive for global transparency and share their hopes for freedom with a human country at the crossroads – all in real time. Even our most fleet footed news portals such as CNN and the BBC, denied access to direct information and media feeds, are turning to yesterday’s disruptive social technologies to lend a hand in spreading the word.
And soon, we will have, as we had with President Obama’s inaugural “tweetmap”, new visualizations of this rapid fire ‘global conversation.’ Mapped from data trails of these posts, rendered in seamless, synthetic relief, we will soon have a new dynamic map that puts a vision to this important milestone in the history of the connective mind. Jeff Clark, also known as Neoformix to visualization buffs, has already provided a word cloud viz to this fleeting territory in his PhraseNet visualization. This one is based on 141,000 characteristic tweets from the Iran election.
This is the beginning of the streaming, conversational network of the realtime global community. Let’s think about it as a small world network. Most have already heard about the six degrees of separation – how everyone on the planet is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees. Here is a condensed evolution of small world theory in six steps.
This is the small world network:
1. that was discovered and named by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967, who postulated that networks of clusters connected to other clusters with very few bridges,
2. Whose connections were popularized by the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, “The Oracle of Bacon”
3. whose complex systems algorithm was proposed by Watson Strogatz, initiating a new “science of networks”
4. whose collective dynamics were empirically proven by scientist, Duncan Watts (who, with Strogatz, proved exactly how the six degrees model worked in all types of networks).
Watts-Strogatz small-world model generated by igraph and visualized by Cytoscape 2.5. 100 nodes.
5. Whose science of scale-free networks was advanced by physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi who proved their distribution follows a specific power law, and this common blueprint can be seen in a vast array of networks – from intra-cellular protein networks to human social networks.
A network biology diagram, depicting a cluster of protein-protein interactions in yeast (Barabasi and Oltvai 2004)
6. whose dynamics were put to practical use through cognitive scientist Alessandro Vespignani’s research, applying network theory of computer viruses to human behavior in order to map how patterns of global transport networks can help us quickly respond to pandemic outbreaks.
Impact of Air Travel on the Global Spread of Infectious Diseases, by Vespignani, et.al.
A brief history of a profound new way of thinking. Small world theory shows that we are all nodes in a complex network of relationships binding each human being to every other by a maximum of only six degrees. This proven theory is now a game changer for humanity, rather than a game. The Green revolution of Iran, where the heart of Neda is linked to the hearts of every one of us, is now a human revolution. And its outcome beckons each of us to willingly play our part for a better humanity – and to see how we already make a difference.
With new ways of thinking and “seeing”, we can begin to tell our condensed histories, and to envision new outcomes. Each and every one of us must understand all too much in all too short a time. The survival of our species depends on it. And visualization technologies that help us do this are our most important tools for shared knowledge and global self-reflexivity.
A surprising initiative to break out of the institutions that hold back this many-to-many communication landscape is emerging from within the institutions themselves. A call and manifesto vastly different than those that came before.
As a result of the year long, “Mellon Seminar 2008-09: What is(n’t) Digital Humanities?” at UCLA’s Digital Humanities and Media Studies Lab, a manifesto about the rapidly changing, open source nature of knowledge was developed: The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0. Co-written by Todd Presner of UCLA and Jeffrey Schnapp of Stanford University, this document asks us to listen to what our symbiotic relationship with accelerated communication technologies mirrors back to us about the rapidly changing shape of humanity. Calling itself “an array of convergent practices,” the manifesto is a call to arms, urging us, “Lets get our hands dirty.” Its final paragraph states:
“…our vision is of a world of fusions and frictions, in which the development and deployment of technologies, and the sorts of research questions, demands, and imaginative work that characterize the arts and Humanities merge.”
We must learn to see the relationships between people, knowledge, ideas and activism - and to express and curate them through new technology-mediated art forms. As Twitter streams become maps to new global conversations, fresh perspectives of our collective history are also greatly needed. And many are already available. New maps of science offer us satellite views of humanity’s knowledge based on decades of citations indices. New clickstream maps of knowledge show us how the humanities and social sciences already cross-fertilize each other in ways we never thought were possible.
New and seasoned multidisciplinary forums for public discourse such as Edge.org and TED talks – all fully available for free - routinely bring our best minds together to synthesize perspectives from culture, art, technology and the sciences. As we work together to create a new “Google Earth” of global knowledge and sensemaking, synthetic minds will be the critical link that enables us to fly seamlessly between satellite views from space and time to local, immediate views from the ground. We are already co-creating a new visual syntax that can display the network effect of knowledge production. We are constructing new cartographies that highlight the complex interrelationships of our global narrative. Met with a new aesthetics of knowledge and human relationship, these tools encourage a more synthetic perspective for the challenges ahead.
The Challenge of Synthesis
“I agree with Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann that the synthesizing mind will be the most valued mind in our century.” Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future
As time speeds up for all of us, and knowledge is distributed around us in a flurry of fragments and sound bites, we strive for tools that help us connect and synthesize vastly different pieces of information into a coherent whole. One iconic image from the middle of the 20th Century comes to mind as I try to wrap my head around the grand challenge of synthesis – one by surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
Many remember Dali best by the famous melting clocks in his Persistence of Memory; a poster version of this painting was hung in the dorms of more = college students in the past three decades than we could try to count. But a lesser known piece of Dali’s carries with it the confusions and juxtapositions of this new time we are embarking on, without forgetting the face of the past - the Exploding Raphaelesque Head.
The post-WWII style Dali himself deemed “nuclear mysticism,” was best embodied in this fascinating work. In it, Dali renders the purity and grace of Greek, Roman and Renaissance art and architecture with a masterful hand. He then tears them to shreds to reflect the fresh, post nuclear world of 1951. Releasing the power of the atom bomb in the Vitruvian architecture of the great Roman Pantheon, the perspectivalism and perfect symmetry of Alberti and Leonardo is beautifully torn apart like a bursting balloon.
From the Pantheon’s oculus, luminous rays filter down through the crown of Raphael’s Christian Madonna. Her holy face becomes a locus for swirling particles, each shaped in three dimensions like dozens of horns from Albrecht Durer’s Rhinosceros – the iconic woodcut of 1515. Dali captures the modern world’s scientific vista by making subatomic matter newly visible. Yet now each is “spiritualized” in the spiral symmetry of every fragment. In the same way that the art of Leonardo and Durer brought forth a new approach to rendering three dimensions onto a 2 dimensional plane, five centuries ago, Dali’s artwork moves us from 3D to 4D, shattering our spatial conventions through the element of time and the juxtaposition of the atomic and human scale. Without moving away from the Renaissance masters, Dali copies and envelops them instead, offering the viewer a series of nested compositions. These convergent sensibilities fully reflect Renaissance religious conventions and the scientific reality of the mid 20th century at the very same time.
In today’s accelerated, mashable, emergent Web 3.0, in the conversational networks driven by a new generation of social media, reality has taken us to a similar place. Now, like Dali’s patterned nuclear fragments in a symmetrical landscape, networked knowledge can be seen and understood in aggregated form through high resolution views of patterned data. Knowledge is color coded and particulate, swarming like schools of fish or flocks of birds into recognizable flows and related clusters.
To read this new “language”, our minds must be flexible or, as curator Paola Antonelli suggests, “elastic.” We must adopt one of the five new “minds of the 21st century” suggested by Howard Gardner – the synthesizing mind - as a lens in which to read these new pictures of knowledge and to discover the wisdom within.
Clickstream Map of Science, Bollen, et.al.
This is what maps of knowledge look like today – the colorful image above shows us a new vista of meaningful connections existing between the humanities and the sciences. Johan Bollen, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico demonstrates the co-evolution and shared influence between disciplines in a new map based on Clickstream data. This map, based on a billion user interactions recorded by scholarly web portals, brings to life the collective knowledge flows between disciplines. The color coded nodes show clusters of relationships between information seekers, academic publishers and university consortia, gleaned from mapping access and usage patterns as readers click through journal articles on the Internet. Bollen and his associates’ visualization represents a new generation of dynamic mapmakers taking science mapping one step closer to representing the influence of academic papers on a broad range of knowledge workers in addition to academics who publish and cite each others’ work.
Manuel Lima, information architect whose Visual Complexity site has long been one of the premiere aggregators of visualization methods offers an important diagram for visualizing meaningful information:
And describes its power here:
Manuel Lima interview May 2009
In conclusion, the visual meditation I wrote above is based on what I would like to call the “Six Degrees of Connective Intelligence”:
- Human stories become real time conversations documented on the social web
- that link humans into complex conversational and activist networks
- that leave information trails and data tracks we can turn into maps, artworks and visualizations
- that we can draw from to synthesize new information
- to tell ourselves richer, more comprehensive narratives and stories
- to gain and share a higher level of collective wisdom
Synthetic Mind by Tony DeVarco
Salvador Dali juxtaposed the Renaissance symmetry with the atomic age of fragmentation, yet it was the synthetic mind of the artist that made this image resonate. Now as we open our eyes to this new landscape of connectivity, complex systems, network science and the self reflexive global mind, as we tell our histories en masse and in unison, we too, will find richer, more beautiful ways to envision this truth. ~ Bonnie DeVarco