Humansys: Focused VS Peripheral
The College of Art and Design at the University of the Arts, in addition to its graduate design program, has one of the finest programs in book arts -- literally, the art of making books and bookbinding -- in the United States. These intrepid binders are driven by a variety of forces, one of which is generally a love for the craft, but also an identification with how the tactile and "booky" nature of books gives a value that a digital file has yet to approximate.
For most industrial designers, however, this drive might be hard to understand. Why waste your time working on a "dead" technology (books) when digital technologies are so much more flashy, sexy, and efficient in terms of ease of data retrieval speed? Can't you learn more, faster, with "smart" data serving systems, like Google, and other index-based online data storage systems?
The short answer is, psychologists don't really know, but from our experience, the answer may be "maybe not".
Currently, there are two conflicting models for how humans learn new "truths" from the world. The oldest theory, proposed by Descartes in the early 1600's, holds that perceptions are made, and held in abeyance until they can be determined to be true or false. If true, they are incorporated into a person's world view. The opposing view, proposed by Spinoza, attests that perceptions are held as true parts of the world until they can be disproved by other data. This has subsequently been demonstrated in a number of studies, Notably those of Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist now at Harvard and is viewed as more likely to be correct than the Cartesian theory.
There may still be debate as to which theory is valid, but whichever you subscribe to, one thing is clear: Formation of a world view requires fact checking in order to happen.
In the past, our fact gathering strategies were strongly conducive to this type of fact checking. Asking your grandmother about the correct way to make a apple pie would no doubt yield much more information that simply a recipe. And that extra knowledge about how adding an extra pinch of baking powder would make the whole thing taste like salt, along with her facial expressions of disgust could make your perception much more full than it otherwise might be. Similarly, reading a fact from an encyclopedia forced the reading of other facts on the country or item, building a fuller picture of the object, which could then be used to check other potential perceptions. When Philip in your 1st grade class made a big fuss about a "brown Reculius" spider, and how toxic it was, your knowledge that there were only two types of poisonous spider in Oregon, one of which was a "Brown Recluse" would help you form the correct impression about what a duffus Philip was.
So now, when information comes to us so perfectly compartmentalized by machines, how are we to make judgments to govern the acceptance or rejection of this information?
In newly introduced information systems, like Google searches. News headlines sites, like Sploid and Google News, along with RSS and newsreader programs deliver carefully sectioned bits of stories. In his book "In The Bubble" John Thackara writes about increased digitization and centralization of business data leading to a world in which only un and down swings of numbers control the course of businesses. Data now comes free of contextual background. Researchers can now get exactly the information they think they want, without having to sift.
But isn't it the sifting that forms hierarchy of meaning in our perceptions of the world? If the purpose of information design is simply to feed data, then we are succeeding more thoroughly every day. But if our intention is to make our users better able to respond to the real truth, not the fed truth of the situation, we must consider presenting facts in more global terms.
If you're not still convinced, ask yourself why Katrina's wake has left so many people questioning. Not because they don't understand what happened. Data on death toll, pollution, water levels, evacuees, and on and on is far to easy to come by. But data on why -- the kind of qualitative truth which can only be formed in the reader's own mind after careful consideration of as many facets of the story as they can hold -- this has been elusive.
Without the lesson of books, without their forced grading and sifting of information from the page, there cannot be real comprehension. The brain is still the seat of understanding. Information design must feed the brain with a varied diet if understanding is to grow. Without acknowledging that base facts do not make comprehension, the increasing power, breadth, and variety of our information access will come to nothing.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team