There really isn’t any such thing as a new idea.
Check out this quote from “Magic Motorways”, Bel Geddes, 1940.
“Masses of people can never find a solution to a problem until they are shown the way. Each unit of the mass may have a knowledge of the problem, and each may have his own solution, but until mass opinion is crystallized, brought into focus and made articulate, it amounts to nothing but vague grumbling. One of the best ways to make a solution understandable to everybody is to make it visual, to dramatize it.”
I’ve been pretty excited about data visualization projects for a while now. I’ve followed the Infosthetics blog, attended Tufte’s workshop, and made arguments for the implementation of these theories and aesthetic strategies to my employer, Brooklyn Public Library. All the while I’ve had this feeling like I’m right on the cutting edge of something, like I’m right at the forefront of where art and technology and information science intersect. Ha! While I really do believe that data visualization is the place where art, technology and information intersect, I was reminded by reading a 68 year old book that while the mediation of data visualization may change, the theory and the practice have been around forever.
Norman Bel Geddes was an industrial design pioneer. He is responsible for countless innovations (as well as some truly ridiculous ideas). For the 1939 World Fair Bel Geddes designed the Futurama Pavilion for General Motors. The Futurama Pavilion was one of the fairs greatest successes. The pavilion presented the Automated Highway System as a solution to the congested, confused traffic systems that were becoming rapidly outmoded as the automobile era began. The book that this quote came from, “Magic Motorways”, was visionary in its time.
Bel Geddes was a set designer before he turned to industrial design. It was natural for him to use the theatrical aspects of a World Fair pavilion as his communication tool. He understood that the best way to convince his audience that his vision was the right vision was to build it and show it to them. Statistics about traffic congestion, the average speeds of contemporary vehicles, highway building materials: all of this data was considered and included in the creation of Futurama, but it was made accessible rather than presented as a pile of numbers, jargon, and statistics.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Google Earth lately. Google Earth is, in my opinion, an awesome product. With it, you can take piles and piles of boring census data and make it come to life on a map. Each file on Google Earth’s KML Gallery really functions the same way that the Futurama pavilion and all of the other World Fair pavilions did way back in 1939. The only difference is that instead of communicating via physical space, Google Earth uses virtual space.
Looking at data visualization projects from a media ecology perspective really helps remove some of the distracting gloss and glamor that always comes with technology. That gloss and glamor is seductive; it is that seduction that drives people and organizations to dump huge sums of money into technological dead ends. That same seduction is used by advertisers and marketers to sell their ideas and projects, whether they are sound or outrageous.
So, thanks to Norman Bel Geddes and his theater background for the reminder that data visualization has been around helping to pitch projects both good and bad for a very long time.