Beyond Measure: da Vinci’s Genius, Peripheral Vision, the Prepared Mind, Metric Traps and Hacking the Filter Bubble
…Leonardo da Vinci was the first in long line of scientists who focused on the patterns interconnecting basic structures and processes of living systems. Today, this approach is called ‘systemic thinking.’ This, in my eyes, is the essence of what Leonardo meant by farsi universale. Freely translating his statement into modern scientific language, I would rephrase it this way: ‘For someone who can perceive interconnecting patterns, it is easy to be a systemic thinker.
— Fritjoj Capra, author, The Science of Leonardo
While the best—which is to say the most privileged—minds of his generation were drilled into complacent conformity, studying for tests to prove they had interpreted the classics “correctly,” Leonardo, a bastard offspring denied entrance to university, was left to think for himself.
Wandering the Tuscan hills, he learned about nature from nature. And when it was time to get a job, he took a position as a sculptor’s apprentice in Florence. Long before anyone had heard of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)—much less STEAM (just add Art)—Leonardo’s self-directed education was steeped in it. He was Maker’s maker, an imaginative inventor, a visionary artist.
Centuries later, we still marvel at da Vinci’s brilliance—and that of his polymath kindred spirits, from Ben Franklin to Buckminster Fuller to Steve Jobs. All intuitively understood the importance and serendipity of peripheral vision: an awareness of what’s happening at the edges. Theirs were the kind of “prepared minds” that chance so famously favors.
You would think we would want to do everything we possibly could to follow in such fortunate footsteps. Instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, led by ever-more powerful—and profitable—analytical tools designed to filter, slot, slice, dice, separate and blinder. Everything that can possibly be scored and ranked, including "Klout," has been. The metrics too often become the mission: the tail wagging the dog.
Peripheral vision, by its nature, is metric-defiant, specializing in kismet connections, collections of stray facts, flashes of insight and epiphanies that can be years in the making. It is the how and the why a college dropout—Jobs—could sit in on an obscure calligraphy class and, years later, draw on the experience to spark a revolution in digital publishing.
LOST IN (ALGORITHMIC) SPACE
"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," famously noted former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher in a 2011 BusinessWeek interview. “That sucks.”
Well, yes, it does. It may be a slight step up, perhaps, from the the test-cramming so prevalent in Leonardo’s day, but still a rather disappointing, though lucrative, use of talent.
"Search Engine Optimization"—SEO—has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry, a never-ending keyword-and-ad-based competition to capture the top, most-clickable spots on a Google search page.
Each click online contributes to our individual profiles, analyzed constantly by social media sites and search engines for targeting ad sales. Bizarrely, so detailed has the profiling become that two people using the same identical search terms are likely to pull up two different lists of links. We have become trapped in "filter bubbles" of an algorithm’s making.
Quite literally—and scarily—we are no longer on the same page, nor are we free to see all there is to see. A wall of metrics has blocked the view.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON BURSTING BUBBLES, SCALING WALLS & THE TRACKERNEWS PROJECT…
A few years ago, I developed a news aggregator as a demo project for a small, independent spin-off of Google.org called InSTEDD (named for Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED wish—a double pun on TED and Early Disease Detection).
The TrackerNews Project’s beat covered health issues (microbial to planetary), humanitarian response and technologies relevant to both. Its mission was to bring a multidisciplinary perspective. For example, since most infectious diseases are zoonotic (affecting multiple species, including humans), most public health crises have a veterinary component. A country’s demographic profile has huge implications for its economy. Extreme weather affects food supplies. And, of course, climate change affects everything.
Working with a small budget as a side project to the organization’s main mission—developing digital tools to improve public health and disaster response—TrackerNews was perfectly positioned to experiment. In the era of Digg, we didn’t care how many hits a particular link tallied. Popularity wasn’t our guiding metric: context and connection were.
The site was loosely modeled after one of the first major news aggregators, The Drudge Report: three columns with news stories snaking up and down as they cycled through. Instead of singleton articles, suites of related links would cycle through together. A breaking news story might be paired with research papers, videos, archival articles, interviews, relevant technology websites and book links.
Long before Pinterest, we included small photos and short content descriptions with each link. Each link tagged for a searchable database. Later, we added overview blog posts to provide another way to access the information.
We also experimented with a personal aggregation tool, where it was possible to generate as many categories and sub-categories as needed; move elements by drag’n’drop anywhere on the page; and clone individual links for slotting into multiple categories.
While TrackerNews was focused on bridging silos, the personal aggregation tool was designed for special projects and collaborations: a kind of public bookmarking, providing context, in a format designed to maximize at-a-glance utility.
TrackerNews put the human algorithm back into the mix. Search engines are programmed to skew toward content that either new, popular, cleverly tagged for SEO or flat out paid for. That doesn’t always line up with what may be the most relevant and useful information. Unless or until Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-champion computer, comes online, it takes human insight to bring contextual value. There is still a filter bubble, but the metrics are determined by human users, rather than calculated for them by machines.
Although TrackerNews developed a loyal following of UN’ers, NGOs and energy wonks—and I developed a bit of a reputation as a general “go to” reference—the project was more proof-of-concept than a game-changer. I kept the twitter feed going after we closed down the demo, and shifted the blog into this tumblr, which is now more of a personal blog.
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
I have never really stopped thinking about the issues that TrackerNews tried to address: contextual utility, bridging disciplines, the human algorithm, collaboration, peripheral vision, poking holes in search engine filter bubbles.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I created a spin-off blog—For the files—as a kind of TrackerNews Lite to try make some sense of all the stray links piling up in my Pocket account. Daily forays through aggregators Zite and Flipboard, various social media, news sites and searches had left me with digital ADD. This, I thought, would be a way to connect some dots: each post a mini-bibliography of two to five links.
For the files posts are really quite fun to write, a daily wander among the peripheral in all its non sequitur serendipitous glory. So far, it’s covered everything from a climate-changing Pleistocene asteroid, Chinese language apps, a Robot-a-looza and Woody Allen’s prescient take on the Internet of things.
But the limitations of the format, a tumblr blog, quickly made me long for the TrackerNews aggregation tool that never made it beyond prototype.
Sure, few of us will ever match Leonardo’s gifts as a great systems thinker, but with the right tools to help organize information, it would be at least a little easier to see patterns and bask in the glitters of insight.
Pinterest, Evernote and my much adored Pocket all have their charms for gathering, organizing and sharing digital treasure, but there is still room for improvement. My specs wish list for an aggregation tool:
• generates as many categories and sub-categories as required, each with its own shareable url within a master template
• accommodates all types of digital data
• Individual links, sub-categories and categories can be moved by drag’n’drop
• individual links can be cloned for inclusion in multiple categories
• no limit for descriptive copy
• discussion threads
• maximum at-a-glance utility
• content scraping for a Flipboard / Zite-style presentation on tablets
• public and private options
"IF IT’S FREE, THEN YOU’RE THE PRODUCT"
The above quote has been cited so often, it has become a meme. From Google to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, personal data are regularly traded for services. The fairness of the deal, however, can become murky when data are used to determine access to content and opportunities. The line between the convenience of personalization and unfairness of segregation can be a fine one.
Machine learning tools are designed to tailor content to an individual’s interests. Past choices determine future selections. Incremental changes, however, can quickly add up to distortions. For example, the Zite account on my iPhone delivers more tech news than the one on my iPad, which “thinks” I am more interested in renewable energy stories. It is a daily reminder that people identifying the same set of interests don’t always access the same information.
Metrics, of course, can only measure what they have been designed to measure. There is much that is simply beyond measure. Yet the relentless competition for “clicks,” combined with data mining and the linearity of machine learning have led us down a narrow path where focus trumps vision.
Anatomically, the area of focus is just 3% of the visual field. The other 97% is peripheral vision, providing both awareness and context. Why would limit ourselves to such thin slice of all there is to see and know?
To quote Leonardo:
“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
— J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews
RELATED: (since text embedded videos do not appear on the tumblr dashboard or iOS app, links have also been provided)
• When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog
• 'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says / text of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address
• Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” / TED talk (video)
• The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this) / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog
• Clay Johnson, “Is SEO Killing America?” / Tools of Change conference (video)
• Who Owns the Future? / Jaron Lanier (book)
• Who Owns The Future? | Keen On… / TechCrunch interview with Jaron Lanier (video)