More on visualisation and flight patterns and Generation M

A few weeks ago I wrote about visualisation, using flight patterns as an example. More recently I came across this. While the 9 snapshots of “a day in the life of US airspace” are by themselves interesting, what entranced me was the QuickTime movie. [For some reason I couldn’t load it into my VodPod; the error messages generated were ante-Web, a meaningless five digit error number, so I chose not to proceed.]

My thanks to Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs for bringing it to my attention.

As we see information continue to disaggregate and atomise, and as we see its velocity increase, we are going to need better and better visualisation tools and techniques. While there has been much progress in visualisation over the last decade or so (especially in the use of fractal representation, heatmaps, 3D, even simple video and animation), for some reason this has not made its way into business life.

Maybe that’s one more reason I remain Confused.

We’re still stuck in a world of PowerPoint presentations of scorecards and dashboards and RAG indicators, fed by Excel spreadsheets and simple databases, and with considerable manual intervention. Considerable use of derived data. Considerable throwing away of useful information. Considerable scope for sins of omission and commission when interpreting the derived data.

Now most large-scale organisations are under market and analyst pressure to report more accurately and more quickly, and everyone talks about real-time information. Real-time monitoring. Real-time reporting. Real-time events. We talk a good story, but when it comes to true decision support and management information, we go back to using dead-paradigm slow-moving hand-crafted tools.

Why? Maybe it’s because we want to.  Maybe it’s because we want the control it gives us, the ability to edit and spin the summaries we create. So we spend enormous amounts of time creating, reviewing, refining and negotiating the content of these carefully hand-crafted artefacts. And we manage to convince ourselves that what we see is real and accurate and transparent. And that the Emperor has Clothes.

All this is going to change. It is changing now. One of the key outcomes from the march of Moore, Metcalfe and Gilder is our transformation into an event-driven society. We have the ability to sense so much more in real time. We have the ability to take the sensed information and move it around so much more quickly. And in this digital age, we have the ability to connect different sources of information more effectively, both by use of semantic tools as well as by heuristic learning methods.

Generation M, with their mobility and their multimedia and their multitasking skills, have an innate ability to leapfrog us. They haven’t been infected by Office. They don’t think that way. They’re already used to non-hierarchical ways of looking at things, at tag clouds and cluster maps and fractal images. They’re already used to seeing lots of atomised fast-moving information and making sense of it. They’re used to better simulations, better virtual worlds, more decentralised ways of behaving, quicker decisions, less pigeonholing, faster networking. They’re different. And God bless them.

I’m not saying that boardrooms are going to turn into 21st century air traffic control units overnight. What I am saying is that we waste enormous amounts of time and effort using tools that aren’t fit for purpose, and then somehow we manage to convince ourselves that all is well.

Generation M won’t fall for that.

7 thoughts on “More on visualisation and flight patterns and Generation M”

  1. JP, presumptuous as it may seem, I would like to frame my point with an excerpt from Patrick Olivelle’s translation (for Oxford University Press) of UPANISHADS:

    The central concern of all vedic thinkers, including the authors of the Upanishads, is to discover the connections that bind elements of these three spheres [“the ritual, the cosmic realities, and the human body/person”] to each other. The assumption then is that the universe constitutes a web of relations, that things that appear to stand alone and apart are, in fact, connected to other things. A further assumption is that these real cosmic connections are usually hidden from the view of ordinary people; discovering them constitutes knowledge, knowledge that is secret and is contained in the Upanishads. And it is this knowledge of the hidden connections that gives the person with that knowledge power, wealth, and prestige in this world, and heavenly bliss and immortality after death.

    With this as context let me be so bold as to suggest that some of your confusion may be alleviated by applying some of (y)our previous thinking about nouns and verbs to visualization. That “world of PowerPoint presentations of scorecards and dashboards and RAG indicators, fed by Excel spreadsheets and simple databases, and with considerable manual intervention” is a world based in nouns. Even the dashboards are, at best, slow-moving. I would argue further that “Moore, Metcalfe and Gilder” are not “marching” us “into an event-driven society.” Rather, the increase in bandwidth simply narrows the interval between the snapshots we take, meaning that we are still stuck with thinking about state, relegating the (verb-based) transitions to the “gaps between the states.”

    Let me argue further that we need this kind of verb-based thinking not only for the sake of a better handle on DESCRIBING processes but, more importantly, for the sake of REFLECTING on those descriptions. That is where the “working knowledge” resides, be it vedic or Socratic; and that is where, in my own not-so-humble opinion (!), Generation M fails us. An air traffic controller has to infer processes from limited displays and then make life-or-death decisions based on those inferences. No wonder the job is so stressful! Generation M may be able to juggle more “nouns” (so to speak) than an air traffic controller; but their “multitasking skills” amount to little more than time-slicing rituals. Making decisions based on reflection is just not part of the Generation M life style (which is why I am probably such an old fogy about this issue)!

    Note, by the way, that Tufte’s third book on visualization is one of the better examples of honoring verb-based thinking. Its title is VISUAL EXPLANATIONS: IMAGES AND QUANTITIES, EVIDENCE AND NARRATIVE. I can think of no better way to seek out the dialectical synthesis of the noun-based and the verb-based!

  2. Tend to agree, Stephen. There is something about this noun-to-verb progression you harp on about, an “acting” versus “actor” feel about things, that feels right.

    I need to keep on reading the references.

  3. You say
    ‘we go back to using dead-paradigm slow-moving hand-crafted tools. Why? Maybe it’s because we want to.’

    Respectfully I must disagree.
    We are real time animals. The hunter in us evolved to scan for quick changes and react instantly to them. It really was a matter of life and death. This is a vital part of our nature. And we still see this behaviour today in the vibrant sports world.

    The instant reaction of the hunter is the result of a fast feedback control loop, in the first place, and the immediate responsiveness of his tools.

    Past business practices (and technology) have thrown a deadening blanket over the hunter in us, muffling the feedback control loop, slowing our natural pace to a painful shuffle.

    But this is not who we are. We have become conditioned to accepting it as normal.

    The Internet paradigm is restoring the the fast feedback control loop that is a natural part of our existence.
    Generation M, free of the burden of past practices, see this as the most natural thing in the world.

  4. I don’t actually think evolution works that fast. Being an optimist, I don’t see any reason why old business “best practice” paradigms can’t be unlearnt (or why we can’t all join Gen M). The capacities there. The migration of the 25+ demographic to Facebook is one example of this happening. The rules of survival on a battlefield raw recruits have to learn (now that’s continuous partial attention) is another.

  5. Old tools are perhaps only old to you and me. The tools we are using most people relate to as playthings and magic, no? People’s lives are invested in the upkeep of the past, the preservation and constant polishing. It is amazing to see people in the office discovering the simple automation of excel data – to some it’s like magic, they have no capacity to go beyond that yet.
    There is a fundamental failure of the education system we are dealing with, at least in US as I can see. By ‘education system’ I am pointing more towards the corporations where majority of knowledge about how life works is we know it is maintained. We are experiencing not really new tools as such. A new tool to most means the same but improved, a bit faster, cheaper and lighter etc… but now do you understand a new tool that with it introduces you too new world but there is nobody guiding you. It’s like we as adults are now learning to be children again because the world is so new, really really new.

Let me know what you think

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