Reading PIctures

So, in preparing for my keynote on modelling human behavior observed in research, I’ve taken a detour into the world of Visual Languages.

It began by looking up Tufte’s Visual Explanations, and then trying to find texts related to it. Click through books under the subject “visual communication,” I came across Visual Language, a book by Robert E. Horn. I’ve come across his stuff before, but never pursued it deeply. Now seemed the time.

From Visual Language

The book is intriguing. Robert essentially lays out a deconstruction of visual language, beginning with the elements “words,” “shapes”, and “images,” and then showing the various way these things can be cobbled together to communicate in a fashion richer than afforded with just one of the elements. The book is valuable for its breadth and depth alone — a veritable catalog of ways that people have used visual language to communicate over the years. The book’s single greatest disappointment is its ugliness — the imagery too stark, the typography clumsy, the point often lost in hard-to-read graphics. This speaks to the fact that Horn seems to be most focused on a business audience — the land of PowerPoint — and so not as concerned with subtlety.

This business focus was disappointing… My cursory research leads me to suspect that the social sciences and humanities are *terrible* when it comes to utilizing visual language (with the occasional exception of statistics representations). I hope Horn’s message is breaking beyond middle management and helping convince academia that the primacy of The Word above all else is shortsighted and foolish.

So today I’ve been wandering the Web, looking for more. I haven’t found anything useful to my talk, but I’ve uncovered some keen items.

From Enoki Productions

Emaki Productions is the web home of Neil Cohn, a decidedly precocious pup (he seems to have gotten his undergrad degree in 2002), who has written a fair amount about communicating visually. He seems to favor narrative and comics… Reading his site immedately calls Understanding Comics to mind.

From Visual Language Collection

The Visual Language Collection offers facet freaks a change to see an clever interface to a faceted classification collection. Unfortunately, the site isn’t yet live.

Oh, and of course, there’s Tufte’s site. I don’t need to mention that, do I?

And, um, that’s it. I had trouble finding good stuff. Maybe you’ve got some pointers? It’s interesting how poorly represented this field of visual language is, considering its prevalence and increasing importance. But I guess it’s not “owned” by any one discipline, it’s utilized across disciplines, and so there’s no focused need for research and analysis.

Urban Tribes: A scathing book review

A potentially important sociological trend is developing — more and more people are deferring marriage until later and later in their lives. The period between “college” and a “new family” continues to grow wider. Likely the product of the social and civil reforms of the 60s and 70s, this large sector of single, college-educated, professionals deserves study; it could have significant impact on a society and an economy that are geared more towards marriage and raising families. Somebody should write a book about this emerging force, who they are, where they came from, and where they’re going.

Unfortunately, Urban Tribes is not that book. I first wrote about urban tribes almost a year a half ago, when I came across a web site promoting the book, which was then very much a work in progress. My post inspired some discussion in the comments. A couple of months ago, the book’s author, Ethan Watters, emailed me, having stumbled upon my blog post, and asked if I’d be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. I said yes.

Considering such interest and generosity, I was really hoping to like the book. However, I cannot in good conscience recommend it. The book’s one strength is calling attention to an important emerging trend. However, Ethan’s handling of the topic left me very disappointed.

The bulk of the book is a pastiche of Ethan’s memoir about his own urban tribe and anecdotes from people who wrote to him about their urban tribes. Both the memoir and the anecdotes are dull, and their suitability for this topic are questionable. If you’re writing about an emerging social trend, you’ve got to get beyond individual’s stories and relate the underlying patterns and data that support your thesis.

If you’re going to take the memoir and anecdote approach, then you better have some riveting tales to tell. The prose in Urban Tribes is slack, whether it’s Ethan navelgazing about his experiences in an urban tribe (okay, fine, you were known as being a dating disaster, let’s move on), or the superficial anecdotal quotes from those who wrote to him. I

Also, when addressing a new concept, it doesn’t hurt to define what it is that you’re talking about. I now know about Ethan’s trips to Burning Man, but I still haven’t read a satisfactory definition of an urban tribe.

Sprinkled around the edges are brief mentions sociological data about urban tribes, and some references to academic researchers who say stuff that he thinks is interesting in the light of urban tribes. Such allusions carry little weight, so I left the book wondering if Ethan has spotted what is truly a significant trend, or if it’s just a small vocal group of people who think their particular life situation is f-a-s-c-i-n-a-t-i-n-g.

I guess what upsets me most is this book seems lazy. His work biography says he’s a magazine writer, but I guess that’s not the same as a journalist. The bulk of his information comes from his own uninteresting life or from stuff emailed to him. His few attempts at getting out there, such as when he flies to Philadelphia to witness an urban tribe, fall flat when he realizes there’s little he can draw from his observations.

Where the book most shamefully falls down is placing the “urban tribe” within any larger context of social trends. The urban tribe is likely a result of social changes of the 60s and 70s. I would guess that the burgeoning equality of women is the paramount influence. In addition, the American economy has evolved such that it’s economically more challenging to be married with kids. In the past, a single wage-earner could buy a house and support a family. Nowadays, both parents must work to keep up. Faced with such a prospect, is it no wonder that folks aren’t rushing into such a costly lifestyle?

Ethan offers no sociological perspecive though, instead just returning again and again to the notion that “in the past” we were “supposed” to get married right out of college, and these days we don’t seem to be doing that.

And, regrettably, there’s no looking forward. What does the larger group of “never-married”s mean to a society that promotes marriage? What are the economic implications of larger numbers of successful careerist singles, earning sizable salaries with no one to spend it on but themselves? Don’t look to Urban Tribes for any answers.

If this critique is harsh, it’s because I think a rich and worthwhile opportunity has been summarily wasted. This topic needs a journalist, or a sociologist, someone to dig through the data, the research. Someone to conduct their own studies to probe unanswered questions. Someone to situate this within other parallel social trends (fewer children per family, growing numbers of the aged, etc.). Someone to explore, ethnographically, the makeup of urban tribes, the roles within, and to relate the stories from these groups in a compelling fashion. I suspect that book is being worked on as I write this review. I look forward to reading it.

Conference Keynote – Inspiration from Visual Models of User Research

I’ve been invited to give the keynote at the upcoming About, With and For Conference, October 17 and 18 at IIT’s Institute of Design in Chicago.

The conference invites folks from business, design (isn’t design part of business?), and social sciences to discuss methods for synthesizing user research. They’ve put together a top-notch list of speakers, (which makes me wonder how a young turk such as myself is giving the keynote!). And it’s pretty cheap, as conferences go (the highest price is $200).

In my presentation, I’ll be discussing models we’ve developed at Adaptive Path for synthesizing user research (such as the mental model described in this case study). However, I realized I didn’t want this to be just about the work I’ve done. I wanted to place these efforts in an historical context, both within HCI and from a range of disciplines that have developed methods for analyzing observed or inferred human behavior.

Human Behavior Models in HCI
For me, the standard-bearers of HCI modeling are Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt, whose various work models are, I believe, the backbone of their contextual design methodology. I attended their class at CHI ’98, and light bulbs went off when I saw how they turned mushy user research data into solid models from which you could design.

An excellent reproduction of the models from Beyer and Holtzblatt’s book can be found here.

On another note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alan Cooper’s work with personas and scenarios. Though not diagrammatic, they serve the purpose of distilling observations into a form you could then utilize in design — the persona.

Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow

Archaeologists Analyze the Past
One place I’ve found some interesting diagrammatic analyses is in the field of archaeology. Archaeologist James Deetz turned the discipline upside-down with his seminal essay, Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow, which charted the stylistic evolution of gravestones in colonial New England. There are two depictions of note. The first is the “battleship” diagram, showing popularity of styles over time:

Never before had such a statistical representation been brought to bear on material culture over time. As Deetz asks later in the essay, “what does this mean in terms of culture change? Why should death’s heads be popular at all, and what cultural factors were responsible for their disappearance and subsequent rise of the cherub design?” These are the kinds of questions opened up once you witness the data in this synthesized form.

The second clever representation depicts the branching trees in the stylistic evolution:

Though this doesn’t have the simple classic qualities of the battleship diagram (it’s wedded to its context, whereas the battleship could be applied to any number of situations), it assists in analysis of the subject.

Another archaeological analytical model is the Harris Matrix. Developed to understand complex stratigraphy in big digs, it’s a boxes-and-arrows system that will seem familiar to any information architect.

Snippet from a Harris Matrix

I won’t get into details, but suffice to say that boxes represent different layers, and that the older layers are beneath the newer layers. As an Harris Matrix evolves, it not only helps archaeologists make sense of what they’re seeing (and make sure they keep things in the right order), it eventually becomes a tool by which others, even those who aren’t archaeologists, can understand what is happening underground.

Analyzing what humans have left behind makes me wonder if similar models will begin to make sense as we build a record of what humans have done online.

Social Network Analysis – The Socio-Gram
Another group that’s developed an interesting model for considering human behavior or social network analysts. Which makes sense — it’s hard to understand a social network without some boiled-down depiction of it.

I’ve written about SNA in the past, and won’t repeat myself here.

Anyway, one reason I’m posting all this is to see if you good people who read my blathering have other examples of systems of synthesis of observed human behavior that would make a good subject in such a talk. I have to imagine that sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, business people, anyone who has to consider what people do and make sense of it in some fashion, have their own ways of depicting such analyses. Pointers?

Thinking About Broadband

I’m a little behind in my BusinessWeek reading, so I only recent read their September 8th commentary on “How To Get Broadband Up To Speed.” I suspect reading it requires a subscription, so I’ll excerpt the bit that bugs me:

The final piece of the puzzle is content. Relatively few U.S. consumers will buy broadband simply because it’s fast. They need compelling applications. One of the most promising, the ability to download and swap music, video, and other forms of entertainment, has been bogged down by legal controversy and questions about whether people will pay for digital music.

The final piece is not “content,” at least not how they mean. Folks at BusinessWeek, and others interested in the business of broadband, would be wise to read Andrew Odlyzko’s articles on communication networks. I first appreciated his work when I read Content Is Not King, which put the lie to the idea that “content” drives internet usage, which had been a common fallacy in the everything-Web era.

Andrew’s most recent essay, The Many Paradoxes of Broadband, is an essential overview to what is happening in that space. And, again, suggests the that the focus from the likes commentators at BusinessWeek is misplaced. More bandwidth does not mean the internet will turn into a couch-potato paradise. If you look at the trends, it’s much more likely that more bandwidth will mean better communications–clearer signals, maybe more group interactions, maybe video, etc.

This is not to say that content won’t play a role — clearly, content played a role on the Web, just not the lead role. But it is to say that we shouldn’t look to content to drive broadband adoption.

Now, there’s one place where there’s a big exception to this: among the drivers of broadband adoption, file-sharing of music is huge. Music, though, is not your typical “content.” I would argue that recorded music consumption is as much about identity, and, thus, about communication, as it is about listening to the music itself. And that the trends you see in music swapping you won’t see in film swapping, even when films are as easy to download. Think about audiobooks — the audiobook industry isn’t freaking out over people sharing audiobooks through KaZaA. Because, basically, people don’t. (Yes, you can find audiobooks through KaZaA, but that’s clearly not driving broadband acquisition). So, what’s driving broadband here is still less about “content” and more about identity, communication, source material for playlists, mix CDs, etc. etc.

Oh. And games. I almost forgot to mention games. Games will stimulate broadband adoption. But not for the “game” aspect (naturally), but for massively-multiplayer aspect. Which is, natch, another form of communication.

The Web – It’s Not Just For Snippets Any More

A common lament about the Web is that it favors briefer chunks of writing, that it doesn’t support the rigorous development of a thesis. That web readers just “scan” over articles, and don’t really engage with subject matter.

This is patently untrue. And it’s nice that I only have to point to one contradictory example that demonstrates the fallacy.

Last week I wrote about Landscapes of Capital, a website that takes a semiotic approach to “reading” advertising campaigns for high technology and finance. In the previous post, I discussed my appreciation of the site’s content. Here, I’ll address some of the formal aspects of the site, and why I think it’s a bellwether of both academic and Web discourse.

From what I’ve seen, academia has been regrettably slow to embrace the Web. Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve conducted research that regularly carries me into the “.edu” domain. And by-and-large, what you see are web versions of print essays, with little to no attempt to capitalize on the Web’s multimedia or hypertextual capabilities. From what I gather, students and professors have little external incentive to publish *for* the Web, so, understandably, their efforts focus on journals and books, media recognized by The Establishment as worthwhile.

This means that academics must look within for motivation, to realize that the Web is the optimal medium for presenting their ideas, and to hell with whether or not it helps them get tenure. And the authors of Landscapes of Capital, Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, and Noah Kersey, do this admirably.

Some elements of the website, and why they’re important.

Video
The heart of the site are the commercials under analysis. I’ve taken enough film classes to have the experience of reading books about film, which might include stills, but are frustrating because you can’t watch the scene under discussion. Landscapes of Capital allows readers to see the ads in the context of their analysis.

It’s also fantastic that the entire corpus of video upon which this analysis rests is made available through “the database.”. Offering source material means others can conduct their own deconstruction. (Unfortunately, the interface to the database is abysmal. Too bad it’s not browseable through Flamenco.)

Amount of Material
There are something on the order of 185 distinct pages on the site, suggesting that the size of manuscript is akin to that of a published book. This flies against the convention that the Web is better for brief material. And I can tell you that reading this stuff is not taxing — the combination of words, images, and video kept me engaged for pages on end — I probably spent a good hour or so when I first came across it.

One thing I find refreshing is that, at least as of yet, the authors haven’t sought to turn this into a book, which, I would imagine, would be more lucrative for them. Their job, I guess, is just to publish this kind of material. They’re paid to do so by their universities, so how cool is it that they’ve done so in a way that others can benefit for free?

It also made me realize that if they had “only” 85 pages worth of material, a web site would make even *more* sense, because manuscripts that brief are insufficient to warrant the printing of a book. (And are too long to be a chapter in a collection.)

Hypertext and Navigation
The authors took advantage not only of the multimedia capabilities, but also of the hypertextual possibliities. While there is a core linear path through the material, there are a variety of ways to approach the work differently. The “Map” presents the main sections in a circle, suggesting that there’s not necessarily an appropriate order, and encouraging exploration.

Other pages feature associative linking. In Decontextualized Labor, the picture of the hard hat and the briefcase link to the “signifying clusters” page about work, which presents a series of signifiers and their meanings.

The promise of hypertext notwithstanding, I found this hierarchical index the most helpful tool for getting around the site.

Still, It Could Be Better
This is an excellent attempt at hyperlinked multimedia. How could it be improved?

Some usability would help. The text buttons on the left side of the home page (“About This Project”, “About the Icons”, etc.), don’t take you to a new page when clicked, which is expected. They change the text in the paragraph below the main picture. It took me quite a while of clicking on “About the Authors” to realize what was going on.

More intertwingling. The aforementioned linking to signifying clusters turns out to be a rare use of the associative link. This material screams out for such interconnectedness in it’s authorship.

Recognizing the outside world. I don’t think there are any links to any resources outside of the purview of this project. Doubtless there are other resources, be they source material, analyses, glossaries, or whathaveyou, that could help extend what is being discussed here. Similarly, this is the kind of site that’s begging for annotation through some form of discussion boards.

But, In All, It’s Pretty Great
One of my recurring laments is that there hasn’t been a Web project that measures up to the best CD-ROMs that were produced by The Voyager Company. For me the standard-bearer is Who Built America? , which was little more than a multimedia history textbook. But it was so smartly produced, and the source material (text, audio, and video) was so rich, that it really showed the promise of the medium.

Now, it’s clear that the Web hasn’t really developed a solid business model to emulate what we had with CD-ROMs back in the day. (Frankly, CD-ROMs didn’t have a really solid business model, but that’s a separate story). Which suggests that until people are willing to pay for deep, rich, thoughtful content, it will be up to the academics and others who are “funded” to forge new ground in Web-based informative discourse. Landscapes of Capital might be the first site I’ve seen to suggest the promise that we began exploring 10 years ago on CD-ROM. I hope this isn’t an aberrant blip, but truly a step forward.

Epilogue
Some Googling turned up the Who Built America? CD-ROMs. I hadn’t realized a second one had been completed; it’s disappointing that it’s not a website.

Who Built America? was produced by the American Social History Project, whose site has resources worth clicking around.

I was also lead to the Center for History and New Media, a promising program out of George Mason University, with links to all kinds of interactive history presentations.

My primary frustration with all these sites is consistently poor usability for the sake of doing something “different”. Let’s innovate where appropriate, okay?

Oh, and it looks like Bob Stein has reclaimed “voyagerco.com”. And that Learn Tech, who owned the Voyager brand, is now out of business. I’m curious as to what will happen next.

Better than Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND is among his more disappointing efforts. A clunky romance played with a background of cheap psychobabble, it’s only entertainment being the admittedly hackneyed dream sequence crafted with Salvador Dali.

Happily, the memory of that film can now be replaced with the identically titled documentary, which follows 8 contestants as they make their way to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. It’s an excellent work, demonstrating yet again that the most interesting work in film right now is happening in documentary.

I’ll refrain from offering much of a review, as you can read what people about think about this film all over the net. Suffice to say you should see it — it’s exciting, engaging, and endearing. The children all have something worth seeing, and you’ll find yourself biting your nails throughout the scenes of the finals.

I spent some time this morning Googling the various featured spellers, and found some interesting stuff.

A news article catching up with Emily, Nupur, Angela, and April.

The speller I rooted most for is Angela Arenivar, the awkwardly bright daughter of Mexican illegal immigrants. It’s perhap cliched to say this, the story of her and her family is a deeply American one, the parents struggling to provide a better life for their children, but never themselves assmilating, the children free to make their own way through their own merits.

Angela was raised in a Perryton,TX which, considering Amarillo is the nearest big city, must resemble the sticks. Calling itself “The Wheatheart of the Nation”, it appears to be primarily an industrial and agricultural town, probably economically depressed. So it was with some pleasure that through Google I found out that the school newspaper for which Angela was editor-in-chief, El Sombrero, won a National Scholastic Press Award for Online Pacemaker (essentially, best student paper web site), an honor shared with school papers in San Jose, CA and Riverside, CA, both of which are communities far better off than Perryton. (And El Sombrero beat out papers from Palo Alto and San Francisco, too).

Here’s an interview with Angela from earlier this year.

April DeGideo, the stonefaced pessimist with the Bunker-like family, was celebrated in her home town when the film opened there. (Scroll down a bit).

Nupur Lala is now 18 and in Arkansas.

An interesting look into some accomplishments of Neil Kadakia and his big sister Shivani.

Critical Theory Need Not Frighten

via Andrew comes a pointer to Landscapes of Capital, a website devoted to deconstructing recent media campaigns devoted to commerce and technology.

There seems to be an entire book’s worth of material here, all served up for free to you, the Web reader. I’ve spent nearly an hour pouring through it, and I’m not even close to reading it all.

Though it takes a semiotic approach, and quotes people like Barthes and Bakhtin, don’t let that scare you! It actually serves as a wonderful primer, making critical theory approachable by presenting it in an accessible context. It’s great that the authors have made available the actual commercials in question, so you can see exactly to what they are referring, and understand their criticisms much more easily.

The content of the site is fascinating, depicting how corporations utilize imagery to promote certain mythologies, and how a number of patterns have emerged in the telling of these stories.


I was particularly taken with a series of ads developed in 1998 for First Union (which hadn’t been shown out here on the West Coast). These are slickly produced, very expensive, remarkbly dense creations, which, as the authors point out, provide a treasure trove of symbolism.


Geeks will appreciate an ad from Micron Electronics, as it stars Jeri Ryan before she made it big as 7 of 9 on Voyager.


As someone who has read a bit of history about the American west, MCI Worldcom’s ad that equates the new global information infrastructure with the “golden spike” that connected east with west via railroad is remarkably prescient in a way that was unattended — we commonly associate the railroads with the corporate malfeasance of the robber barons, and a couple years after this ad was shown, MCI Worldcom became an icon of swindling and greed.

In a following post, I’ll discuss some meta-issues around this remarkable website.