Connected Age Needs Art and Science

Metaphysics asks, “What is everything, anyway?”

An art project on view at New York’s Whitney Museum tries to answer that question as it relates to the Internet.

Co-created by a statistician and a media artist, Listening Post is a suspended grid of over 200 small electronic screens displaying fragments of texts harvested in real time from thousands of chat rooms, bulletin boards, and other online forums.

Mark Hansen organized the texts into topic clusters based on their content. Topics and texts continuously emerge and change. Ben Rubin composed the tonal soundscape, alternating musical passages and synthesized vocalizations of texts. Pitch and timbre vary with changes in the flow and content of the messages.

Patterns and rhythms of tens of millions of people communicating with each other are hypnotic to watch and hear. “While it is beyond our capabilities to grasp the millions of simultaneous transactions taking place on the Internet,” write Hansen and Rubin, “it is of compelling human interest to make sense of such environments in the large, to grasp the rhythms of our combined activities, of our comings and goings.” Listening Post creates, from the chaotic torrent of texts in the cloud, one visible, audible, and very alive whole.

Connecting the dots is not just for art in museums. Last year, Hollywood’s Academy Award winning “A Beautiful Mind” portrayed the mental illness of Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash. His obsession was to find espionage messages he believed were buried in newspaper and magazine advertising and to link them one to another.

The just-released thriller from leading-edge science fiction novelist William Gibson centers on “apophenia — the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” That is, recognizing patterns that aren’t actually there… except when they are there (wink, wink). The protagonist in Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” is a freelance “coolhunter” who specializes in spotting street trends and is obsessed with finding meaning in mysterious bits of film footage being uploaded to the Net.

Making sense of the cloud is not for artists alone. Science, too, answers this siren song.

Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter had such dream for the Department of Defense (DOD) program called Total Information Awareness (TIA). Information about individuals — personal health, financial, travel, shopping, and so on — would be collected from commercial databases, email, security cameras, payment cards. Then, it would be analyzed over time to reveal patterns and modeled to enable prediction future behavior. Terrorists would be spotted and nabbed before they struck! Chillingly similar to the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, “Minority Report,” the DOD program is stalled over concerns for civil liberties, not technical snags.

Indeed, this month’s Technology Review profiles an array of sense-making software, some specifically designed to enable what statistician Edward Tufte calls the “revelation of complexity.” For example, Mountain View, CA-based Stratify can organize unstructured content in terms of topics and ideas. Its solution extracts from documents their underlying concepts and groups documents accordingly; it then groups those clusters into larger clusters based on next-order concepts, and so on. As CTO Ramana Venkata explained, the “tools help you deal with huge amounts of information… to see patterns when you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

The Analyst’s Notebook solution from Cambridge, England-based i2 maps relationships among events and people. Its timelines illustrate relationships among events unfolding over days, weeks, even years. Link analysis charts, like route maps in airline magazines, use crisscrossing lines to show connections between people, organizations, bank accounts, and other points of interaction.

Social scientists are also getting onboard. Columbia University sociologist Duncan Watts, for example, is nearly ubiquitous in academic circles on both sides of the Atlantic with his scholarly elaboration of Harvard psychologist Stanley Milgram’s discovery. Milgram found that anyone in the world can contact anyone else in only six steps. Watt’s science for our connected age is in bookstores now. No doubt, savvy graduate school deans will soon assemble de rigueur degree programs in network sciences.

Marketers aren’t far behind. They’re mapping online customer conversations, not in terms of concepts or ideas (yet), only in terms of keywords. The most sophisticated sort inbound customer email to reveal patterns among customers who care enough to write. They visit the Web’s public posting areas to harvest who’s saying what about which brands, to whom, and how often. Some call it “advanced lurking.”

Tipping points, virtuous circles, patterns, and network effects exist, even if we don’t yet know how to harness them. Learning to do so will prove useful to online marketers. The key to learning is using both science and art.

Science breaks things down into constituent elements. Art rolls things up into holistic experiences. Science focuses on use. Art, on meaning. Science empowers. Art inspires. We need both because progress in human affairs is never only a question of how. It’s always also a question of what for. Art shows us where we should go; science helps us get there.

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