In the history of the humanities, there has often been an assumption that the life of the mind is incompatible with the world of technology. Scholars are often wary of endorsing “technology as an ethics” by proxy – that is, that they will be associated with the idea that faster, more efficient tools are an answer to humanity’s myriad problems in and of themselves. Nonetheless, digital technology is rapidly expanding its role in the practice and preservation of humane knowledge.
This transformation likely began as early as the late 60s and early 70s. In this era, major research universities had access to the earliest tools for processing and storing information digitally, as well as to some of the earliest iterations of the Internet. Social scientists in areas like history, psychology, and sociology began to introduce quantitative methods in their research that were not possible – or only possible at great cost of time and treasure – before computing.
Now, digital information systems are the norm for academic institutions, government agencies, and enterprises of all sizes and types. The conservators of these information systems are in a unique position to challenge received knowledge about the value of technology in the humane sphere. This will require information scientists to take innovative new positions in adopting and evangelizing the technological skillset tomorrow’s knowledge creators require. Rutgers University Online Master of Information program can prepare you for the wide range in careers now available utilizing knowledge and technology.
Information Visualization as the Gateway to Knowledge Systems
Among the most critical competencies that knowledge consumers, curators, and makers must adopt is information visualization. Information visualization is a pioneering approach to creating visual “maps” of abstract information, presenting otherwise intangible data in a way that fosters understanding and recall. It goes beyond the familiar but unremarkable structures of the common database to engage users at multiple cognitive levels, accelerating information searches.
The most basic forms of digital information visualization are familiar to student and mentor alike: Charts and graphs of various kinds are basic visualizations, and the use of software tools such as PowerPoint represent an early and incomplete effort to meet its challenges. But today’s approaches to information visualization, augmented by sophisticated digital technology, can truly break the mold: They bring a new dimension and greater depth to “flat” informational images.
Done correctly, information visualization has a number of benefits for information specialists and the average consumer of knowledge resources. Good visualization systems provide a more intuitive way for human beings to understand the diverse connections between informational assets that may, at first, appear to be unrelated. In a variety of fields, visualization provides a way to interrogate contexts and casual factors that are time-consuming to discover individually.
For the average researcher or library visitor, information visualization accelerates the search for the “right” resource. This significantly reduces the cognitive and logistical overhead associated with research, facilitating a more fruitful process—and, it might be hoped, more nuanced and penetrating analyses as a direct result. Less familiarity with library and information systems is required, with visitors unloading some of the cognitive burden onto the tools themselves.
Information Visualization as a Pedagogical Tool in the Humanities
Because of the interactivity of modern information visualization tools, they can easily help users at all levels to engage more deeply with materials in a variety of contexts. That being the case, their value transcends traditional collection, archiving, retrieval, and related functions to join the knowledge-space ever more closely to the pursuit of education as it evolves in practice.
Some great advantages of information visualization for the learner include:
Visualization Combines Well With Simulation
Up until recently, many intellectual pursuits and professional skills have been difficult to practice in a risk-free environment. Visualization can be partnered with simulation so those who wish to grow in sophisticated skillsets, where theory and practice intersect, can do so more readily. Surgeons, for example, can use visualization in conjunction with patient records to explore their potential approaches to complicated surgical interventions.
Visualization Facilitates Collaboration
In the professional realm, more and more people are interacting with team members who are distributed worldwide – research and teaching can benefit from this, but new approaches must be realized to help stakeholders transcend cultural and communication barriers. With information visualization, more information can be transmitted more effectively to more diverse groups with fewer ambiguous cultural signifiers.
Visualization Uncovers Real Systems
Informed citizenship, insightful professional contribution, and incisive research on public issues all require a certain degree of systems thinking. Since visualization allows users to sort through complex data sets as they progress in real time, scholars are able to discern and explore patterns that might not be obvious in other situations. This has significant implications for both archival research and for the public policy of the future.
Potential Challenges of Information Visualization
As with any new approach to intellectual discovery, information visualization has its challenges. Information scientists who wish to introduce emerging visualization methods to their resources need to be aware not only of potential implementation issues – based on available technology, timelines, and funding, for example – but also of the ways in which visualization, when poorly conceived, can produce unintended effects.
Some cautions that have been raised include:
Potential Negative Effects on Non-Visual Literacies
As with many other infusions of technology into libraries and other learning environments, there is a concern that information visualization will progress from a tool into an expectation. Used in isolation from other modalities of learning, this could adversely impact users’ ability to engage with other sources – such as historical documents and artifacts that cannot be visualized or reproduced digitally. It could be said, however, that this is a perennial concern.
Deceptive or Incomplete Visualization Results
Visualization is often used in concert with source material that is highly statistical or technical. In some cases, information visualization can obscure the ways that a particular background or training could help the user more mindfully interrogate the underlying assumptions of the source. This effect could amplify ideological or other biases within the source material itself, while eliding the questions that those biases raise.
Incongruence Between Data Visualization and Design Principles
The “visual language” or “visual metaphor” that informs the presentation of information can impact not only whether users recollect and understand it, but also whether or not they agree with it. To some extent, this effect can be blamed on the disparity between data visualization techniques now in practice and visual design best practices. Such practices might help prevent exaggeration of the various visual elements.
Data Visualization: An Unprecedented Opportunity
As individuals are asked to engage with an ever-wider spectrum of knowledge resources and discover diverse connections, information visualization steps into the gap. It allows for presentation of existing data in new forms, improving understanding and uncovering new ways to use resources. Done well, visualization supports a more balanced and rounded assessment of data, recognizing the needs of multiple learning styles.
The future of information visualization relies only to a very basic extent on knowledge of new technology tools. In addition to launching and using these tools, today’s information scientists must lead the way in conceiving information visualizations as textual resources – related to, but distinct from, the source materials used to generate them. In this context, visualization may function for the benefit of all information system stakeholders.