Science Teacher Talk: Information -> Meaning

Initial draft of a talk I’m supposed to be giving in February.

Information -> Meaning

Before the printing press, literacy rates were really low, and the average book was the bible. This was all people had by way of information.

The printing press caused a revolution. 100 years later, humans had more information than they could hope to consume in a lifetime.

The internet has brought a similar revolution. In western countries, not only are we approaching a place where literacy is near-universal, we are approaching a place where creation of content is near universal.

Universal Authorship
Universal Authorship

This is game changing, and it affects us in many ways. As educators, you’ll be aware of this debate as to whether it’s worth making students memorize names and dates anymore, because they’ll be able to google it. And as we move to this point where not only does each of us have a cellphone, but each of us has a smart phone. This will be more pronounced still. What we can find will be more important than what we know, but there’ll be a balance here because the greatest unknown is what we don’t know that we don’t know.

Great graphic on this original content here.

Something that really illustrates this massive increase in the volume of information available to us is Social Networking. It used to be that we kept in touch by letter, or by phone. What we knew about people in our social circle came from what we observed of them, what they told us (in person or by phone), and what other people told us, or gossip (in person, or by phone).

We’ve had this rise of celebrity culture, but even that is different. I didn’t find out that Michael Jackson or Brittany Murphy had died by walking past the checkout at the super market, I found out on Twitter. The same for when Bragelina broke up. And this transcends borders, because when Michael Jackson died, I was working in Shanghai. And I know there was an outbreak of global mourning etc, but I don’t think that was on the same scale in China. And yet – I heard at around the same time every one else did. And although the lives and deaths of celebrities are trivia, I think this does illustrate some of the changes brought about by the information revolution.

Let’s come back to social networking. Because one of the big changes, as a result of the Facebook newsfeed, is that we can just broadcast aspects of our lives to our friends. And they can respond, or just be passively aware of it – maybe it will come up in conversation when we next speak in person.

And Twitter is like this, only even more so. We can publish our little stories to everyone, and we can use them to create more connections. And it’s not just a bunch of people talking about what they had for lunch, it’s sharing amusing antidotes from our days, and our triumphs and trials (small and large), and, more than anything, sharing information.

Example Tweets
Example Tweets

I don’t visit news sites anymore, my news comes to me via blogs (RSS) and from a group of people I’ve hand picked and built a relationship, albeit sometimes a passive one, with. I think they are worth following, because what they say (and at what volume – volume is important) is worth reading. And if they have something that they think is worth reading, I’m more likely than average to agree.

But living like this – to an extent in public – is having a dramatic effect on our relationships. Breaking up with your significant other has always been a difficult experience, but now there’s the added dimension of Facebook. The issues of when to change your relationship status and whether or not to remain “Facebook friends”.

Even more than that, there’s the aftermath. After my last break up I quit Facebook for some time, but if you want to become a jealous nut job… Facebook will help you every step of the way. Pics of your ex looking hotter and happy? Done. Pics of them with their new love? Done. Lots of pics of your replacement to look at, evidence that they are better looking, or earn more money, or just are doing better at life than you.

And you have the choice to try and match them, picture for picture, take an exciting trip, brag about your recent promotion in your status update, and just generally make it look like your life has improved dramatically since they left you… or you can take the other, less dignified route. Fall apart, publically. Post messages in your status that are a cry for help. Become an attention whore. Wallow in your sadness.

There is, of course, a middle way. Some people navigate the demise of their relationships with class and grace. But not all. Just like we’ve all known the girl (it’s usually a girl) who falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her, makes suicide threats, calls him incessantly, and generally puts her life (and dignity) on hold until he is harassed into coming back, or after several months and alienating many of her friends, it clicks that he’s moved on… Facebook and other services just give people the opportunity to fall apart in a more public way.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about this idea that technology is changing so fast that it’s causing vast differences in the upbringing of children just a few years apart, which they’re calling “mini-generation gaps”. I’m only 24, but the childhood children are having today is unrecognizable from what I experienced. And I don’t think there was that kind of difference in less than 20 years before, bar in periods of war. It’s just incredible.

One of the things that is going to be vastly different is the idea of losing touch. I have a friend, she’s 4 years younger than me. We have a fairly similar attitude to Facebook, but she has about twice as many friends as I do. Why? Because she joined Facebook when she was still at high school. I joined Facebook when I was in my third year of university. How many of my friends from high school am I still in touch with? Not that many. Kids 10 years younger than me will probably never lose contact with their primary school friends. And that’s going to make things really different.

There are two big changes social networking brings to relationships that I want to talk about. The first is ambient awareness – passively keeping up with what your friends are doing by reading the news feed on Facebook or similar. This is huge! People were furious when the newsfeed was launched because it dramatically changed the way others received their information – before the newsfeed they had to go actively looking, whereas after it just came to them in this river of information. But people calmed down, why? Because the newsfeed was a conversation starter.

The second change I want to talk about is ending relationships. We’ve seen kids go up to each other and say, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore”, but past the age of 10 nobody does that, right? You learn how to just drift away from someone who’s toxic. However in the new reality – they’re still on your Facebook, and they still have access to see what events you’re going to, and who’s writing on your wall. And that’s weird, right? So maybe you have to unfriend them – effectively saying “I don’t want to be your friend anymore”, because you need your privacy. So how we navigate our relationships has changed somewhat. And of course, there are new kinds of bullying springing up around social networking.

These changes have happened, and they’re not going to go away. So we really need to work out how to live with them, rather than fight against them. And that means managing what we put out there, and being smart about privacy, because even if the default is public you have the option to keep things private.

Meaning

So, now we’re at this point where more information is produced every day than we can hope to consume in our lifetime.

Wow.

So, how can we stay current, and keep up with what’s going on?

If you used the web much pre-Google, you’ll remember it was pretty hard to find things. Yahoo started out, essentially as two guys with a really organized set of bookmarks! As we’ve got more and more information, innovators have come up with ways to structure it so that we can find what we want easily, and are not overwhelmed.

Something really cool Google came up with, is this thing called Google Squared. Which is awesome, not only will it find information but it will structure it for you as well, which is really useful.

Google Squared: Adam Sandler Movies
Google Squared: Adam Sandler Movies

What I’m working on at the moment, is visualization of how we use a social network, specifically Twitter. Why is this useful? Well we have our list of followers and the list of people we follow, and there’s no indication of importance, who we talk to most. And each Twitter user has two numbers associated with them – number of people they follow, and the number of people who follow them – and these are used as measures of engagement and measures of influence, but it’s kinda bunk. You can have a lot of people “following” you and yet they may well not be listening to a thing you say – they’re not responding to your tweets using @, or retweeting them (passing them on to their followers) or clicking on the links you put out. And you see a lot of spammers on Twitter, but it’s clear that no-one is listening to them.

So what I do is create graphs that show who you’re talking to, and who they’re talking to. My theory is that it shows better your level of engagement, and influence.

Conversation Network for @kittenthebad
Conversation Network for @kittenthebad

These graphs can be a little crowded, though, so I wrote some code that pulls out the cliques – these are fully connected sub-graphs, so if you talk to A and B, and A and B talk, then you, A and B are a clique of size 3. And my theory is that this indicates a stronger connection between you and A (and you and B) than just a single connection.

Cliques for @kittenthebad size 3+
Cliques for @kittenthebad size 3+
Cliques for @kittenthebad size 4+
Cliques for @kittenthebad size 4+

Cliques for @kittenthebad size 5+
Cliques for @kittenthebad size 5+

So you can see this orange core, and that’s the people who are part of cliques that the central user is a part of, and that’s their core network. The pink connections are people who are strongly connected to the user’s core network, so they are potentially much more interesting than the other peripheral connections on the previous kind of graphs. And part of my research is finding out what these pink connections are, but so far I think they are people who you know, but haven’t  spoke to recently, people you do know but just don’t speak to on Twitter, and last and most importantly – suggestions for people who you might want to interact with, particularly when the minimum clique size is higher.

So I think this kind of work, taking a ton of information and organizing it and presenting it in such a way that it’s more meaningful is going to become increasingly important as the volume of information increases and we need some way to manage it better.

There are some really great examples of this, such as:

London Tube Map by Travel Time
London Tube Map by Travel Time

See the applet

Universe by Jonathan Harris
Universe by Jonathan Harris

A novel way of viewing the news, see the applet.

We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar
We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

Installation showing emotions in the blogosphere. See the website.

The Dumpster: A Visualization of Romantic Breakups from 2005
The Dumpster: A Visualization of Romantic Breakups from 2005

A different way to view teenage romance, The Dumpster “is an interactive online visualization that attempts to depict a slice through the romantic lives of American teenagers. Using real postings extracted from millions of online blogs, visitors to the project can surf through tens of thousands of specific romantic relationships in which one person has “dumped” another“. The installation.

Letter Pairs Analysis
Letter Pairs Analysis

Visualizing letter pairs in a text, read in in real-time. See the applet.

Cinema Redux:

“This explores the idea of distilling a whole film down to one single image. Using eight of my favourite films from eight of my most admired directors including Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and John Boorman, each film is processed through a Java program written with the processing environment . This small piece of software samples a movie every second and generates an 8 x 6 pixel image of the frame at that moment in time. It does this for the entire film, with each row representing one minute of film time.

The end result is a kind of unique fingerprint for that film. A sort of movie DNA showing the colour hues as well as the rhythm of the editing process. Compare Serpico to The Conversation. You can see there’s far more edits in Lumet’s classic compared to the more gentle slower pace of Coppola’s Conversation. This is also down to the editing style of Walter Murch who prefers to only make cuts when absolutely necessary. Have a look through the eight movies and make your own mind up.”

Check out this TED Video – Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen. And that title is not hyperbole! What this video shows me, is that if we can display data in the right way, it’s hard to argue with it. Look at this chart showing the health-care spending and life expectancy in the US. I think viewing it that way, it is clear that the US health-care system is fundamentally broken. The GapMinder graphs are available as a widget in Google Docs.

Visual Complexity is a fantastic resource of awesome and informative visualizations. I’ve picked out those that I found to be particularly relevant/interesting/pretty, but there are many more.

Mapping the Human ‘Diseasome’, an interactive graphic – see it at the New York Times.

Mapping the Human Diseasome
Mapping the Human Diseasome

This project is part of a redefinition of “how diseases are classified — by looking not at their symptoms or physiological measurements, but at their genetic underpinnings”. Accompanying article.

The Tree of Life is a project to map the evolutionary path. From the Visual Complexity page,

On the press release of the project at the EMBL website it’s stated: “A global evolutionary map reveals new insights into our last common ancestor” on a new tree of life that allows a closer look at the origin of species.

In 1870 the German scientist Ernst Haeckel mapped the evolutionary relationships of plants and animals in the first ‘tree of life’. Since then scientists have continuously redrawn and expanded the tree adding microorganisms and using modern molecular data, yet, many parts of the tree have remained unclear. Now a group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg has developed a computational method that resolves many of the open questions and produced what is likely the most accurate tree ever. The study, which appeared in the March 2006 issue of the journal Science, gives some intriguing insights into the origins of bacteria and the last common universal ancestor of all life on earth today.

Interactive Tree of Life
Interactive Tree of Life

Graphical visualization of Text Similarities illustrates the book’s content in order to “help the reader understand not only the content of each individual essay, but also the thematic links relating the essays to each other”.

Graphical visualization of text similarities
Graphical visualization of text similarities

See more examples and explanation on the website

Awesome graphic depicting CO2 emissions, per country and per capita.

Nicholas Felton creates all kinds of cool stuff, I particularly like the concept of the year end report.

Check out this great graphic illustrating health care spending vs. life expectancy – it makes the case that the US healthcare system is broken, with a minimum of words.

This is an awesome visualization by Ben Fry of US zip codes.

Visualizing US Zip Codes
Visualizing US Zip Codes

Finally, a work of art that I just love. I Want You To Want Me by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. It combines the themes of this talk – social networking and drawing meaning from large volumes of information, and adds another dimension – the artistic. Enjoy!

Got any more great examples? Preferably generated using computers? Let me know in the comments or via Twitter!


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