Pictorial histories on cave walls constitute the earliest forms of preserved prehuman and early-human communications, representing the essence of the storyteller's art. As civilizations grew, so did the iconic nature of storytelling, yet we're no different today—our walls are just more likely to be on Facebook than deep inside caves. As we make our way through the digital transformation, a return to visualization is occurring that adheres to the storyteller's craft of appealing to our tribal sensibilities.
Once upon a time, about 6,000 years ago, early tribesmen drove a herd of gazelles into a dead-end canyon in Syria and slaughtered them. All that remained for modern anthropologists were bones from the animals' lower limbs. 1
A copious amount of meat must have been harvested and rapidly consumed—perhaps as part of a religious ceremony with numerous participants—given that era's lack of refrigeration or preservatives for keeping such a large amount of meat from spoiling. Anthropologists have found support for this theory not only from the scant gazelle remains but also through nearby carvings depicting the slaughter and suggesting subsequent ceremonies. 2
Pictorial histories on cave and other dwelling walls constitute the earliest forms of preserved prehuman and early-human communications. Such visual delights, depicting gazelles and mastodons, represent the essence of the storyteller's art. As civilizations grew, so did the iconic nature of their storytelling. Anthropologists still struggle to fully appreciate the significance of early Egyptian hieroglyphics. Even colorful knotted strands of string in early Peruvian culture served to transmit information within the preliterate society. These depictions all served a useful purpose, from showing where best to plunge a spear into hapless prey to conveying accepted cultural norms. 3
Ironically, we're not much different today, except our walls are more likely to be on Facebook than deep inside canyons or dark caves.
We remain a highly complex, visually oriented species, 4
but human-kind took an interesting deviation along the path to modern storytelling, and we're only beginning to reemerge as visual storytellers.
As language evolved, story-telling became an increasingly aural activity. Significant cultural values were conferred through tribal storytelling. Over the centuries, legends arose that served as moral and ethical pointers for the cultures that spawned them. Stories, often increasingly embellished, were transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation, thus preserving the tribe's traditions, superstitions, and ways of life. Early man thus lived in acoustic space. 5
Visuals indeed existed, but they were very localized, without broad cultural reach. Such stories of traditions have existed in every emergent human culture and still remain, not only in under-developed societies, but also subtly in modern cultures. Only now, through networked electronics, stories and visuals are no longer necessarily limited to purely local consumption.
Over time, language became something we could encode and transcribe. Those schooled in written artifacts could preserve and reinterpret ideas. Visual relics, such as the Rosetta stone, reveal how stonemasons provided multilingual translations via engraved cyphers of their era. Many early transactions were preserved in dry clay tablets. Middle-Eastern commercial activity was symbolically recorded in such fashion for over 2,500 years. This practice eventually expanded to include preserving knowledge using simple lists and even metadata about the lists on tablets, as was discovered at the Ebla site in Syria. 3
Also, many early manuscripts were transcribed on papyrus. The great library of Alexandria, before its destruction sometime before 270 AD, held many treasured stories of its time, preserved on the extremely fragile papyrus. Unfortunately, almost all of them were lost, largely attributable to the decline of the Roman Empire. 3
Other transcribed stories, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have survived to this day and provide insight as to how written language evolved and preserved the stories of the time.
Ornate, richly visual and frequently unique illustrated texts, scribed by literate monks, served to carry forth the essence of Christianity among the literate nobility. Many sophisticated libraries also flourished in the world of Islam, similarly preserving the ways of the Muslim faith. 3
However, until the 1400s, when Gutenberg perfected the printing process, manuscripts remained in the realm of those few who had been educated to read and write. Literacy wasn't a consuming concern for the feudal masses.
Print Media's Rise… and Decline
The printing press changed everything. For the first time, human knowledge could be reproduced, transported, and reused. Literacy suddenly mattered and schools flourished. The fanciful stories of bygone eras were transcribed for the masses. 5
Starting with renditions of the bible, printing spawned a mass market of its own staggering proportions. Needless to say, illustrations often serve to visually amplify printed text. Furthermore, text itself requires a specialized form of linear visual processing to decipher the alphabetic characters strung together in varying orders.
The mechanistic process of printing also helped launch an unprecedented industrial era where the manufacturing of durable goods became the predominant economic activity. This activity quickly overshadowed eons of agrarian economies. Along with the linear process of line-by-line printing, large production lines were established whereby raw materials could be fabricated into useful items through a linear transformative process.
Yet today, just as manufacturing is taking a backseat to information technologies, printing itself is becoming an endangered species. The decline of the once mighty Borders' 40-year reign as it heads into liquidation signals a lowering demand for the printed word. Similarly, the grueling fight for survival among many venerable daily newspapers appears to be a harbinger of a new era of digitally mediated news consumption. The NetFlix move to favor new streaming technologies combined with emerging trends favoring rental as opposed to ownership of entertainment media illustrates the increasing depth and breadth of the ongoing digital transformation. Even Amazon, the heir apparent to Borders, promotes the Kindle, its portable digital reader, to offset its hardcopy market, given that online digital replications fetch far less than printed versions of the same material. Apple, Sony, and others have followed suit in this growing global e-book trend.
However, just as radio didn't disappear when television arrived, it's not likely print media will disappear altogether. Nonetheless, digital media, including tablets and smartphones, seems to be overtaking the printed page as the dominant form of portable knowledge. Even traditional literacy circles, formerly concerned predominantly with print material, are beginning to acknowledge the importance of computer literacy and all that it implies, including the ability to interpret visual information (see www.digitalliteracy.gov).
The Digital Transformation
New modalities of storytelling are becoming necessary to make sense of an increasingly digitized world flooded with nonstop data. This world is rapidly becoming far less orderly and structured than was the case in the highly regimented, fragmented, and specialized industrial era. The captivating, visually linear world of the printed word and the production line have given way to multivariate choices highlighted by hypertext and numerous other nonlinear and far more complex media phenomena.
Amid this transformational frenzy, occurring with unprecedented acceleration, comes the desire to capture and learn from stories and storytelling. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently announced a project aimed at storytelling to capture the essence of command-and-control experiences in an increasingly complex battlefield. 6
This project harnesses data mining and artificial intelligence to coalesce multiple streams of data, imagery, and video into intelligible narratives couched as simple stories. Similarly, corporations, recognizing the impending retirement of the baby-boomer generation, are seeking aural histories to capture and preserve the knowledge that propelled them to greatness, before such wisdom disappears forever. Ironically, such endeavors hark directly back to oral storytelling in the tribal setting.
However, many well-intentioned organizations have collected recorded histories of recognized leaders only to find that the nuggets of wisdom are deeply buried in linear recorded transcriptions that require digitization to effectively mine. Even searchable recordings appear to be less than fulfilling as a way ahead in corporate environments that are drastically changing across a few short generations. Although the traits and styles of leadership remain intact, the contexts against which leadership must be applied are in a state of continual flux, often fueled by instantaneous electronic data feedback loops. Indeed, a new modality of visual storytelling is becoming necessary not to learn from the story but rather to capture it. One early example of teasing visual geographic data from oral histories involves a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project in Bangladesh (see http://bengaloralhistory.tufts.edu/index.html).
In many ways, tribalism has returned after only a few centuries of highly structured and specialized mechanization. In today's emergent manufacturing world, computer-driven fabrication often yields unique items in limited production runs using flexible, agile, and rapidly reconfigurable digital tools. Boutique manufacturing is catching on, as are solid, 3D facsimiles of real objects. Just as anyone with Internet access can present their ideas in a blog or sell their products, product uniformity is no longer a mandate.
Likewise, social networks permit large, self-organizing groupings of people by like interests. This is unlike any social affinities of preceding generations, where such gatherings occurred in far smaller geographically constrained numbers. Through increasingly visual media, our stories are adapting accordingly. The ascent of YouTube, Flickr, and other popular visualization sites serves as a vivid example of the sheer volume of available visual information. Visualization of difficult concepts, such as the impact of the debt crisis of 2011, helps the staggering numbers become increasingly understandable. 7
Imagine what social media sites might be like if they lacked the familiar profile pictures and links to numerous visual archives.
This all plays to the desire to capture our heritage in an instructional way, but there's no simple way to do so that lacks pitfalls. Perhaps this is where visualization will once again play a pivotal role.
Resurgent Visual Storytelling
Several research initiatives are under way to revitalize visualization, including one by the New York Times
to get past mere statistical compilations and bring all story elements—in particular, graphic contextual relevance—to their overall reporting. The Times
has designated an entire group to making sense of tabular and endless statistical data in the form of inventive "infographics" that convey a story as opposed to merely portraying data. (See www.smallmeans.com/new-york-times-infographics for a wide array of current examples.) There's a growing realization that the so-called infographics must be in the proper context of a larger story supported by the under-lying data and must display data in a manner befitting the context of the larger story. 8
It's now considered poor journalistic practice to expose a bunch of statistics without conveying their significance or purpose in a larger storytelling sense. 9
Another initiative is IBM Research's Many Eyes website ( http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes). The site supports user-generated bubble charts, word clouds, standard statistical displays, network diagrams, map portrayals, and other displays generated directly from user-supplied or government datasets, often regardless of granularity or structure. The site publicly highlights the resulting visualizations. As such, it affords a stimulating way to see how data can tell a compelling visual story.
Also, numerous visualization tools—from free downloads to expensive commercial-grade products—serve to expand raw data into rich illustration. Such tools range from Wordle (wordle.net) and its simple tag clouds to Aduna and its more elaborate visualizations ( www.aduna-software.com). Some tools use latent semantic analysis techniques to tease relationships out of semi- or unstructured data to reveal hidden themes, network relationships, and topical clusters not evident through casual scrutiny. Other tools depict complex network relationships among, for example, genomes, biological phenomena, transportation systems, social networks, or the Internet.
Other high-end tools support the development and advancements of visual dashboards to help managers at all levels of their organizations quickly grasp status updates and emergent issues deep within their operations. In fact, dashboards have become a popular means of visually abstracting corporate information for consumption across management echelons. The corporate dashboard represents a fertile realm where best visualization practices must prevail for the competitive sustainability of the business. 10
Despite these advancements in understanding how best to reduce the mountains of data confronting us, visualization still requires art. Just as our ancestors drew crude animals to represent the hunt, we too must rely on creative, right-brained skills to stimulate the imagination of others. It's not enough to portray the data as it is. Rather, it remains necessary to adhere to the storyteller's craft of appealing to our tribal sensibilities as much as our analytical sensitivity. Enduring stories don't just capture moments; they also captivate generations. So when you next upload a graphic to your Facebook wall, think about the story you're telling.
This article was co-authored by Jeffrey Voas as a private citizen and not as a US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) employee. No US Government resources were used. It reflects Voas's personal opinion and does not reflect the opinions of the Department of Commerce or NIST.
George F. Hurlburt
, CEO of Change Index, has an abiding interest in applied complexity analysis. He retired with a Meritorious Civilian Service Award after 38 years as a Navy Senior Systems Analyst, where he pioneered collaborative network architectures for the US Department of Defense Test and Evaluation Community. Hurlburt has a BS in psychology from the University of Houston. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
is a computer scientist at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He also serves as IEEE Division VI Director. Voas is a Fellow of IEEE. Contact him at email@example.com.