It’s all relative. (Albert Einstein)
What if the world were a huge jungle with no structure whatsoever? And the whole universe made up of individual elements with no connection to one another? What if we could never know what happens around us and had no access to the knowledge of our ancestors?
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the chaos sleeps tonight
Since times immemorial people have been struggling to avoid chaos and bring order into their properties, be they material or intellectual. We now live in a time when we have access to more knowledge than any generation before. This wouldn’t have happend hadn’t it been for this natural human need to organize the available information using ingenious methods such as metaphors, drawings and analogies. To break out of the jungle, the human needs to bring order in the primordial chaos by trying to understand the world by means of connecting the bits and pieces of existent knowledge.
Trees, networks, what have you
One of the most common ways to structuralize abstract concepts is to vizualize them. Dividing the universe into “good” and “bad” and establishing hierarchies is a natural way to understand how life functions. And we started with tree diagrams – the most common way to create patterns and connect information in a sort of pyramidal structure with a top, a bottom and several branches. The species in the animal kingdom, the tree of knowledge, family trees and the list can go on forever. Later on there came the breakthrough in form of networks of information, as a tree wasn’t enough anymore to display “the bigger picture”. This is because in the post-information age everything connects to everything, be they 15,000 km away from one another. Anything goes.
“The web of life”
But why do people feel the urge to “connect the dots”? Because “[w]hen everything is connected to everything else, for better or worse, everything matters” (Bruce Mau, Massive Change). And because we need meaning in order to live a purposeful life. But haven’t we started to overconnect everything? Isn’t the intended order turning slowly but surely into the incipient jungle? It’s hard nowadays to get an immediate overview of what’s been going on so far faced with so many possibilities, options, combinations and sources. Where should we begin? What’s “wrong” and what’s “right” in a world where everything goes? And, on top of that, how will humanity handle the overwhelming array of possibilities? Probably by putting everything back into order, in a way or another.
About the talk: An infographics enthusiast, Manuel Lima contemplates the beauty in the human organization of information in his job as data visualization expert. In his TED Talk he takes us on a trip back in time and shows us the permanent need of humans to organize the available information. From tree diagrams to information networks, the need to “connect the dots” is as old as humanity itself.