An Explosion of Visual Language
Today we are witnessing unprecedented innovation in visualization practices from all disciplines. Through new technologies and approaches, we can map the functioning of the brain in three dimensions, create dynamic carbon maps of the planet during a time of increasing climate crisis, and collaboratively generate the patterns of changing socio-economic indicators. We can, for the first time, visually analyze the structure of knowledge through large-scale data visualizations and fly through abstract space and multiple scales. One thing is certain: today’s visualization tools offer new pattern languages that help us sift through massive amounts of information to make sense of it all.
An Emergent Language for Connective Intelligence?
Today, the tools and technologies for connective intelligence are widely available. But with information overload and competition in the attention economy, we need a wise approach to visual language. Many are rushing in with simple answers, taxonomies and translations in an effort to harness visualization as a new universal language. However, it is only through understanding the deep history of visual language that we can engage the power of visuals. We must understand this history visually as well as logically. How can we discern the wisest and most effective use of visual language for our future?
The “Shape of Thought” View
As visualization practitioners and scholars, Eileen Clegg and Bonnie DeVarco have been placing their understanding of the current field into a deep historical context for the past five years of researching and writing Shape of Thought, a book and interactive website set to debut in 2009. DeVarco, who brings the perspective of cultural and symbolic anthropology to the project, has been a pioneer in the design of educational 3D worlds and a curator of visualization technologies. Clegg, who brings decades of journalism to the project, was a pioneer in using large-scale visuals to facilitate conversations about emergent technologies. Working at the leading edge while studying ancient history, DeVarco and Clegg together have unearthed stories critical to understanding the role of visual language in our time.
Toward a Deep History of Visual Communication
Until just five years ago, historians believed that humanity’s visual practices went back only 30,000 years to cave paintings and etchings on stone. Yet the true timeline of visual languages takes us much farther back. The discovery of shell beads in Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa tells us the story of visual language dates back at least 75,000 years.* This discovery “provides powerful evidence for modern thought and the earliest storage of information outside the human brain” and offers us the most ancient evidence of abstract, symbolic thought in our ancestors.
DeVarco and Clegg's work allows us to reach back farther in time than ever before. Through Shape of Thought, they link humanity’s oldest signs, symbols and artifacts in a seamless thread through the ancient practice of the “Art of Memory,” cartography, the lost history of medieval diagrammatics and immersive simulacra to the most emergent practices of today’s visualization technologies. This history is condensed and encapsulated into illuminated timelines of visual communication – connecting the patterns that lead us to the present day explosion of visualization.