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Encountering information is like…

This morning, while on my way to work, I was listening to The Spark podcast. Among other things, Episode 69 of The Spark podcast discussed “Metropath(ologies),” an installation by MIT Media Lab students which captures visitors’ images, names and voices and displays them using projected surveillance imagery and audio to show how our existence generates and proliferates data at an overwhelming rate.

Nora Young, the host, opened the segment by comparing various metaphors used to describe our experience of information. Is it like a “superhighway,” constantly moving forward, which we struggle to merge into? Or is it like a city, expanding upward and outward, with particular localities, pockets of higher density, and even dead ends? This reminded me of a computer game I played as a kid- Civilization – in which you would lead a culture (hopefully) toward world domination. One neat thing about the game was that you were given a world map view, which would only show you the area that you had explored. Any outlying, unexplored terrain would be hidden behind a black field. You could potentially have an opponent’s city just a few moves away from you, but without sending out scouts, it would be hidden behind the ‘unknown.’ One thing that bugged me about this eventually was that it seemed more likely that the perimeter of your knowledge should be portrayed as more of a gradation of awareness, rather than a hard line between a clear map and blackness. The image I created above shows a map centered around the location of our Carrboro office, with a gradation moving outward, which I think is a bit more of an appropriate depiction of how we encounter information online. See, most of the time, we have a sense for what’s out there that we don’t know. Knowing that there are concepts or even specific facts that we don’t yet comprehend becomes the impetus for seeking them out- so we have to at least have a glimpse of what lies outside of our “terrain” before we’re inclined to survey it. At least, this seems true for how we interact with information, rather than what may have motivated geographic explorers.

I’ll bet there are lots of applicable metaphors for what encountering information is like. Any you like better?

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