Visualization and the 5 Senses in Modern Software

It's interesting to trace back  the origin of the trends in business and technology to the intrinsic needs that we as humans have in the changing environment. People influence technology, technology influences people, and the cynical adage that laziness drives all progress proves to be true time and again. I've already written an article on how Big Data trend is powered by human desire of stakeholders to dodge the responsibility of prioritizing and making decisions. Or, why the evolution of Agile movement has purely human implications. Or, why people resorted to Kanban after trying Scrum as intrinsically they related to Kanban's "no deadline" philosophy.

Today I want to share some thoughts on the origins and history of visualization. Why it has taken the lead, and is getting more and more evangelists? I like to dig deep, so I'll first take a look as far back as to the prehistoric times. This analysis might provide some food for thought, and probably will help you see how other technology trends are downright rooted in the properties of human psyche and physique. The one with knowledge is the one who is powerful, so make yourself comfortable and read on.

The Five Senses in Prehistoric Times

Ancient hunters and gatherers relied on their five senses as the devices to signal an immediate threat, or a promise of food or water. Like, a certain smell in the air might have meant something. Or, a sound of a dangerous animal moving in the forest. Or any other sign of danger. In fact, actually seeing some dangerous thing might have been too late. Some fast running predator could grab a defenseless human in an instant, leaving no option for retreat. Eyesight worked as a part of the 5-component system, and did not get extra overload as compared to the other senses. One example of a visualization from those times would be cave paintings, which the hunters would draw as a part of their ritual for success at hunting.

This picture differs from what we mean by "visualization" nowadays. It is a projected vision of those hunters who believed that if they visualize their plea, it would help them survive. I've singled out this particular case for the sake of showing that the sense of vision might not have meant that much to ancient humans as a sense of perception, but was more important as a sense of projection.  I'm using a simplified perspective here on purpose.

The Five Senses in the Information Age

Taking a huge leap, we now move on to the Information Age that started somewhere in the second half of the 20th century and continues up til now. I've skipped the industrial revolution as the changes that it brought about haven't been that drastic and lifestyle-altering as the changes coming along with the Information Age. Plus, information visualization didn’t see substantial advancements until the past decade or two. Let's see how the perception load is distributed between the five senses now. There's no need to visualize this in a distribution chart (*ironic*), it goes without saying that eyesight is the most overloaded out of all our five senses. Some people perceive information via their unlocked 6th sense ESP, but my article is not about that. It's a given that most of the signals that we receive from the external environment are coming through our eyes. This is especially true for the information technology workers.

Today, in the Information Age, we spend most of our lives looking at digital screens. Phones, laptops, TV.  Hearing might have a chance competing with eyesight. But the sense of smell, taste and touch have lost their significance as compared to prehistoric times. Once I thought how great this would be if we could smell a fragrance that we consider purchasing over the web. Or touch this carpet to feel if it's really that soft, thick and comfy. But we only have our eyesight for anything that comes from a screen (mostly). We've traded the other senses for more comfortable existence, and we have to deal with it, so our body wants to develop some coping mechanisms for this overload.

Visualize for Watching Less? 

I consider the modern trend for data and information visualization simply a consequence of our overloaded eyesight. If you've studied some sources, you might have observed this trend developing in line with the growing information volumes. Our collective unconscious makes us come up with ways to limit exposure to visual signals, striving to keep all the 5 senses balanced. It's hardly that the sense of smell, or touch, or taste would gain precedence over eyesight and hearing as the information channels, but at least some coping mechanisms can be developed. That's why we tend to present textual information as laconic visuals if it's too much to read (I've given an example of that in my recent article on the taxonomy of names in sports leagues). Or, as with data visualization, we now prefer to make sense of analytical reports presented not as a text but as a visual. It's just too damn long to read this in a text! Have mercy on our poor eyesight, someone! That's what the trend for visualization is about. And that’s the direction that the history of visualization moved over time. By the way, have you noticed that most IT-people are listening to music in earphones as they work? At least, some of the time. This is yet another unconscious attempt to ease up the overloaded eyesight by shifting balance to the hearing receptors. Hearing is the only other sense that we can use as we work with computers. In fact, trying to load up other senses with additional information can negatively impact the effectiveness of team communication.

No doubt, we can understand concepts and do analytics faster with visuals. Let alone quickness, a more powerful driving force for that trend is something that sits deep inside of us, humans, as we want to keep our senses in balance. Another example of imbalance in the duo of eyesight-hearing would be online text messaging. Natural communication involves hearing and speaking in a company of other people. If for the most part people "talk" by means of typing on the keyboard, this adds up to the overload that our eyesight has even without this, processing all the other kinds of information. It feels like a huge energy drain if I have to spend much time reading messages in Skype or posting comments in online discussions. That's why I do this only when needed. I'm not sure which subliminal remedy the humans will invent for that. Will we develop some universal hieroglyphic writing as a replacement for phonetic-based written texts, for the sake of saving our eyesight from yet another overload? I don't have answer to this question so far.

Related articles:

Visualization: Understated Or Overrated?

Edge of Chaos blog posts on visualization

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