Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Plowing the Dark

Here's a description of an economics simulation made visible in a virtual reality room:

A crimson comet, at ten o'clock, just above the horizon, paints an upturn in third-quarter commodities. A rose of starbursts means stubborn unemployment.
Hidden relations spill out, suddenly obvious, from a twist of the tabular data. Tendencies float like lanterns across the face of a summer's night.
In this room of open prediction, facts flash like a headland light. The search flares burst around you where you stand, lost in an informational fantasia: tangled graphical dances of devaluation, industrial upheaval, protective tariffs, striking shipbuilders, the G7, Paraguay, Kabul. The sweep of the digital – now beyond its inventors' collective ability to index – falls back, cowed by the sprawl of the runaway analog. Five billion parallel processors, each a world economy, update, revise, negate one another, capsize the simulation, pumping their dissatisfied gross national product beyond the reach of number.
(From Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers)

This is from a book I'm reading in which the author imagines the power of visualization which may soon be available through further advances in computing technology. The beauty of this is that it is a NOVEL, not a dry technology forecast, or glossy marketing brochure. The power of storytelling triggers our emotional and imaginative response, allowing us to connect with this future as a reality. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which people interacted in the online "metaverse" via "avatar" personas – a vision of Second Life ("SecondLife is a 3D online digital world imagined, created, & owned by its residents"). While Plowing the Dark is strictly in prose (no graphics), it paints a vivid picture of the power of visual representation to extend our awareness and understanding. I'm not far enough into it to know whether he explores the potential of the technology to further our wisdom, or explores its downsides as well as its benefits. I suspect he examines both sides, as there was already an example of one programmer developing a black eye from a "collision" with a virtual branch!

This book illustrates the principle behind scenario building. A vivid, multi-sensory, plausible scenario causes us to feel the impact of a situation, motivating us to take steps to bring it about, in the case of a desirable outcome, or prevent its occurrence, in the case of an undesirable future.

By the way, you don't have to be a computer geek to enjoy this book. The technical details are described at a high level as an artist character seeks to understand her role in the project, and to contribute to it, and to explain the excitement and dedication (or obsession!) of her fellow researchers.

The bottom line: Whether through story, or scenarios, or graphical representation, visualization is extremely powerful for an individual or group to create a desired outcome, whether that is a new product, a solution to a tough problem, or a better world.

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