A Thousand Words or So

by Paul B. Wiener

All definitions of information may have only one thing in common: they assume it is recognizable. One definition I especially like says: it is a measure of how surprising something is. True, that comes from a protein engineering glossary at the Biomedical Centre in Uppsala, Sweden, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I have a special affection for surprising information because most of it can’t be searched for, and when it’s found, much of it can’t be described. Often it’s not even recognized until its effects are felt, like childhood. This makes someone like me, a librarian with a limited memory and a healthy skepticism about truth, feel a little less guilty for not always being able to answer the questions people ask me. Oh, I can find answers easily enough. Answers are the easy part of information. I just have to rephrase their questions sometimes, to make the answers work. How do you teach people to enjoy being surprised: by giving them what they expect?

One way is by visiting web sites with names that provide no clues about their content. And when the site appears, what’s visible also isn’t much of a clue. Not right away.

One such site is Dredge, produced by a group of electronic media students in our own Department of Art. (And fittingly, you won’t find it listed anywhere by using the anemic search engine on Stony Brook’s Home Page either, though I’m sure that wasn’t the students’ intention.) Virtually nothing on Dredge’s front page tells you what it is – a display site for artistic productions and experiments. Instead, you have to look for the hyperlinks across a large dark, teasing space until you decide that those things down there must be the links. The search process is prompted by the page design. Your “visual brain” is forced to overrule your “textual brain.” Many clueless sites are like Dredge, visually stunning, often textless pages made by people in the arts – photographers, cartoonists, graphics freaks, website designers, Adobe acrobats, hashers, neo-cartographers, poets, topologists – even scientists and farsighted young entrepreneurs like Alex Tew, who invented the Million Dollar Home Page. These people love the challenge of picturing those famous thousand words before you can even think of them. Think of the information gained as similar to what we learn from our dreams, even though they don’t have subtitles.

Another quirky graphic artist’s page that lets you decide how to find its informational content is Leif Parsons’ Page. And another is Ian Timourian’s Mandalabrot.net, which focuses on fractals, visual remixes, generative design, and many of the other new forms of art made possible by computer technology. The site Visual Complexity studies the visual display of information by, well, showing it off. It stuns you with its opening page that presents hundreds of unexplained proprietary information design templates. Bit offers some verbal encouragement too: “Functional visualizations are more than innovative statistical analyses and computational algorithms. They must make sense to the user and require a visual language system that uses colour, shape, line, hierarchy and composition to communicate clearly and appropriately, much like the alphabetic and character-based languages used worldwide between humans.”

Even political forums on the web can score points without using words, animating information to appeal to the newer kinds of “information literacy”. Many web sites and blogs, like GPrime.net, Molecular Expressions, and An Atlas of Cyberspaces, use text to introduce links to the latest text-free games, special effects photography, cartography, optical illusions, digital video and flash animations. And let’s not forget the latest craze, the ever-teasing YouTube. These sites offer learning experiences that can be visually instructive far more quickly than they can be explained – or justified – in words.

Information as most librarians and scholars know it uses symbols – not only words, but numbers, formulae, marks – as well as color and sound, to communicate and document experience. More importantly, most librarians use language to describe the symbols. Symbols called “words” tag ideas, facts, events, people, experiences, memories, feelings, observations. We use them to organize various attributes and similarities. The world thus described is sometimes called “recorded history,” sometimes “science,” and sometimes “reality,” and sometimes “searchable.” What do we do about the information that cannot be so described – the recorded stuff that can only be perceived non-verbally? Do we translate it into words? How many translations (copies, messengers, media, generations, reproductions) will records survive before they lose “authenticity”, whatever that is? This problem long intrigued the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who applied it to works of art. But he wrote it before the internet existed. One answer seems to be: some records survive translation better than other records, and better than most works of art.

There’s a fascinating website that draws attention to the paradoxical fact that art reproduced on the web, because it is “lighted from within,” is sometimes more beautiful than the original thing. Before you leave, take a look at Bibliodyssey, a blog about the beauty of book illustration, old and new. Strange concept – book illustration – isn’t it? Who needs it, especially today, when screens illuminate words everywhere? Illustrating books seemed normal enough once, but here you realize that you are celebrating “books” by reading a blog, (there were no “blogs” three years ago), on a computer screen no doubt using a Windows-based GUI (coded in letters, numbers and signals), and looking at a digital image – one which presumably can never degrade, (since a digital fact weighs no more than an idea and can be dog-eared indefinitely) unless electrons themselves disappear into time….Here’s a lovely image of a drawing (click!) that someone scanned from a 500-year-old manuscript, whose maker once had it painted there by an artist – at this moment the “real one” probably sits unknown and untouchable on a shelf in an ancient library in Rouen, a library morphing into a museum. If most information isn’t art, is it still subject to the kind of degradation that copying and translating from any medium produces? And if the image (or the book, or the movie: remember Fahrenheit 451?) remains in my memory long after the printed and digitized one disappears, will it still be authentic?

Janet Clarke

Janet Clarke

Associate Dean, Research & User Engagement at Stony Brook University Libraries
email: janet.clarke@stonybrook.edu
Janet Clarke
Posted in Library Science