Jan 262010

Just contributed a comment to another great conversation over at Tim Kastelle’s Innovation Leadership Network blog about “Personal Filter, Aggregate, and Connect Strategies,” and felt that I should expand a little here while the creative juices were still bubbling.

For reference, here’s my comment:

Now I’m realizing that there’s yet another dimension or perspective beyond filtering, aggregating, connecting. There is a scaled perception of the whole.
Filters are in a sense transitory crutches–we swap them in and out just like photographic or audio filters. And we need to continually remind ourselves that filters leave things out. Duh! That’s the point right, but it’s the stuff that gets left out that comes back to bite you when you forget that a filter has been applied, and that you’ve been making vital decisions based on the information you focused on by virtue of selecting–often and most dangerously unconsciously–that specific filter.
I love the novels of Umberto Eco in this regard. The Sherlock Holmes-type hero of The Name of the Rose is mindboggling in his ability to perceive patterns behind the crimes taking place in the monastery, and his arguments are marvelously sound and coherent–and by the end of the book–totally wrong. Information not available or filtered out betrays him at every turn, and he leaves the tale a humbled man.
You can see the river without drinking the whole river, you can take in the view from the mountaintop without walking every step of the surrounding vista. So it’s not so much about taking in as much information as you can hold, but being open to an ever-emerging perception of the whole, within which any specific parts begin to make sense. I understand this is how infants perceive the world–one, vastly marvelous singularity from which specific objects, like mom and dad, emerge in greater distinction against the background of the whole. Research shows that Asians when viewing a photograph tend to see the background–the context–and then the subject.
As Tufte persistently points out in graphic representations, more data is not just more stuff, it’s higher resolution. You don’t get visually overwhelmed by the massively higher data flow of HDTV, you experience more lifelike clarity.
So don’t even try to drink the river, step back or ride it!
And always keep in mind, when applying a crap filter, there really may be a horse in there somewhere.

Well, the stream of consciousness evoked by this conversation has overflowed the constraints of a comment box, so here are a few additional reflections.

In other places, I’ve quoted Christopher Alexander’s introduction to A Timeless Way of Building, about seeing everything in the context of the whole, and how he’d structured the presentation of his book to make that possible in as little as 20 minutes. I want to push that around a little more.

This perception of the whole itself has different dimensions or more accurately, scales. Of course, as implied by the comment above, it can mean, “as far as the eye can see.” But perhaps just as importantly, it can mean, “all that the eye can behold, in this place.” An old high school biology field trip involved staking out a square foot of ground out in a field and observing everything that happened–which turned out to be unexpectedly abundant. In our trips to the San Juan Islands, I always take a moment to explore the tidal pools. No photograph I’ve taken really captures the complex ecology of those fascinating, and yet somehow vulnerable “puddles of life.”

In community development work, I’ve always held fast to principles I first encountered with the Institute of Cultural Affairs:

  1. Focus on a delimited geographic area
  2. Recognize all the problems
  3. Engage all the people
  4. Focus on the key contradiction
  5. Remember that symbol is key

There is a wholeness in this moment, and in the Long Now; in this place and in the “harmony of the spheres.”

At an ontological level, we always apply filters, always seek to identify patterns–it’s the way we are wired to navigate complexity. At the same time, we are or can be made conscious of the limitations of our filters, the transitory nature of the patterns we perceive in the face of new information.

And this objective situation puts us in a swampland of moral and ethical ambiguity that will leave even our best intentioned efforts at the mercy of multiple historical interpretations long after we are gone. For the ethical imperative of our age is to heal the fragmented consciousness of our inheritance and to steward the unfolding transformation of wholeness. It is the task of every generation. Paraphrasing Lincoln, we seek to do the right insofar as it is given to us to see the right.

Oops, I have unintentionally crossed deeply into territory that itself merits a separate posting.

Suffice it to say, even the scaled perception of wholeness requires a profound humility, an openness to the uncovering of “ancient prejudice,” and a surprising collegiality with people across the globe that we may never meet face to face.

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  3 Responses to “Filters and the scaled perception of the whole”

  1. Nice post Ken.  I’ve been thinking about this part of your comment:
    “As Tufte persistently points out in graphic representations, more data is not just more stuff, it’s higher resolution. You don’t get visually overwhelmed by the massively higher data flow of HDTV, you experience more lifelike clarity.”
    I think this is a very insightful way to look at it.  The thing that I wonder is whether the problem isn’t the increase in data, but rather the increase in connections that we make as we get more data.  It’s the connections that increases complexity as data increases, not the data itself…

  2. Hold on, Tim. Here’s a thought experiment:

    1. Imagine a random scattering of hundreds of dots. You might notice certain clumpings, but otherwise patterns may be difficult to discern

    2. Now imagine you can see various lines of connections between the dots. Now something like a skeleton or wire-frame graphic emerges, with some dots “hosting” more connections than others, with potentially some surprises that spatially distant dots may have stronger connections than those in close proximity.

    3. Now imagine surfaces appearing over the wireframe/skeleton network. Now, these different “boundaries” reflect yet another dimension of relationship, of surface and differentiation not captured by either the dots or the networked connections alone.

    Each of these stages provides more information, at increasing density, but also reveals a stronger sense of differentiation in the context of the whole.

    I haven’t kept up with graphic programs, but I do remember working with the early versions of Illustrator, following exactly this journey from simple elements, to wireframe connections to multi-dimensional surfaces, with complex rendering capabilities based on simple instructions (e.g., radial or graduated color or intensity).

    Now imagine we could better master the integration of information from all our senses to better grasp the wholeness of the reality we are inspecting (while we ourselves are integrally interwoven into the same reality).

    This is one way in which scenarios or early prototypes help to inform the direction of innovation. When you can see, touch, taste, feel, manipulate the prototype, you immediately sense what’s missing or what works surprisingly well.

  3. That makes good sense Ken.  I guess my hesitation is that we’re not looking at these things from the outside.  We’re contributing to the structure of the information & knowledge ourselves.  So it isn’t simply a question of resolution – there is also the question of keeping up our part of the contribution.  This takes a cognitive toll – I think that’s what I was trying to get at…
    I guess if we keep talking about it enough, eventually I’ll figure out what I think!

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