NEW BLOG: THE FUNCTIONAL ART

I have resumed blogging, but from the website of my upcoming book,

The Functional Art (August, 2012). Go check it out !

 

MANY REASONS TO BE AT MALOFIEJ 2011

malofiej

The best description I've heard of what Malofiej, the world summit and awards that take place in Pamplona every year, represents to the infographics community was given by a talented friend of mine, one of those individuals that never fail to awe you with their innovative solutions. He said: "this is the place where you learn to be humble again". True: spending your days in a newsroom, isolated from your peers (the Internet facilitates communication, but it has not solved this problem completely), working in a profession that can be so absorbing, and arcane for many, can lead you to think that your body of work is the best out there. Malofiej teaches you not only that you are just one among many others, but that many of those many others are usually smarter than you will ever be

That's the first reason I recommend everybody to go to Malofiej at least once. The 2011 edition takes place at the J-School of University of Navarra, Pamplona, between March the 20th and the 25th. As usual, the program is divided into two 3-day workshops (print and digital) and the summit itself (2 days, Thursday and Friday). You can attend both or either of them. All the info is on the SND-Spain website.

More reasons to go this year in particular? Well, honestly, taking a look at the list of speakers, I can say that I've not seen a stronger one in a while. We have Jorge Cort├ęs, from La Tercera (Chile), who can talk about their suberb coverage of the Copiap├│ mining accident; we'll get Kat Downs, in charge of graphics innovation at the The Washington Post; we'll listen to Andrew Vande Moere, the guy behind Information Aesthetics, Stephen Few, who has written three of the finest books on statistical charts (they are on my list of recommended books on graphics), and David McCandless, of Information is Beautiful fame, among many others. I'll be there, for sure. To feel like an intern again.

   

'THE SHALLOWS' HONORS ITS TITLE

I so much wanted to like The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Just skimming thnick-carrrough its pages in my iPad, I saw myself reflected in many of the everyday new media distractions he describes. Since I became a heavy Internet user I find harder to concentrate in writing and reading if I do it in a computer; the non-multifunctionality of the iPad, which many see as a problem, is a blessing for me. I am less likely to read a lot of pages in a row without having my mind suddenly wandering away. That's part of the reason I don't read fiction anymore. It's not only that, having read thousands of novels in the past, it is difficult to surprise me or to make me care for characters. It's just that somehow I have a hard time remembering who the characters are or even what the plot is.

Does that mean that my brain has changed due to the way new media presents content -constraining the way you acquire knowledge- as Carr explains? Well, yes. My brain changes with every single input it receives, both from the outer and from the inner world. So does yours. New neural connections are made, links are strengthened and weakened, neurotransmitter dischargers vary. That's the reason it's so trivial a statement. Because what new media doesn't do is to deeply change the way we perceive and reason. We can get used to read faster and to click on links like crazy, assuming the non-linearity the Internet promotes, but that is not the same as saying that our underlying reasoning machinery mutates at a fundamental level. It is not clear at all that neuroplasticity (a term Carr overuses) can do that. If we try to remember how it felt to do what Carr calls "deep reading" it will take just a brief de-tox period and everything will be back to normal in our heads. In this, Carr is just going deeper into a sentence he wrote in the Atlantic magazine article that originated the book "the human brain is almost infinitely malleable". That's, at least, highly debatable. Steven Pinker has a very good op-ed piece in The New York Times about it. He is the expert, not me.

So the problem with The Shallows is that it is sold as a popular neuroscience book, but it is something different: a social commentary rant. That's legitimate but, then, I believe that Carroll should have been more careful in presenting his speculations about neuroplasticity and the influence of the Internet over our minds just as hypotheses.

That said, what Carr writes is important, and I would recommend the book just because I believe many of his opinions on the dangers of distraction, multitasking and superficial thinking are well grounded. The book works better as an essay on how technological change affects individuals and societies. We use tools, but tools change us in the sense that they impose rules on what we can do or not with them; the Internet is not different. It promotes fast scanning of content, and scattered and playful reading. And that's worrysome.

   

THE AUTOMATIZATION OF INFOGRAPHICS

Automatization is at the core of the current communication landscape, according to the foundational  Manovich's The Language of New Media. Automatization is also the driving force of industrial development: the more activities you can leave to a machine, the more your cognitive tools can take care of more interesting and relevant stuff. Today, our society is not just post-industrial, it's at the verge of becoming post-human, and some people, like the former cheerleader of this brand new world Jaron Lanier, are going berserk (see his most interesting You Are Not a Gadget).

Am I against automatization in news business? Of course not. It would be like being against the wheel, millenia ago. Automatization has saved my life, and yours. It's the whole reason we don't do graphics with pencil, ink, paper and rulers anymore. But some recent developments make my reptilian brain shiver. There's something deeply disturbing
in this article, even if the idea is appealing at a certain level (yes, infographics can be automated in that way too; just learn some programming). The deepest evolutionary fear of a journalist, I guess, something that seems ingrained in our DNA, is to be substituted by an algorithm.

   

WHERE TO STUDY GRAPHICS AND MULTIMEDIA

One of the most common questions I get from professionals is "where can I find some training in graphics and multimedia?". You have the old good Multimedia Bootcamp at UNC-Chapel Hill, but you have to travel there to attend. The online education options are growing. I teach at the Universidad Oberta de Catalunya, a public university that offers accredited online degrees, including an undergraduate/graduate program on multimedia communication. I am currently teaching one class (Introduction to Multimedia Concepts, which is mostly theoretical), and I am developing another one on Information Visualization, that will be taught next year.

I will keep you posted also on a new program that UNC-Chapel Hill is developing, an entirely online Masters program, starting in 2012. We are already working on the schedule and syllabi, and it looks really great. I am foreseeing it's going to be a great sucess!

   

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