AIGA Poster Designed by Corey McPherson Nash. Enlarge.
When this poster for the upcoming American Institute of Graphic Arts conference in Boston arrived in the mail this past week, I immediately thought, oh, another map of cyberspace. It has that pseudo-internet-in-space look, after all. Designed by Corey McPherson Nash, this typographic cacophony allows selected tidbits of language to emerge from the ether: "listen," "experiment," "inspire," "change," "discuss," "create." As a poster for AIGA, it's promoting buzzwords with DESIGN as the organizing conceit.
But it's also an image that suggests other things: fluidity of language, mutation and transformation, media saturation, random noise, virtual chaos, layered clutter. If you went deeper into space, layering even more words on top of words, the colors would ultimately dissolve into blackness. If every word were a sound, you'd just hear a hazy, constant din. Mostly, it's an allusion to chaos, to our perception that cyberspace is cluttered with bits, to an anxiety that there is so much "out there" that it's incomprehensible.
This is in stark contrast to the modernist fantasy of designer Muriel Cooper from her days at the Visual Language Workshop at the MIT Media Lab where language was information that could be dynamically organized within a rational 3-dimensional space. (An example of her influence is this Intel commercial by Imaginary Forces and Mark Zurolo.) This tradition is also evident in some of the more recent work of David Small and Lisa Strausfeld.
Of course, it is the internet that has changed our perception of space, precisely because the sheer volume of interconnectivity is beyond our imagination, whether it be language-based, data-based, or community-based. Add black holes and photographs of asteroidal moons around Jupiter, and our world seems increasingly expansive. Yet, if we cannot map it, how can we understand it?
Poster Designer: Unknown. © 03.04 firstname.lastname@example.org. Enlarge.
Imagine mapping the endless and repetitive paths of your computer's mouse for a single week every click, every fetch, every drag. It's a map of one activity drawn over a defined period of time a mouse that traveled 5.47893 miles in a single week. Every graphite line fragment signifies the gathering of some bit of information, a connection to a friend, the highlighting of a textual phrase to erase plus the implied risk, after this distance traveled, of Repetitive Strain Injury. This drawing happened at a desk somewhere, but the context being mapped is elsewhere. It's a map that captures a piece of the puzzle, but only a sliver.
CAIDA Internet Topology, April 21-May 8, 2003. Enlarge.
Of course, there are more literal maps of the internet. CAIDA, the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, pictures "a robust, scalable global Internet infrastructure, visualizing internet topology at a macroscopic scale. When the Internet was in its infancy, monitoring traffic was relatively simple. However, after experiencing phenomenal growth in the 1990's, tracking connectivity has become a daunting task. CAIDA researchers attempted to strip away lesser-connected autonomous systems in order to find out how Internet connectivity is distributed among ISPs. The May 2003 CAIDA map graphs 1,134,634 IP addresses and 2,434,073 IP links, probing approximately 865,000 destinations spread across 76,000 (62% of the total) globally routable network prefixes." Trackable over time, the CAIDA map treats the internet as a worldview, much like astronomers have historically forced celestial events into worldly circular forms. (See Johann Elert Bode, Projection on the Plane of the Ecliptic of the Parabolic Orbits of 72 Comets, 1802).
More recently there have been numerous online attempts at mapping content in real time. The SmartMoney Map of the Market is a quantitatively-generated representation of the market's sectors, along with individual stocks within each sector presented in Mondrian-like patterns. Marcos Wescamp's Newsmap shows stories in the news, derived from the Google News news aggregator, by presenting a treemap visualization of "the underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe." Buzztracker, created by Craig Mod and Chin Music Press, is a dynamic map of where news is occuring software that "visualizes frequencies and relationships between locations in the Google world news directory."
The interconnectivity of the internet is moving at a speed that defies our imagination. Blogs, a term unheard of even two years ago, are now a ubiquitous part of the online experience. Technorati, as of today, tracks 10,552,890 weblogs and 1,164,251,940 links. A month ago this number was only in the 9 millions. We are counting sand on the beach, the numbers almost beyond our comprehension. But this growth leads to efforts to summarize "the real-time web, organized by you," with subject tags turning into a typographic map of blog content. That almost half the tags being mapped are in non-roman alphabet says a lot, finally, about how international the internet really is. (That "music" is not a primary tag, but that "música" is, of course, says it all.)
Flickr. All time most popular tags as of 05.27.05. Enlarge.
Of course, Technorati did not invent the mapping of tags. Flickr came first, only months ago, and has changed everything, both by archiving the photography of the world (over 16 million images to date), and by opening up a shared community through "tags." Cyberspace suddenly becomes one giant photo gallery, a make-your-own-archive of imagery. The Flickr map of "all time most popular tags" is not a history of photography: it is a map of this week's most popular subject matter as articulated by user-defined tags. In the same way, del.icio.us is a universe of shared bookmarks, "a social bookmarks manager."
Of the 145 Flickr tags mapped in typographic scale, half are cities and places africa, amsterdam, austin; beach, bridge, building. (Darren Barefoot has actually mapped the most photographed cities here.) Eight tags are colors: blue, color, green, orange, pink, red, white, yellow; missing are black, silver, gold, purple, rose, brown, grey, beige, etc. The "hot tags" for the past 24-hours include bavaria, waterfront, cornell, nerd, retriever and style; over the past week, they include championsleague, kaboom, alchemy, sonic, sidekick, and infrastructure. Meanwhile, typographic scale suggests that the most popular tags are: art, beach, birthday, california, cameraphone, cat, family, flowers, friends, japan, london, me, nyc, party, travel, vacation, and wedding. (Designers can take some solace in their ongoing obsession with street signs: graffiti, sign and streetart are three popular tags.) These maps not only summarize the ways millions of photographs are categorized, they are access to both broad communities of topical interest and narrow cliques of shared experience.
Bill Marsh/The New York Times. Enlarge.
The Flickr map is, of course, a macro view of the world. The micro perspective of internet connectivity, its DNA if you will, is harder to get at and why the map of Enron e-mail above, and its reporting by The New York Times, is so remarkable. While privacy concerns typically keep researchers from analyzing deep patterns in email correspondence, the failure of Enron allowed the U.S. Federal Regulatory Agency to make public 1.5 million internal corporate emails. After eliminating the duplicates, researchers at many institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins, are having a field day analyzing the half-million emails left over from 150 accounts, including those of the company's top executives. It's a corporate Peyton Place made public for all to see and relish. What happens to the pattern of communications when one new email address is added to the universe? What happens when broadly distributed e-mails suddenly generate statistical anomalies in private messages? Can one track when certain people are suddenly left out of the loop? Can one tell where decisions are really made from e-mail traffic patterns? Plus there are social dynamics: increased traffic during the Texas football season; and increased traffic about fantasy football just as Enron was fading fast in its final weeks.
The mapping of cyberspace is the mapping of our time, just as much as mapping DNA sequences is the mapping of the human genome. We should hope that there would be hundreds of maps, statisticians and social scientists and designers working to explain and to visualize this evolving new world. It's an exploration worthy of Ferdinand de Magellan's voyage around the world in 1519-21.
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