Monthly Archives: September 2016

Gestalt Principles

In Parts I and II of Gestalt Principles, Bang Wong describes core elements of Gestalt psychology, a 1920s German theory of “how people organize visual information.” The German term Gestalt means shape or form. As Wong summarizes in Part II, “our visual system attempts to structure what we see into patterns to make sense of information.” In other words, we naturally and reflexively process visual input by attempting to group objects into “unified wholes.”

In Part I, Wong explores the principles of similarity, proximity, connection and enclosure. “The fundamental concept behind these principles is grouping;” he argues. “We tend to perceive objects that look alike, are placed close together, connected by lines or enclosed in a common space as belonging together.” Color schemes, visual clustering, and lines on a graph are all tools which can differentiate datasets.

In Part II, he examines the principles of visual completion and continuity:  “Because we have a strong tendency to see shapes as continuous to the greatest degree possible, we fill in voids with visual cues found elsewhere on the page.” This principle has an important implication: “every element on a page affects how we perceive every other element.”

Wong presents all these principles as helpful design tools which can leverage human mental processing in order to present data clearly.

What’s missing from these short essays, however, is any discussion of possible misuse of these design principles. Presumably, an altruistic designer would solely use these tools to “let the data speak for itself;” using Gestalt principles to highlight and clarify the ground truth which is already there.

But this seems to gloss over an important detail: all design choices are choices. Even putting aside the occasional malicious designer, who deliberately presents a warped visualization in order to leave viewers with an erroneous impression; it seems entirely possible that a lazy designer could accidentally imply something unintended, or that a researcher could be mislead by the Gestalt of their own visualization.

Furthermore, while these principles may be the simplest way to communicate data, there is no discussion of whether they are the right way to communicate data.

Last semester, Lauren Klein of Georgia Tech gave a talk at Northeastern in which she highlighted the visualization work of Elizabeth Peabody. Remembered primarily as an educator, Peabody created of elaborate mural charts of history, intended to provide historic “outlines to the eye.” Her work was intentionally complex and difficult to engage with; people had to interact with it to understand it. In the mid-1800s, this approach pushed the question who is authorized to produce knowledge? And subversively answered: everyone.

So Gestalt principles may make it easier to process information, but it should also be acknowledged that this may diminish the agency of the viewer – whose brain reflexively interprets visual stimuli in a given way, even if it’s not accurate and even if they know it’s not accurate.

At the beginning of the two articles, Wong quotes founding Gestalt scholar Kurt Koffka, in saying “The whole is ‘other’ than the sum of its parts.” While this is sometimes translated as “greater than the sum of its parts,” Wong is clear that this was not Koffka’s meaning: “the emergent entity is ‘other’ (not greater or lesser) than the sum of the parts.”

This quote highlights the need to think more robustly of the experience of the viewer. The design that is created, the visualization that expresses some aspect of the data, is a new thing, other than what existed before. Peabody’s visualizations were exhaustingly interactive, but they did invite the viewer to become an active participant in the act of creating this other.


Civic Humility

As I’ve written before, I am generally annoyed by the concept of the so-called “confidence gap” – or perhaps just annoyed by the common prescription. If you’re not familiar with the term, the confidence gap refers to a gendered divide in individual confidence levels. Or more precisely, the idea that women are less confident than men.

Various studies reinforce the existence of this phenomenon, indicating that – while of course there is a great deal of individual variation – women are generally socialized to believe that their voices and perspectives don’t matter. In an interesting correlation, this is probably because, for many women, it is continuously made clear to them that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.


Numerous programs aimed at increasing the confidence of these wayward women seek to address this problem.

In my mind, I imagine the advertisement: you too, can be an arrogant blowhard.

These efforts are well intentioned, no doubt, but I always have to greet them with a sigh.

First, the existence or non-existence of an individual’s confidence is mostly likely a complex interplay of a number features, among which gender is one. To the extent that it is a gendered phenomenon, it is related not only to the socialization of women, but to the socialization of men.

Rather than asking “how can we increase women’s confidence?” I’m more interested in the deeper question, “how can we ensure [all people’s] voices are actually heard?”

But more fundamentally, the idea of confidence just annoys me. I don’t want to be confident in the way many confidence gap enthusiasts talk about confidence. Sometimes I wish the confident person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about would just shut their mouth. I want it to be okay to not know an answer.

More importantly, I want it to be okay for people to make space for each other’s ideas.

In many deliberative settings there’s a concept of “step up/step back.” This expression captures both what one might call confidences as well as what I can only call civic humility.

If you haven’t added your voice and perspective you have a duty to do so. I’ve you’d added a lot of your voice and perspective, you have a duty to create space for others.

Civic humility, though, is more than simply stepping back from dominating the verbal space. It is the active mentoring and nurturing of the voices of those around you – creating space for them and actively seeking and valuing their participation.

I call this humility civic, because I see it as an intrinsically associated phenomenon. In the Good Society, people don’t just try to yell their ideas loudest, constantly preening for attention; they work together, co-creating something better than they could have developed through a mere aggregation of opinions.

Civic humility, I would argue, is needed beyond the scope of any current systemic injustice. In a perfectly egalitarian world, there will still be people who are faster to speak while others take time to process. There will always be power imbalances – between people of different ages, or people of different technical expertise.

The art of associated living is not only one of speaking up and making your voice heard, but it is fundamentally one of making space for the contributions of those around you.


On Bad Public Meetings

There are two divergent visions conjured by the idea of a “public meeting.”

First, there’s the ideal: a rich discussion of views and values; a robust exploration of a problem and collective reasoning about solutions; diverse communities thoughtfully engaging together in the hard work of associated living. Such a public meeting is not unlike an idealized college seminar – everyone contributes, everyone grows, and the co-created output of this public work is far better than anyone would have created on their own.

Then there’s the all too common reality; the reason so many of us avoid public meetings in the first place. The inefficient use of time, the yelling, the talking over and past each other, and – if you have the same pet peeves I do – the people who seem to feel the overwhelming need to hear the sound of their own voice, who feel compelled to speak before taking the time to consider what value they are adding to the conversation.

My friend and civic colleague Josh Miller recently pointed me to one such epitome of terrible public meetings, captured in the Milwaukee Record under the headline Lake Park’s Pokemon Go Meeting Was Boring, Livid, and Gloriously Absurd.

To be fair, those adjectives could easily be used to describe many public meetings on a wide variety of topics.

As author Matt Wild described, “Yes, last night’s meeting was the sound of a ridiculous situation taken to its ridiculous extremes. It was the sound of two sides possessing both reasonable concerns and defiant inabilities to listen to one another. It was the sound of privileged people droning on and on and on. It was the sound of people who always seem to have obnoxious Qs during Q&As asking those obnoxious Qs.”

I can’t tell you how many public meetings I’ve been to in my life which fit that description.

So perhaps it seems strange that I cling to the ideas of collaborative public work, of productive public dialogue. Perhaps such an idyllic vision is too much to ask for and far too much to expect: after all, let’s not pretend that those leafy college seminars always go off without out a hitch.

And I make no denials that such a vision of public collaboration is hard. It is very hard. That is, perhaps, why Harry Boyte’s term of public work seems so apt even for the process of dialogue. Real deliberation is work.

But I find it a noble effort; a work worth engaging in even if the results come up short.

We must then ask ourselves – why do so many public meetings go so horribly awry?

For one thing, we must think carefully about the structure of such meetings. The common structure of most public meetings is designed to maintain the power of public officials. Public officials discuss, deliberate, invite expert testimony, and finally, in a nod to democracy, allow for public comments. Then the officials discuss and deliberate further – putting the matter to a vote or requesting further study of the issue at hand.

“The public” does not attend with the role of deliberator or authority, but is relegated to 60 minutes of anecdotes no one really wants to listen to.

There are reasons this structure might be good – society must be protected from the “trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” as Walter Lippmann wrote. Perhaps it is wise not to give “the public” too much power.

And while I would far prefer to see public meetings which truly embraced the role of the public – which invited residents as stakeholders and experts to talk together and collaborative address public problems – the current model seems like possibly the worst of all worlds.

Wild describes the many failures of the Pokemon Go meeting:

The meeting was clearly flawed, with far too much time given over to the panel members, and precious little time given to concerned Pokemon players. If more minutes had been dedicated to audience remarks and general Q&A, perhaps the pro-Pokemon contingent would have gotten their cries of “I LOVE POKEMON AND THIS IS BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER” out of the way and focused on the main problem at hand: How does a residential park that wasn’t designed to handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight suddenly handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight?

Urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg argues that “power is knowledge,” that “power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.” This observation comes precisely from his work in public space planning: decisions are made, implicitly or explicitly, behind closed doors and public information is shaped and shared in such a way as to create the illusion of public participation while ensuring the outcome preferred by those with power.

This dynamic creates a self-enforcing cycle of public disaffection and civic defeat. As Lippman argued in 1925, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”

And thus we find ourselves with disastrous Pokemon Go meetings, with enumerable public meetings in which a disaffected public rouses itself to share various concerns, where some find it to be their duty to speak out, to try to engage in the process, while the rest of us sitting at home – reading the recap in the local paper, rolling our eyes, and wondering with a discontented sigh, where did it all go wrong?


Analytic Visualization and the Pictures in Our Head

In 1922, American journalist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann wrote about the “pictures in our head,” arguing that we conceptualize distant lands and experiences beyond our own through a mental image we create. He coined the word “stereotypes” to describe these mental pictures, launching a field of political science focused on how people form, maintain, and change judgements.

While visual analytics is far from the study of stereotypes, in some ways it relies on the same phenomenon. As described in Illuminating the Path, edited by James J. Thomas and Kristin A. Cook, there is an “innate connection among vision, visualization, and our reasoning processes.” Therefore, they argue, the full exercise of reason requires “visual metaphors” which “create visual representations that instantly convey the important content of information.”

F. J. Anscombe’s 1973 article Graphs in Statistical Analysis makes a similar argument. While we are often taught that “performing intricate calculations is virtuous, whereas actually looking at the data is cheating,” Anscombe elegantly illustrates the importance of visual representation through his now-famous Anscombe’s Quartet. These four data sets all have the same statistical measures when considered as a linear regression, but the visual plots quickly illustrate their differences. In some ways, Anscombe’s argument perfectly reinforces Lippmann’s argument from five decades before: it’s not precisely problematic to  have a mental image of something; but problems arise when the “picture in your head” does not match the picture in reality.

As Anscombe argues, “in practice, we do not know that the theoretical description [linear regression] is correct, we should generally suspect that it is not, and we cannot therefore heave a sigh of relief when the regression calculation has been made, knowing that statistical justice has been done.”

Running a linear regression is not enough. The results of a linear regression are only meaningful if the data actually fit a linear model. The best and fastest way to check this is to actually observe the data; to visualize it to see if it fits the “picture in your head” of linear regression.

While Anscombe had to argue for the value of visualizing data in 1973, the practice has now become a robust and growing field. With the rise of data journalism, numerous academic conferences, and a growing focus on visualization as storytelling, even a quiet year for visualization – such as 2014 – was not a “bad year for information visualization” according to Robert Kosara, Senior Research Scientist at Tableau Software.

And Kosara finds even more hope for the future. With emerging technologies and a renewed academic focus on developing theory, Kosara writes, “I think 2015 and beyond will be even better.”


Architecture of the Christian Science Center Plaza

For the last year, I’ve been working in a building on the Christian Science Center Plaza in Boston. I get a lot of questions about this building and the plaza’s architecture, but I never knew the answers. So – I set out to find out.

The plaza is home to the Mother Church of The First Church of Christ, Scientist – more commonly known as Christian Scientists. The broad topic of Christian Science is too much to cover in this post, the church was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1866 when, as their website describes, a critical injury caused her to understand her faith in a new way.

The oldest building on the plaza is the original Mother Church. The Romanesque Revival-style building was built in 1894 and was followed in 1906 by the Mother Church Extension, arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston.

The building I work in, the Brutalist-style Administration Building tower, constructed in 1972 and now leased to office and academic tenants, is not.

The whole complex was designated a Boston Landmark in 2011.

The Boston Landmarks Commission, which made that designation, was kind enough to release a detailed public report on the features that make the plaza a notable landmark.

The complex contains six buildings – three original buildings, constructed in 1894, 1906, and 1937; and three newer buildings, constructed in the late 20th century along with the plaza that unifies them all.

The 1906 Mother Church Extension is perhaps the most interesting architecturally, described by the Commission as a “cathedral-scale, Byzantine and Renaissance Revival-style church.”

According to the Commission, the building I work in measures “approximately 183 feet long by 86 feet wide” and is “a 26-story office building, with an additional story below ground. The structure rises 355 feet from a rectangular footprint.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the plaza is the Reflecting Pool, constructed during the 1970s expansion. The Reflecting Pool “measures approximately 690 feet long by 100 feet wide by 26 inches deep, bordered by an infinity edge of curved, polished Minnesota red granite.” Interestingly:

The Reflecting Pool was designed to be functional as well as aesthetic. Although the initial intent was that the Reflecting Pool also serve as the cooling system for the complex, it seems that this function was never implemented with any success. Based on early memos, correspondence, and discussions with facilities staff, it appears that some cooling system use was tried for a portion of one early season and then discontinued as impractical. When the cooling towers were installed at the fifth floor of the Publishing House Building in the early 1970s, the Reflecting Pool water connections for HVAC cooling were eliminated.




Phenomenology and Physics

The philosophical field known as phenomenology, initiated by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century, can perhaps most simplistically be described as the charge to describe phenomena; to describe, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, the “experience of or about some object.”

A core principle of practicing phenomenology is what Husserl called phenomenological reduction or epoché, a term borrowed from the Skeptics. In order to properly describe a phenomena, he argued, we must first bracket out certain biasing factors.

As Sarah Bakewell describes in At the Existentialist Café, phenomenology frees us “from ideologies, political and otherwise…forcing us to be loyal to experience.”

In other words, ” the Husserlian ‘bracketing out’ or epoché allows the phenomenologist to temporarily ignore the question, ‘But is it real?’, in order to ask how a person experiences his or her world. Phenomenology gives a formal mode of access to human experience.”

Phenomenology is a rigorous philosophical exploration, but on its surface it seems far removed from the basic tenants of physics. Phenomenology seeks to describe the world as it’s experienced, physics attempts to describe the world as it is.

So I was struck yesterday, when a professor described the process of developing a physics model in somewhat phenomenological terms; to model a complex system, we must strip away all the noise, focusing on those elements which really matter.

Interestingly, while similar in practice, the approaches are very different in interpretation. In phenomenology, this reduction is something of a purification process. Focusing on the core elements of an object, freed of ideologies and constructs, allows a phenomenologist to more truly describe a phenomenon.

The hard sciences have a different understanding: all models are wrong, but some are useful. The reduction process of modeling is logistically and computationally necessary, but it removes an element of truth from your understanding. The goal is to always come up with more and more complex models; methodically adding more elements to the model in order to better describe complex, real-world systems.

In some ways, phenomenology is an important topic of debate in physics. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment where a cat is both alive and dead until observed was intended to illustrate the limits of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. That model indicates that wave forms collapse when an observation takes place; that the cat is both alive and dead until observed.

This strikes me as a phenomenologically valid reality; no phenomena really exists outside the experience of that phenomena. But this seems scientifically unlikely; a cat cannot be both alive and dead.

The fields of phenomenology and physics have some stark differences, but it seems they may have more in common than one might initially think. And it raises interesting questions for the social sciences – which continually tries to be more and more like it’s hard science peers. But in stripping away the noise and complexity, in reducing too far to a mathematical model, we strip the phenomenological aspects of reality; we think we’ve modeled the world as it exists but neglected the world as its experienced.


Safe Space and Civil Society

I’ve been thinking a lot about safe spaces.

Perhaps it’s because the school year is starting that the debate over safe space and intellectual rigor has become top of mind. But this issue is core to civil society in general: we’re seeing the debate play out on college campuses, but it gets deeply to questions of who gets to participate – and how – in civil society and what that participation (or absence) means for social outcomes.

And as a side note, let’s not forget that half of all young people in this nation do not receive any of the benefits of a college education or experience.

The debate over safe space strikes me as being about far more than safe spaces. No one who advocates for safe spaces wants students to be coddled, and no one who advocates against safe spaces wants students to be tormented. So in some ways, the debate – or talking past each other, if you will – seems misaligned to the actual issues at play.

A few years ago my former colleagues at Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a study on how American teens use their out-of-school time.

One of the top level findings of this report was a striking difference in how teens of different social classes used their time:

Research so far suggests a wide variation of after-school time use based on social disparities: three out of ten children in low-income households do not participate in any organized activities, while just one out of ten middle-class or wealthy children do not. Not surprisingly, affordability of extracurricular involvement varies greatly by income level. Furthermore, parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds may view priories in time use differently.

The study reinforced the 2003 work of sociologist Annette Lareau: there are not only financial reasons for different people’s experience, but cultural class reasons as well.

In general, wealthier kids benefit from organized out-of-school activities: they develop leadership skills, self-confidence, and college application material through formal athletic, artistic, and academic opportunities.

Children of lower socio-economic status benefit from unstructured, unsupervised time. They learn self-sufficiency, resilience, and independence by taking care of themselves and siblings after school.

The normative values of lower socio-economic families may prove problematic to social mobility – those kids may not have as much flare on their college applications – but the reality is that there is value in both approaches, and negatives in taking one approach too far.

This may seem tangential to the topic of safe spaces, but I actually think it’s related. I don’t know that the divergence of views breaks down along social classes, but there do seem to be normative differences in what people expect out of a civil society – at large or in a campus microcosm.

Some opponents of safe spaces revel in pushing their view to the extreme. It’s a sort of tough love approach: say the most offensive things possible in order to make kids develop a thick skin. My sense is that some of these folks aren’t simply trying to express their own view, but they’re actively trying to antagonize people in the hopes of helping people grow more accustomed to such things. (And/or to draw attention to themselves?)

Surely, they have a right to do so – but it also kind of makes them a….well, you can choose your own descriptor here.

On the other side, there’s no shortage of horror anecdotes about students claiming safe space protection for something absurd. Like the guy who sued for coffee being hot – there’s always some one out there making the system look bad.

I don’t think the majority of people are in either of these extremes, though people tend to lean towards one view or another.

Some people have experienced positive growth by being strongly challenged – and it has helped them go strong in return. Others have been silenced by society and are looking for supportive spaces through which they can regain their voice.

Depending on your own experience, you might have a different view on which of these norms is more important and which you’d rather see fostered in civil society. But as with out-of-school activities: there is value in both approaches.

The problem that I see is that there is systemic inconsistency in terms of who falls into each group. If half the population was randomly assigned to feel one way and the other half was randomly assigned to feel the opposite…that would be a very interesting study. But when race, class, gender, sexual identity, or other demographic factors line up so closely with how people feel about this issue – that’s something we need to pay attention to.


Freedom, Justice, and Civil Society

I have been thinking a lot recently about a number of related topics: civil society, of course, but also freedom, self, and justice. I suppose none of these are particularly new, but I’ve but been thinking about their intersection in new ways.

Last week, for example, the University of Chicago made headlines when the Dean of Students expressed the following sentiment to its incoming Freshman class:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wider range of ideas.

What’s interesting about these two paragraphs is the totally divergent visions from people on different sides of this issue. Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces – I’ll leave invited speakers aside here because I see that as a different issue – see exclusivity, reverse discrimination, and coddling. Proponents see tools which serve precisely that priority the University seeks to advance: welcoming people of all backgrounds and encouraging rich intellectual exchange.

It seems almost strange that such orthogonal interpretations can co-exist.

This is where, it seems to me, that different conceptions of core issues such as freedom, self, and justice come into play – with striking repercussions for how we organize civil society.

These terms are by no means clear or consistent. For example, my friend and colleague Peter Levine once listed at least six different types of freedom. Does freedom mean freedom to act? Freedom to create? Or, perhaps, freedom is a “negative liberty” – freedom is freedom from constraint.

Applied to civil society, the question is no longer what it means to be free, but rather: how do we live freely together?

This question is important because inevitably, our individual freedoms will come into conflict. Social norms as well as laws can be seen moderators of our various freedoms. Murder is illegal because most of us would rather give up our own freedom to commit murder in order to reduce the possibly that someone else will exercise their freedom to murder us. Alternatively, we could argue that one person’s freedom to live outweighs another’s freedom to murder.

Taking freedom in this way, much of our civil infrastructure can be interpreted as a process balancing freedoms: is one person’s freedom to speak more important than another’s freedom to not hear? How hateful or harmful does speech need to be – if indeed there is such a line -before the freedom of the listener outweighs the freedom of the speaker?

These are important questions, but they cannot be separated from questions of self and justice.

First of all, such a concept of freedom only really makes sense if you think of ‘self’ as a discrete, individual unit. If, on the other hand, your concept of ‘self’ has less well-defined boundaries – or perhaps no boundaries at all – then the very idea of freedom becomes less clear. What does it mean for me to be free, if ‘me’ is little more than a “a psychological and historical structure,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote.

And, importantly, there is the issue of justice. Or, more precisely, the issue of systemic injustice.

Too often, this topic is missing or sidestepped in discussions of civil society.

The question of balancing freedoms is most easy to answer when the people in question are essentially the same. If you think of society as a game where we each have an equal number of points to spend on expressing our defending our freedom, then it seems entirely fair to say that – major issues such as murder aside – we should leave each person to spend their points as they may.

The idea that trigger warnings and safe spaces coddle some students at the expense of other students seems to tacitly rely on this idea: one person’s freedom of speech is too precious to sacrifice another’s comfort.

But such a view disregards the effects of systemic injustice. Safe spaces, for example, are not primarily about exclusion or shutting some perspectives down – it’s about creating space, just a little space, for those people who live their lives inundated with the message that they are bad, inferior, or unalterably wrong. A safe space needs to be created precisely because no other space is safe.

This is an issue far beyond college campuses. We see this issue on campus for precisely the same reason college campuses have seen so much activism: we are training young people to be engaged members of society. We are teaching them to not simply accept the world as it is, but to engage in the hard work of continually working to make the world better.

I once heard a university professor tell young students of color that the world is full of racism and discrimination – so a university which shields its students from those realities is doing them no favors.

The students – justifiably, in my opinion – were shocked.

They each knew all too well that the world is full of discrimination. They each experienced it personally and painfully again and again and again each day. They weren’t asking to be coddled, they weren’t asking to be shielded. They were asking for the opportunity to learn with the freedom their white peers seemed to enjoy.

And they were demanding their own freedom of speech; their own freedom to protest and speak out and to engage fully in the hard work of bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.