One of my favorite Woody Allen quips from his tragically short period as a stand-up comic is the punch line to his hyperbolic story about taking a speed-reading course and then digesting all of War and Peace in twenty minutes. The audience begins to giggle at the silliness of reading Tolstoy’s massive tome in a brief sitting. Allen then kills them with his summary of the book: “It’s about Russia.” The joke came to mind recently as I read the self-congratulatory blog post by IBM’s Many Eyes visualization project, applauding their first month on the web. (And I’m feeling a little embarrassed by my post on the one-year anniversary of this blog.) The Many Eyes researchers point to successes such as this groundbreaking visualization of the New Testament:
News flash: Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Even exploring the “network” of figures who are “mentioned together” (ostensibly the point of this visualization) doesn’t provide the kind of insight that even a first-year student in theology could provide over coffee. I have been slow to appreciate the power of textual visualization—in large part because I’ve seen far too many visualizations like this one, that merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.
I’ve been doing some research on visualizations of texts recently for my next book (on digital scholarship), and trying to get over this aversion to visualizations. But when I see visualizations like this one, the lesson is clear: Make sure your visualizations expose something new, hidden, non-obvious.
Because War and Peace isn’t about Russia.