A visual history of human knowledge | Manuel Lima

Metaphors and the organization of information

In his talk, Manuel Lima gives us the intriguing story of how the metaphors we use to help us organize information have changed over the course of human history, evolving from chains of being to trees of knowledge to webs of life. He describes the ways in which these metaphors communicate central ideas throughout society, science, and art. And he illustrates the power of networks as a metaphor, translating the relevance of this truly revolutionary organizational schema to our everyday lives.

There is, however, an interesting and important question being left unaddressed. Although Lima’s talk is about the shift from old to new metaphors, it’s arguable that the deeper insight is less about replacing metaphors and more about expanding our representational toolkit of metaphors. It is neither necessary nor desirable to use one frame of reference exclusively. There are many phenomena that are simple enough to be adequately represented as trees or even chains. There are also situations in which using simple representations is the most effective way to understand distinct elements or systems of relationships within more complex phenomena.

With all these relational and representational metaphors, there is the sense that networks emerge from multi-dimensional trees, the same way that trees emerge from multi-dimensional chains. So, the question is, what emerges from the multi-dimensionality of networks? While the next conceptual shift probably requires a new sense of direction, like any self-referring puzzle, the clues are all there, even if we have yet to find the metaphor to best describe it.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been researching the way people organize and visualize information. And I’ve noticed an interesting shift.

For a long period of time, we believed in a natural ranking order in the world around us, also known as the great chain of being, or “Scala naturae” in Latin, a top-down structure that normally starts with God at the very top, followed by angels, noblemen, common people, animals, and so on… But over time, interestingly enough, this concept adopted the branching schema of a tree…

The branching scheme of the tree was, in fact, such a powerful metaphor for conveying information that it became, over time, an important communication tool to map a variety of systems of knowledge…And trees ultimately became such a powerful visual metaphor because in many ways, they really embody this human desire for order, for balance, for unity, for symmetry.

However, nowadays we are really facing new complex, intricate challenges that cannot be understood by simply employing a simple tree diagram. And a new metaphor is currently emerging, and it’s currently replacing the tree in visualizing various systems of knowledge. It’s really providing us with a new lens to understand the world around us. And this new metaphor is the metaphor of the network. And we can see this shift from trees into networks in many domains of knowledge.

Networks really embody notions of decentralization, of interconnectedness, of interdependence. And this new way of thinking is critical for us to solve many of the complex problems we are facing nowadays, from decoding the human brain, to understanding the vast universe out there… Because as Bruce Mau once said, “When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.”

A visual history of human knowledge | Manuel Lima

The Power of Networks (RSA Animate) | Manuel Lima
Q&A on The Power of Networks (12:53 – 18:31) | Gaia Marcus • Manuel Lima