Who are we? Within this simple question is contained the essence of what it means to be human: our capacity to reflect on our own consciousness. This reflexive impulse is so central to our character that we call our subspecies homo sapien sapiens, identifying sapience - the wisdom to act with appropriate judgment - as the primary trait that distinguishes us from other animals.
The power of imagery to profoundly affect our sense of place has been exquisitely demonstrated by a few key examples in the history of science. Nicolaus Copernicus’s sixteenth-century illustration of a sun-centered solar system has been widely credited as the primary factor in the precipitation of the scientific revolution. In one fell swoop, he redrew the cosmic order and by extension much of the Western world’s understanding of humanity’s relationship to the heavens. Almost five hundred years later, the Apollo 8 Earthrise image recontextualized perceptions of humanity’s place in the cosmos for much of the world with its first photographic view of Earth from outer space. This image is often attributed with instigating an environmental-paradigm shift, inducing numerous commentaries concerning the fragility of our home planet and the interconnectedness of the global community.
Charles and Ray Eames further pushed the reorienting potential of imagery to new heights (and depths) with their seminal 1972 short film Powers of Ten. It took viewers on an impossible journey across many orders of magnitude from quarks to quasars, pioneering the dynamic “long zoom” camera technique that illustrates how strongly our concepts of reality are shaped by sensory experiences.Our collective quest to know ourselves begins with imagining the world and our place in it. The success of our species is largely attributable to our ability to imagine and map abstract concepts, which help us to study, communicate, and synchronize with our local environments. We create and imbue imagery with symbolism derived from interactions with our surroundings, often accompanied by stories, artifacts, and practices that give clues to their meaning. These culturally constructed modes of communication enable us to share our experiences and cultivate knowledge across generations, providing important contextual understanding that help us to situate ourselves in the world and the cosmos.
Today, our self-reflective search has expanded into new dimensions. While these earlier examples shifted spatial awareness, we are increasingly able to measure and represent temporal, spectral, and relational characteristics of our environs. A latticework of satellites, telescopes, and other measuring instruments are perpetually scanning and providing voluminous amounts of data about our surroundings. Time-lapse and hyperspectral photographs shed new light on atmospheric, biospheric, and cosmic processes. GPS and RFID devices track interactions between people, products, and processes around the globe. And with the ever-expanding integration of Internet-connected gadgets into our daily lives, data about our activities, interests, and movements are generated across physical, social, and virtual domains.
As many of us attempt to make sense of the gestalt of information being generated by and about us, it is little surprise that interest in computer visualization is exploding. Mass digitization yields endless territories to map, while increased accessibility of graphics software enables widespread experimentation with novel representation techniques. Geospatial visualizations provide instant access to worldwide atlases of information, now ubiquitously available through GPS, web maps, and digital globes. Scientific visualizations are widely used to visually simulate phenomena at various scales, appearing regularly in news reports, exhibitions, websites, and mobile applications. Information visualizations are used to reveal hidden patterns within interdisciplinary networks of large-scale data collections. A new generation of information cartographers has taken up the challenge of exploring the aesthetic possibilities of these databases, and these ongoing investigations are yielding intriguing—and occasionally useful—renderings to disclose previously imperceptible relationships.
Burgeoning interest in these visualizations suggests that they may also prove useful for illuminating the most complex and important network of all: Earth’s biosphere. Composed of all of the ecosystems on the planet, the biosphere regulates the countless vital interactions that are essential for supporting life as we know it. These not only include the biological networks that sustain us, but also the generation of the "natural resources” that feed consumer society’s global production and distribution networks. While most of these ecological processes have been made invisible as externalities with modern economic systems, it is apparent that their healthy functioning can no longer be taken for granted.
The sensory networks that monitor our home planet have brought to light some alarming trends in recent decades. Industrial societies have been consuming resources much faster than the planet can regenerate them, resulting in the destabilization of environmental conditions upon which human civilizations have been dependent for millennia. Specific planetary boundaries have now been identified as the defining the “safe operating space for humanity,” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. Since 1968 (ironically, the same year the Earthrise photograph helped to birth the environmental movement), we have been slipping further into “ecological debt” as we rapidly expand our global footprint and exceed the ”safe operating space” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. As a result, we are facing a convergence of interconnected environmental crises, including ocean acidification, mass species extinction, overfishing, peak oil, peak water, land degradation, deforestation, and plastics pollution—not to mention climate change.
Developing appropriate responses to these urgent issues requires more effective tools for reflexively examining humanity’s relationship with global ecological systems. Derived from the Greek roots oikos and logos, ecology appropriately means the “study of relations” and is used to describe many studies of interactions between organisms and their environments. Practitioners in the field of complex network visualization are well positioned to apply their artistic and technical experiences to focus much-needed attention to these essential interconnections.
A number of nascent efforts are already exploring how aesthetic approaches to visualization and mapping can provide new perspectives on critical ecological interactions. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio incorporates satellite data with 3D animations to demonstrate a wide range of scientifically measured phenomena. Designers Tyler Lang and Elsa Chaves have illustrated interconnected global systems and events can influence each other with Connecting Distant Dots. Media artist Tiffany Holmes creates and curates artworks devised to reveal the processes of consumption under the rubric of eco-visualization, which she defines as the “creative practice of converting real-time ecological data into image and sound for the purpose of promoting environmental awareness and resource conservation.” Photographer Chris Jordan has created a series of sobering images chronicling the unimaginable scale of mass consumption with Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. The Sourcemap project from MIT uses geospatial data and information visualization to reveal the global impact of product supply chains.
But these efforts are only be the beginning. The accelerating environmental challenges faced by modern civilization are necessitating that we reimagine our relationships to the natural world. Meeting the needs of global society does not require infinite economic growth but an understanding of and respect for the regenerative limits of the biosphere. As accelerating global changes force us to find innovative ways of enhancing the integrity of local and global ecosystems, visualizations will play an essential role in making our connections to these ecological processes explicit. We will likely find that our species’ unique ability to creatively imagine and map our place in the world will once again be key to adapting to changing environments.