Individual. The word itself is so simple, but it describes how complex our lives are and how we as humans learn to adapt situations to suit our needs. We use this and many other words in multiple metaphorical contexts. When a computer is powerful enough to declare that the answer to life, the universe and everything around us is 42, but is unable say what the ultimate question to life is, the flaw may not be in its lack of computational power. The computer may have been intelligent enough to console us humans by blaming itself, when the real problem might have been that there is not one question to life in our minds. It knew perhaps that humans despite their superior intelligence were far too weak to be critical to the evolution of the universe, and that like most other creatures would, despite leaving footprints, perish in the sands of time. To respect our brief period of existence, the computer resumed serving us loyally to help us adapt to the incredible and ever-changing norms of our own society.
Search was our answer while trying to finding information lost in our seemingly limitless digital storage. Our visual acuity, as we have discovered, is often superior to other creatures. Despite being harder, we are able to identify needles in haystacks because of this trait. Yet, what the post-PC world, which so many people are so excited about, has ignored this to a large extent. What the iPhone invented was the ability to navigate through long lists, with exceptionally smooth scrolling. I would wager that 70% of all apps fall into the category of browsing content with vertical scrolling. But we are also quick to realize that it is far too difficult to find a specific item on long lists. Email, Facebook, Text Messages, To Do Lists, Calendars - search was about the best solution we could come up with. A useful thought exercise might be to ask: Have you ever tried to find something by navigating through content, failed, and then resorted to using a search box?
Search is exceptional at pin-pointing specific information, but it may be a stopgap solution to being able to find something hidden in plain sight. The Chat Circles application was one of many visual solutions to such a problem. It even brought some very familiar concepts of physical interaction to digital spaces. While one might argue against it by saying it might be better for us to adopt the computer’s own qualities rather than try to build into them those that we are familiar with, the constraints for communication that Chat Circles tries to enforce is strangely pleasing. Chat Circles shows everybody who is communicating, without making the actual conversations public. Individuals who are part of circles can see the conversation happen inside it. Like physical spaces, a person has to leave a circle to join another. When entering a conversation using abstract colors and shapes to represent people and conversations may in fact be, as suggested, visual cues that people find more useful than the traditional ‘Buddy List’.
The Themail visualization tool was another attempt to solve the same problem. It presents the people in mailboxes on a timeline, showing words that are often repeated in conversations with them. By allowing users to adjust the length of the timeline, or see the context of how a certain word was used, there is value gained in seeing how people’s lives and priorities have changed in the big picture, while also being able to highlight specific events in a smaller timeframe. This isn’t something that can be done with a search box. Maybe our computers could use our email to show us how similar our perceived answers to life are. Maybe they cannot. But they do show already show that one does not need an equation to see patterns or trends in any activity. One certainly cannot use a search text box to achieve that. When humans are not willing to change, they create technology which adapts to their behavior. If there are so many patterns hidden in our massive catalogs of data, then it is time to find more visual solutions to our problems.