Monday, February 27, 2023

What 'The Art of Insight' is about

Yesterday I announced in social media that I've written half of The Art of Insight already. It should be out by late November this year. Some people asked how it's different to my previous books. It's very different —much more personal and idiosyncratic. It's both an attempt to reignite my love for the craft and also my tribute to its practitioners.

In case you're interested, here's the first draft of the opening two pages (this hasn't been edited, so ignore typos and ungrammatical sentences): 


On Magic

To live well is to cope with the ways in which life is hard while finding enough in one’s life worth wanting. Kieran Setiya 

One early morning in November of 2021, Alex, my youngest son, questioned me about the apparent meaninglessness of life: “Why are we humans here for anyway?”

Alex has been a precocious old soul since he learned to talk. The week when I was working on this preamble he wrote an autobiographical poem that contained a haunting alliteration to define who he is: “I’m a lover of darkness, dragons, and dreams.”

At the time of our conversation we were both coming to terms with that darkness: healing, mustering our dragons for battle, and rebuilding our dreams. The pandemic years had been tough.

I remember myself thinking in silence for a moment. We were in our morning commute. Alex, sitting in the back of the car, was looking out at parents and kids passing by on their way to school. He was in a somber mood, and I guess he wasn’t expecting a quick answer from dad, who’s usually so aloof and introverted.

But my answer poured out like a torrent. Life, I said, is indeed meaningless in itself. Meaning isn’t a predetermined thing that exists beyond ourselves and our connections to others, or that we receive from imaginary higher powers. Meaning is something that we build by living through the myriad of little but immensely relevant events that cross our paths. It emerges from paying deep attention to the joys and beauty offered by the objects, creatures, and people whom we love, and by sharing back with them. That’s all there is to a good life brimming with magic.

Alex’s reply was a soft murmur.

I parked at school and noticed that my son was staring at a fence next to us. There was movement on it.

Alex suddenly yelled, his voice a mixture of excitement and wonderment: “Dad, look, songbirds!” Indeed, there they were, two merry critters standing on the wire, chirping at each other while ignoring the multitude below.

I smiled. “See? That’s what I meant. That’s the magic.”

• • •

This is a book about such magic. To write it, I spoke with many magicians, visualization designers who build meaning as a tribute to themselves or as an aid to others. They make things, they enjoy the process and, by sharing its results, they brighten the world.

Some of these designers are old friends; others are people whose work I’ve found fascinating more recently. They are data scientists, engineers, analysts, humanists, artists, journalists, and educators, each with their own views about the practice.

My sample for this book isn’t representative of anything outside of my head. The designers you’re about to meet are the first who came to my mind when I felt the need to rekindle my love for the design of information, the craft to which I’ve devoted my professional life. A half-joking alternative title I entertained was On the Consolation of Visualization, as a nod to Boethius’s famous On the Consolation of Philosophy. The list of people whose work I find interesting, inspiring, or intriguing is much longer, though; should I’d had more pages and time, I’d have reached out to many more of them to seek solace. 

This is also a book about insight. Not in the sense of data-driven analytical insight; there are plenty of books in the market about that, including some I’ve written myself. This book is different. I use the term “insight” in the sense of exploring who the designers I spoke with are and how they see themselves. I’m interested in how they shape their craft, how the craft shapes them in return, and how such interaction creates an ethos.

Finally, I envision this book as one link in the broader chain of historical conversations about information design and visualization. It’s the result of the interaction between what my interlocutors told me, past readings that were brought back to memory during our chats, and my reflections about both. I’ve ended up writing an essay in the literal sense of the term: a way to essay ideas, to contemplate them in a nonjudgmental manner with no expectation of reaching conclusions, of inferring overarching lessons, or —the gods forbid the hubris— of developing a coherent system of thought. The philosopher Joan-Carles Mèlich calls this approach to thinking and writing “the wisdom of the uncertain.”

This The Art of Insight is, then, a wandering, and not a solitary one.