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The Halfway House To Nowhere

What is visualization for? Is it a tool help us understand data and the world, and to make better decisions because of that? Or is it just a debugging tool, a stepping stone towards intelligent machines?

As machines are getting smarter and more capable, we expect them to make more decisions for us. While that is natural, it's easy to walk into a trap: to think that we can hand things over to machines entirely and stop caring and understanding. But things don't work like that.

This is not a new idea. In their enthusiasm about early successes in the 1960s, computer scientists thought that they would soon be able to build thinking machines, electronic brains, that could perform many human tasks as well as, if not better than, us. And today, we're no closer to building a thinking machine than we were 50 years ago. Watch this fantastic documentary from 1992, The Machine That Changed The World (edit: not available anymore), take a critical look. In particular, the guy talking at 18:33 about how translators will soon be out of a job.

I like to think of visualization as putting the human back into the decision-making process. Rather than trusting algorithms to figure things out, I want to see the data and make the decision myself. It's not just the decision itself, it's about knowing why things are done. Understanding the world around us is one of our most fundamental human urges, and one of the things that set us apart from animals and machines.

Michael Driscoll says that Visualization is a Halfway House. What he means is a halfway house on the way to fully automated systems. And look how terrible things are with visualization!

But data visualizations still require human analysts to react and kick off another action, if they are to be useful.

Tim O'Reilly picks up the story (which is based on a comment he made) and describes visualization as debugging and exception-handling:

Posted by Robert Kosara on February 20, 2013.