In a March 2015 TED Talk, data visualization researcher Manual Lima explores what he calls the new cultural meme of 'Networkism', and a shift he sees in how we represent knowledge. We're shifting, he claims from a core metaphor of the 'Tree of Life' to a core metaphor of the 'Web of Life'.
We (you and me, in our little social-system-mapping corner of the world), of course, are not new to networkism, even if the label is new to us. It's not news that the network metaphor is seeping into every aspect of life, and it's not surprising to us because we understand - it's simply a reflection of how reality is structured.
What was compelling to me in his talk was how he, (as I have elsewhere), refers to the network graph as an emerging visual taxonomy, that is rapidly replacing the tree metaphor (tree of knowledge, tree of life, etc. with the web metaphor).
That shift isn't simply metaphorical - it's based on dramatically different ways of understanding reality.
The tree metaphor represents and evokes: Order, centralization, balance, unity, symmetry, linearity.
The network metaphor represents and evokes: Complexity, decentralization, interconnectedness, interdependence, multiplicity, non-linearity.
This shift of metaphors is a reflection of the ways complexity science has begun to shift our cultural paradigm - our understanding of what reality is & how it works. But it's not only a reflection - the metaphor itself shifts our thinking. Different thinking creates different metaphors, the different metaphor - reproduced in so many mediums, applied to so many concepts, seen in so many places - creates even more of the different thinking. It's a feedback loop.
So - to me, as we make our maps, it's useful to keep in mind that by the very act of visualizing the web metaphor, we are helping to shift thinking. It's also helpful to keep in mind that, while everyone loves the visuals, the underlying paradigm shift can still be uncomfortable when it's so close to home.
In our projects - the core tension we often deal with is the collective, habitual, preference for the characteristics of the tree metaphor over the network metaphor. The desire for order and linearity, overwhelm at complexity, discomfort with transparency and multiplicity.
A bit more about the language-taxonomy thing.
As Social System Mappers, I believe our core job will be to help prepare them for that, help them learn to navigate that, help them learn it.
Bruce Mau 'When everything is connected to everything else, for better or worse, everything matters.'