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Our Gutenberg Moment

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The librarian T. Scott Plutchak has called this "our Gutenberg moment," referring to the impact that digital technology has already had on libraries. But if things happen as they did after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, the impact of the digital revolution will go far beyond the walls of libraries. As we have already seen, this "Gutenberg moment" will transform almost every aspect of our world, not just how we get information, but how we understand the world and ourselves.

The 16th century Protestant Reformation, the 17th century scientific revolution, the 18th century democratic revolutions, and the 19th century and industrial revolution all happened, in part, because of the spread of information in the wake of Gutenberg's invention, and we should expect similar upheavals in the centuries to come as a result of the digital media now making information so widely available. But our digital formats need to change. We still largely look at texts on documents kept in files on our desktops, mimicking that of paper and print and making it hard for us to see patterns in data-sets or grasp connections among disparate information quickly enough.

To do the latter, we need to develop formats equal to the speed and power of digital media. One impressive effort in that direction had its launch on July 8th at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) User Conference in San Diego. Developed by the architect and graphic designer (and TED conference founder) Richard Saul Wurman in collaboration with Jon Kamen of Radical Media and Jack Dangermond, Esri's president, this new format, called "Urban Observatory" makes comparative information visually accessible and available at the same scale. Urban Observatory has initially focused on 10 cities, organizing information in five categories: work, movement, people, public, and systems. And it exists as both a traveling exhibition of semi-circular array of monitors and as a website that allows for easy interaction.

This format recalls work that Richard Saul Wurman did over 50 years ago, when he published a book in 1962 that had maps of 50 cities all at the same scale, and it reflects Wurman's career largely devoted to making information more easily understood and visually compelling. But moving this work from the Gutenberg world of print to the Esri world of digitally mapped data makes all the difference. In an era in which cities now compete with each other globally to attract talent and lure economic activity, the Urban Observatory provides a level of comparative information not seen before and one likely to transform how we see the places in which half the human population now lives and works.

But its greatest impact may go beyond that of urban geography. Wurman acknowledges that Urban Observatory represents a "new paradigm, using cartographic language and constructive data display ... as a common language." As I watched the data about cities dance across the screens at its unveiling, I wondered what else this format could do beyond making it easier for us to understand cities. The development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that Esri has led over the last several decades has brought us one giant step closer to getting out from under Gutenberg's shadow by conveying vast quantities of information much more quickly, easily, and accessibly than the text-based formats of the past. But GIS still remains mostly the purview of experts - some 14,000 of whom gathered at Esri's User Conference - and so remains largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

The recent move of GIS to the "cloud" goes one step further in making these tools available to the masses, as Gutenberg did with the book. With Urban Observatory accessible on the web, however, we see a new kind of format, one that will allow the average person to compare information quickly and easily, at the same scale and across datasets, in ways hardly possible before. "Interactive maps and standardized information let you investigate every aspect of life," says Jack Dangermond and the plenary session of the Esri conference revealed the revolutionary implications of that statement.

Students from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles showed what happens when young people have access to this media, mapping the relationships between the ill health of their neighbors and the lack of recreation space and the environmental hazards in their neighborhood. Sponsored by the rap artist Will.i.am, through his I Am Angel Foundation and with the help of Esri, these students demonstrated the power of connecting and visualizing information long kept isolated and largely unavailable to ordinary citizens. I wondered, as I listened to the students' presentation, how long before the public and those in power grasp the implications of this work: that however financially strapped our governments may be, the cost of providing recreation space and cleaning up of hazardous sites pales in comparison to the healthcare costs we will face in not doing so.

Another plenary speaker, Sam Pitroda, advisor to India's Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation, spoke of his country's intention of building a 1,500-node national knowledge network and a fiber optic infrastructure that will connect its 250,000 local governments, to "democratize information" by making it readily available to a large percentage of India's population and "ending the poverty of information" that he thinks has largely contributed to the impoverishment of so many people there. Those who have maintained power in countries like India by controlling information will soon have nowhere to hide.

The Gutenberg revolution began this way: combining existing technology in a new way to make the knowledge of a few available to many. The Urban Observatory may well be the digital equivalent and we should not underestimate all that will change in the wake of this, "our Gutenberg moment."

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design, at the University of Minnesota.

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