murph the surf on Tue, 14 Jul 1998 06:57:02 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> A Burglar in the Treasure House


A Burglar in the Treasure House
by Robbin Murphy

A Review of Visual Thesaurus
by Plumb Design

Thesaurus means "treasure house" in Latin and so it seems apt that the
origins of this handy writer's tool lie some two hundred years in the past,
in the prison cell of an Englishman named Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) to
be more precise. His predicament gives rise to the intriguing image of an
unlucky burglar/writer patiently plotting his heist for when he breaks out
of his jail (writer's) block unknowing that he is, like all of us, a
prisoner of language and can never escape.

However, the truth is that for political reasons, Roget-a quiet and honest
student-was unfairly thrown into prison for a year. To pass the time and to
keep his wits he turned his philosophically inclined mind to constructing a
list of one thousand terms to use as a "repertory" of words embodying
ideas. After his release he went on to become a successful physician and
scholar and continued to add words and phrases to his list throughout his
long life.

In 1852, after he'd retired, Roget published this list as the first Roget's
Thesaurus and it was an immediate bestseller-not with philosophers as he'd
intended, but with writers who immediately used it to enhance their writing
skills. To this day there are not only the descendants of the original work
but myriad printed texts using the generic term "thesaurus" published by
others as well as electronic versions included in major word publishing

At first, many writers probably feel a certain sense of guilt when they
reach for the thesaurus on their desk, or click on the item under the HELP
menu on their computer, as if admitting to a failure for not having the
entirety of their respective language at their immediate disposal. But the
tool's usefulness soon puts that concern to rest as the depth and richness
of their writing increases-or appears to. What these books can't do, and
what Roget intended, is give us a picture of the way words are intricately
linked in a web of meaning very much in the way our minds are set to work
by association.

As it happens, Roget was also the person to postulate the theory of
"persistence of vision" and discover that images remain on the retina a
split second after the source is removed from the visual field. This
finding became the basis for, at first, children's toys like flip-books and
magic lantern projections, and later, of course, motion pictures.

It is only appropriate that Plumb Design should use the concept of a
thesaurus to demonstrate the flexibility of their Thinkmap software. Linked
to the WordNet database created by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at
Princeton University this java-based program creates "Maplets" that enable
users to visualize verbal associations of meaning by creating 3-D animated
clusters of words connected by fine lines. Instead of a list of
alternatives users see subtle variations with the most appropriate choices
appearing as the visually brightest. As you move through the network, words
realign and intensify or fade away but they don't immediately disappear.
There is that "persistence of vision" worked into it. While a word may no
longer be the best choice based on the point of view it is still there, in
the distance as a reminder of the complexity of language.

The WordNet database from which the "Visual Thesaurus" draws its material
is a dictionary based on psycho-linguistic theories (used for artificial
intelligence research) containing over 50,000 words and 40,000 phrases
arranged into over 70,000 sense meanings and is available from Princeton
University for free. Plumb Design has a copy of it on their server for Web
access and a stand-alone version that will be compatible with Microsoft
Word is in the works.

"Visual Thesaurus" is probably not the best productivity-enhancing tool for
people who want their information quickly-the temptation to spend time in
its game-like environment creating poetical word associations is too
great-but the program is wonderful in that it attracts and delights, and
resonant because it is a natural learning environment.

The "Thinkmap" software that is the engine for "Visual Thesaurus" is a
powerful, flexible and responsive tool for displaying any type of complex
information by turning the data into animated displays that encourage
interaction. "Thinkmap" is also behind the Smithsonian Institution's
Revealing Things online exhibit where visitors navigate the exhibit at
their own pace and in their own direction depending on their interests but
guided by rules defined by the curator. It allows for exploration and
interesting juxtaposition of objects without leaving the visitor lost.

Raw data can be beautiful in its own way, though it isn't very useful
without some kind of organization and interface design. That is why we
create data filters. Sometimes online data is left in semi-raw form as
lists to scroll down our screens or else it's tarted up with some basic
HTML and, if we're lucky, hyperlinks. Rarely is it presented in a manner
that we enjoy interacting with and even more elusive is a presentation that
allows us to gain deeper meaning as this one does.

Mark Tinkler, Plumb Design's Chief Technology Officer and Creative Director
who studied architecture and computer science at Carnegie Mellon
University, is behind both the thesaurus and "Thinkmap" (the latter
developed when he was the chief technologist at Razorfish). At 24 he may be
a sign of the future -- that much-anticipated breed of artist/programmer
who instinctively combines aesthetic concerns with object-oriented code,
qualities that make him a perfect collaborator as we break into the
treasure house of language.




Smithsonian Institution
Revealing Things



426 Broome Street, NYC 10013  212-925-1885
<i> i o l a </i>
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: