Monday, June 18, 2007

Tufte, truth and beauty

I'm not exactly a regular reader of the Stanford Alumni Association magazine. Hardly surprising since I've never been to Stanford. But the beauty of rss (which we ignore at our peril) and newsreaders is that you sometimes happen upon articles in places you wouldn't otherwise think of visiting. This time, courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily (in turn recommended to me many moons ago by John) I've discovered a gem of an article about communications and design guru, Edward Tufte.

I've been a big fan of Tufte for a long time because he's been the giant in passionately advocating and teaching the communicating of technical and scientific data in a clear accessible manner. I talk a lot in my (very soon to be released book) about understanding what technology can and almost more importantly cannot do. In the 1990s Tufte wrote an essay which endeared him to a generation of geeks on the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, ostensibly pointing out the restrictive thinking engendered by people relying totally on Powerpoint when preparing presentations. Too often people making decisions to deploy computer technologies in education, through a complete lack of understanding of the real utility and architectural restrictions of the technologies, use those amazing tools in inappropriate and sometimes debilitating ways.

As someone who has been using computers on an industrial scale in education for years, I spend way too much time and can often sound like a complete luddite in attempting to explain what the computer will do badly - to people insisting on doing again what has been repeatedly proved to fail. To the notion, for example, that every course should have a computing element associated with it, I always ask why? Which invariably triggers an amazed 'what planet is this guy from' type expression in response. Yet it is somewhat analogous to Bruce Schneier's note about lions, leopards and hyenas - all requiring a different security response. Different courses and contexts require different technological responses. A lack of understanding of the architectural constraints and possibilities in education has been one of my pet hates in my day job for a long time. Tufte articulated my frustrations, using Powerpoint as his case study, better than I could ever have done and it's nice to see the Stanford Alumni article singing his praises and telling us a bit about the man himself.

Update: My circuitous route to the Tufte article could have been cut short, if only I'd read John's blog first this morning.

Update 2: Also via Arts and Letters Daily, the New York mag. describes Tufte as The Minister of Information

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