What Can Carl Sagan Teach Us About the Web?
I had high hopes for this presentation by Mark Trammell of Twitter, and it didn’t disappoint! As far as I’m concerned, this will be the one to beat.
Carl Sagan had many gifts. I think his greatest was the ability to take something incomprehensibly complex and describe it in a way that anyone could understand. In 1980, PBS broadcast Sagan’s 13-part series Cosmos. The series explored the origins of life, consciousness, the universe and our place in it. I was sixteen years old at the time, and the program had a profound impact on me.
Trammell used excerpts from Sagan’s series as metaphor to illustrate concepts in web design. It was almost as if Sagan co-hosted the presentation with Trammell. It was very effective.
The first clip was Sagan describing Astrology vs. Astronomy. Pseudo-science as opposed to actual science. Trammell compared this to using focus groups in the design process as opposed to research and study of how users actually interact with the web. With a focus group, Trammell says, you get how people feel about things. With research, you go with the user and see how they interact with your product.
Next, he explored natural vs. artificial selection. Sagan’s example was Heike crabs, selected artificially by fishermen throwing back the crabs that had markings on their shells resembling the face of a Samurai warrior. Trammell compared this to the classic design process vs. A/B testing. How one chooses what to measure is more important than the changes being measured.
Trammell then studied the effect of noise on conversation. Using Sagan’s example of whale song being interfered with by ship noise. Eventually, whale song became higher-pitched and more intense. Noise makes conversation louder and more shrill.
He used Sagan’s example of isolated Ionians in ancient Greece to illustrate the value of challenging the conventional wisdom of the day. ”Once you are open to questioning rituals and time-honored practices, you find that one question leads to another”, says Sagan. This questioning has four possible outcomes: The native faith can endure, the intruding belief can impose itself, a hybrid culture forms, or both suppositions can be shaken. Isolation promotes diversity.
Finally, Trammell reinforced the notion that “We Are All Connected”, using the Symphony of Science mashup video. It was truly an outstanding presentation.
“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it but the way the atoms are put together. The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff, we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
~ Carl Sagan (1934-1996)