In An Anthropologist on Mars , Oliver Sacks writes about the failure of an adult, blind since birth, to learn how to see following vision-restoring surgery. Visual hardware alone isn't enough. We also need a lifetime of experience using it.
The contemporary story of Mike May , who is featured in the June issue of Discover (not yet online), echoes that theme. May can see his wife's face, for example, but cannot recognize it. Nevertheless, the outcome here seems more hopeful. Although May's integration of his newly-repaired visual hardware may never be complete, he started with low expectations and is thrilled to be able to find a ball that he's dropped, or to perceive the colors of his sons' eyes.
That's probably a good attitude to take with us into the coming era of information visualization. Patterns seen through a macroscope may not be ones our brains will have learned to interpret. As we strive to see in these new ways, we should remember that forming the images is only part of the job. Understanding them will be a challenge.
Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/05/07.html#a221