21 Nov 2011
One of the themes that has informed my work in recent years is the idea of the macroscope, as described by Matt Webb in his talk entitled Scope. It has stuck with me for some time, so I want to pass it on.
To set the stage, consider the familiar microscope. It helps us see small things. Or, put it more grandly: it's a tool for extending our powers of perception. Before the microscope was invented, we could only perceive the world at our own, human scale. But suddenly, with this invention, our native perception has been hugely augmented.
Don't forget how shocking this is. At our natural scale, you might have, say, a droplet of dirty pond-water. But slide that sucker under a microscope, and the scales fall from your eyes. It's actually an ocean of colorful, energetic life.
Same thing with the telescope—it helps us see distant things… or in other words, it's an instrument for accessing reality on a celestial scale.
Our kids now have direct, commonplace access to reality on the cellular and cosmological scales—a reality that was always there, of course, but it was completely invisible to our ancestors. It's like we've given our children the ability to see through walls. A superpower.
With that in mind, let's hazard a definition for a macroscope: a tool for seeing into complex systems. Our native faculties aren't terribly good at understanding how hundreds or thousands of components interact and form a whole. So we need an instrument that makes connections visible, to help us access reality on a network scale. Something to extend our powers of perception, opening our eyes to new aspects of reality. To help us see the big picture.
Here's a simple example, created by BERG, Matt Webb's company. I bought these two big prints and hung them up at work.
These maps of Manhattan are an experiment with a new kind of projection, which attempts to seamlessly connect a first-person perspective and a top-down big picture. It encourages the viewer to simultaneously be situated, and yet also above it all.
This idea has informed my work at Gowalla. We've strived for a canny balance between situatedness (reacting strongly to exactly where the user is standing) and broadness (incorporating signal from other dimensions, like historical or social connections.) An ideal Gowalla would feel like a magical tool, enabling you to see the world around you with more richness and accuracy than you could with your eyes alone. There's a lot of work left to do.
What else might qualify as a macroscope? One easy answer might be Google search. No other tool has so dramatically changed how people access and work with huge amounts of information.
Today's XKCD ("Money") is a pretty stunning example, allowing you to start with the cost of a dozen apples, and then continuously zoom out to the scale of the US GDP.
The big social sites are also strong contenders. Twitter, in its better moments, is brilliant at surfacing timely memes. Facebook, especially with new features like timelines, has tremendous promise for allowing people to make sense of “the graph,” social or otherwise. Perhaps my grandchildren will use some descendant of Facebook as a tool to understand history or sociology, just like they'll use a microscope to understand biology.
Here's one macroscope I'd like to see: a tool to make visible the huge web of dependencies in the food/retail supply chain. Every Happy Meal represents an incredibly complex supply chain, stretching completely around the world, and it's almost perfectly opaque. If we're going to navigate globalism successfully, we're going to need some maps.
By and large, the macroscopes we have today are too few and too weak. We live in a world awash in complexity, vast amounts of data, and interdependence. Most of the time, we have no visibility into it. I believe that inventing macroscopes will be some of the most important work of our generation. We can give our children the ability to understand and navigate reality with better eyes.