I know, after hearing about “data visualization” and some kind of gooey, elusive “website overhaul” for almost ten months, you never expected this moment could arrive. Neither did I. Which is why lots of thanks are in order.
First, I have to thank Chris Willard who agreed to overhaul The Conversation on a shoestring budget, all while simultaneously launching his own music startup. He put a huge amount of work into the site and it shows. Moreover, while Micah and I knew from day one that we wanted data visualization, we didn’t know what we wanted it to look like. Over the past few weeks, Chris has helped me think through the cleanest and most useful way to represent this mess of information. It has been great to work with him.
Second, I owe profound thanks to everyone who donated to the fundraising campaign. You made this redesign possible and I hope, as you explore the new concept map, you’re as happy with the results as I am. I owe you all postcards from the slagheaps and backwaters of America.
Rather than reading about the changes, I think you should go play with the site and discover them. But if you’re textually inclined and want to know what the hell this “concept map” is all about, read on.
• Starting with the concept map, you can navigate through The Conversation non-linearly by topic and perspective, seeing points of connection and contrast amongst the different thinkers. This is the part of the overhaul that I’m most excited about, but also needs a disclaimer about what it represents and what it doesn’t. Associating topics with episodes is easy and uncontroversial, but philosophical perspectives are neither of those things. As Lawrence Torcello pointed out in an email to me last week, there’s something problematic about distilling the nuance of a thinker down into a series of binary pairs—it might even go against the spirit of The Conversation. This is obvious to me now, but it wasn’t when Micah and I drafted a rough list of perspectives ten months ago. Having said that, I still think the concept map is extremely useful if framed correctly.
The concept map shows how I consider a thinker to be leaning in regards to the topics we discuss in their episode. It does not purport to show how the thinkers would categorize themselves or how their perspectives lean regarding other topics or at different times. For instance, Carolyn Raffensperger’s conversation leans towards solving environmental problems in a centralized manner (through the law), but she might favor localized problem solving regarding other questions that never came up in our conversation. The concept map only shows the former.
Another caveat about the concept map: it doesn’t show the degree of lean. Both Robert Zubrin and Chris McKay end up categorized as leaning towards anthropocentrism even though place very different values on nonhuman life. Yet binary pairs show us something. However different Zubrin and McKay are from each other, both are in a distinct camp from the wide spectrum of biocentrists.
All that aside, there is a lot we can get out of the concept map. Even if we are only looking at how thinkers philosophically leaned within their conversations, we now have a tool to see patterns too large to notice through memory and audio alone. If quantizing episodes threatens to move us away from the spirit of The Conversation, it also promises to bring us closer to that spirit by revealing commonalities amongst thinkers who can seem irreconcilable.
If you feel some of the perspectives or topics should be changed, please drop me an email at info@the URL. You’ve listened to these episodes, too, and I’m curious to hear your interpretation. Even better if you can cite a sentence where the thinker says something placing them in one perspective camp or another.
There are lots of other changes that don’t warrant page-length descriptions.
• The front page has been massively cleaned up and you can access all the episodes via sequential thumbnails. Finally, we’ve got brief descriptions of each thinker underneath their portrait. The increasing blog clutter has been relegated to its own page.
• You can also explore the project by the geographical location of interviews—and the map is ridiculously slick looking. I’ve generalized locations to make them a little more decipherable (sorry Cambridge folks, I’ve grouped you all in Boston).
• Episode pages now include tiny representations of the concept and geographical maps. Cooler, they include a reference list I’ve pulled from the unedited conversations—people, books, visual media, groups, theories, etc. Even though many of these references have been cut from the final episodes, I thought you might like to see who the thinkers are thinking about. Not only does this make for an intense reading list, but it also shows how fragmented specialization makes us: of the nearly 650 references in the project as of this posting, very few of them are shared.
• Oh yeah, and comments are folded up by default now. You can still unfold them and write but they haven’t been very active and I am trying to reduce clutter on the site.
That’s a word count to make Dickens blush. Sorry.
Thanks for listening,