Tufte, the Distribution of Wealth, and Long-Run Systems

When it comes to conveying information in excellent ways, the big-cheese is Edward Tufte. Most of us have never read (or viewed) his work because Tufte’s skill at presenting information has not, perhaps, carried over into his business acumen in the Internet age, as, from a quick look today, it seems that most of his work remains hidden behind massive and unwieldy paywalls. From such walls do legends arise. So I speak somewhat second-handedly here.

It’s likely that most of us have benefited from Mr. Tufte’s work via an overall improvement in how people put information together for our consumption, because, partially as a result of Tufte’s work, many of us are better at inserting information into the part of someone else’s brain in a way that helps them quickly comprehend the information and also allows them to take a deeper dive into the information if they wish.

Happily, Tufte is also on record as a critic of how most people use PowerPoint, apparently finding, oh so accurately if you ask me, that PowerPoint is usually used more to prop up the presenter than it is to help the presenter impart information to the presentee (personally, I think all you need to say is, PowerPoint splices into your television-brain, and leave it at that, ’nuff said).

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This week I saw a graphic presentation that knocked me out and hit me over the head — first, it knocked me out and hit me over the head with what I take to be its Tufte-aesthetic, and, second, it knocked me out and hit me over the head with how straight to the heart of the matter it doth go. Interestingly enough, most of the media I read on Monday said the video had just gone viral that day (officially viral, I guess) even though it was posted to YouTube in mid-November.

Here it is:


So, in terms of Tufte, do you see how this video makes a fairly complex grouping of information pretty dern simple and easily glommed and groked? I especially like how the video quickly resolved every sub-thought of curiosity that it piqued (as if it were reading my mind . . . oo wee oo  . . . ), with the pique having nicely served to get the information inserted further up in ye old comprehension channel. So kudos to you, visual designer, and then some.

And in terms of going straight to the heart of the matter, do you see how pretty much every debate we, as a society, have today about how we, as a society, ought to be organized, is tied in with wealth distribution?

Aye . . . wealth distribution . . . now there’s a topic fraught with peril . . .

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We start with three assertions:

First, people-made systems come about through combinations of chance and design (in this piece we’ll leave aside, entirely, all Big-Picture debate of the it’s-100%-chance-[or design]-and-not-at-all-the-other religious/scientific variety . . . ). You can think of that coming about as the “initial conditions” of the system.

Second, following those initial conditions, through the passage of time, the system unfurls along paths intially easily predicted ahead of time, but, subswquently, not so much,

Third, with that passage of time, via subsequent events set into motion by the initial conditions, something out of the ordinary and/or unexpected can happen over time.  This can happen because (a) the context in which the system exist tends to change, or simply becaus there was someting about the intial conditions which, when extended far enough into time, creates some zany result.


; sometimes the combination of a static system and a dynamic context produces change which is smooth and gradual, but sometimes, when a system reaches a certain scale, it becomes brittle, at which point the system can break quite jarringly.

My favorite example of a system that exists purely by design is the system we use for intellectual property. Surprisingly to many people, U.S. copyright law and patent law stem from the Constitution, which, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, empowers Congress:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.


So, not only is it in the Constitution, but it’s pretty close to the front to boot.

Also interestingly enough, when I learned about this stuff from Mel, he said that, way back then, hundreds of years ago, the roles of the words were reversed, so that “Science” was what we now think of as art, and “the Arts” was what we now think of as science. Confoundedly, though, if we assume the positioning respectives, it also looks like the words “Authors” and “Inventors” have not been the subject of the ol’ switcheroo.

Since I know it better, from here on I’ll focus on copyright law — Science to the powder-wig crowd, which is what Authors do.

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The main thing that our system of copyright does is that it makes, as much as possible, something that is totally non-physical — say, a very long, very unique, very hard-won series of words we call a novel — into something that the law treats almost as if it were physical. So although we have always been able to devise a system that mostly stops horse thieves from stealing horses (via, e.g., fences and the use of brute strength and weapons), we cannot similarly stop a plagiarist from duplicating that hard-won series of words that a novel is, because that series of words in not a physical object, and therefore cannot be “stolen” in the conventional sense of the word, as in I stole your horse and you will never have your horse again.

Somewhere along the way, then, we had to make the whole thing up. And ever since then we have designed markets in copyrighted works. It used to be that we thought copyright rights should last for the life of the author plus 50 years. Then under a new law with Sony Bono’s name attached to it (yup, i kid you not) the term was changed to life of the author plus 70 years. Why? Because the Constitution directed Congress to design the system in the first place, and to then tweak and/or totally revise the system as it sees fit.

It’s a system that is 100% designed, and Mickey Mouse and Sonny Bono have both had their says says (or at least their names have).

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Now let’s take that to a grand scale — a grand scale indeed. Our society is a great big, truly huge, ultra-complex system, consisting of people, governments, institutions, businesses, economies, laws, traditions, ways of thinking, religions, geography, the human-built environment, technologies, etc., etc., etc.

It was set on its course some 230-plus years ago. Since then it has evolved, mostly smoothly but occasionally jarringly, with the obvious examples being the 1860s and, in a different way, the 1960s.




Right now we have one political party that appears to favor an approach to keeping that system righted “by chance” and one that appears to favor “by design.”



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  1. Posted by TAJ on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 4pm
    Wow! Good graphic presentation. Disturbing content. NSFW...