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Vol.32 No.1 February 1998

Knowing What You Don't Need to Know

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

February 98 Columns
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"I saw mathematics was split up into numerous specialties, each of which could easily absorb the short lifetime granted to us. . . . My intuition was not strong enough in the field of mathematics to differentiate clearly the fundamentally important, that which is really basic, from the rest of the more or less dispensable erudition." [3]

With these words from his Autobiographical Notes, Albert Einstein explains in a curious fashion the reason that he decided as a student to study physics rather than mathematics. In a sense, he is telling us that his problem with mathematics was that he could not easily figure out what was comparatively unimportant. He had difficulty knowing what he did not need to know. Fortunately, he had no such difficulty with physics.

As our knowledge economy grows ever more rapidly, it seems likely that we all will be increasingly confronted with problems akin to Einstein's. With so much specialist education required and so much information daily at our fingertips, how will we know what we need to know -- and, more importantly, how will we know what we don't need to know?

Many SIGGRAPH members have long been familiar with the problem of abundant information and especially the role of computer graphics and scientific visualization as powerful means for dealing with information overload in many fields. However, even computer visualization technologies and techniques cannot eliminate the problem. They may deliver the right information in a form that can be more readily comprehended and understood. But what is the right information?

These considerations are becoming more widespread as near-term developments are being recognized and discussed in the general media. A recent article in the Washington Post newspaper [2], for example, discussed the new ways of handling information that have been developed at Xerox PARC and other research organizations. The "cone tree," "perspective walls" and other graphic devices -- with which many SIGGRAPH members are familiar -- have heretofore required, of course, more powerful computers than those available to most PC users.

However, there is a growing awareness that this will change in the near future. Indeed, the Post article quoted Stuart Card of Xerox PARC as saying that "over the next 18 months" computer hardware capable of supporting these types of demanding new graphics software "will be available to a mass audience." [2]

As we move in fits and starts from a world of words to a world of images, there are many ironies and paradoxes. One paradox is that visual thinkers -- who, as we have discussed previously, often have difficulties with word-based educational systems -- may find themselves to be among those best able to lead others in solving the increasingly pressing problem of our age -- that is, quickly and effectively navigating oceans and oceans of information.

Our technological culture is drowning in its own success -- masses of data and information are accumulating everywhere. As time goes on, it is apparent that these problems are only likely to become much worse, not better -- unless, of course, the entire system somehow collapses of its own weight.

Specialist Myopia

Up to now, the basic strategy for dealing with these growing masses of information has been long, mind-numbing education and reckless, blinkered specialization. That this strategy has been effective in a great many respects, so far, there can be little debate. The problems we are discussing are a tribute to its ample and abundant success -- so far. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this strategy may be entering a phase of diminishing return.

It has long been recognized that this approach has always had built-in problems. The more one knows in one's own increasingly narrow area, the more one is ignorant in other areas, the more difficult is effective communication between unrelated areas and the more unlikely it is that the larger whole will be properly perceived, comprehended or understood.

Like the student who reads too much small print, the specialist's habitual near focus often promotes a myopic perspective that precludes the comprehension of larger important patterns. The distant view of the whole is blurred and unclear.

If you focus only on a small group of stars at the edge of the Milky Way, you will not perceive the larger structure of the whole galaxy of which the group is one tiny part. "He cannot see the forest for the trees," they say. Sometimes it is not so much a matter of whether to specialize, but at what level and magnitude to fix the focus.

Specialists who are expert in one area may not even have common sense knowledge in other areas. This is sometimes recognized, of course, but often discounted. Instead, because of their success in the one narrow area, specialists are encouraged in an arrogant belief that they can make pronouncements in many other areas as well. The prestige of knowing a great deal, even in one limited area, carries great weight.

It is an old story really. Some time ago, the dangers of mainly knowing a great deal were noted by the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. "Dead knowledge is the danger. It is the peculiar danger of scholarship, of universities; and it is considered quite respectable. If you 'know' a great deal, that is supposed to suffice. Now what is wanted is 'activity in the presence of knowledge.' Novel viewpoints; knowledge applied to experience." [4]

The specialist strategy breeds its own limits. Pieces of the puzzle in separate areas remain far apart or come together only after decades of specialist resistance. Or, sometimes success in one area can lead to great problems in another. As we look at the long-term consequences of progress in material wealth, transportation or healthcare, for example, we see that wonderful technical successes in specialty areas lead, in time, to enormous, difficult and intractable problems in other areas. Seemingly, spectacular success in one narrow sphere leads inevitably to major problems with the whole.

Many consequences are easily predictable and are, to some degree, inevitable. Cars and aircraft produce wonderful mobility for many people, but also deplete resources, produce accidental fatalities and increase pollution; material abundance produces waste disposal problems; success in vaccination, hygiene and healthcare lead to all the problems of great concentrations of human population.

As the specialist strategy continues to be pursued, increasingly a sense of the whole is lost. Many know their field. Few see the whole. Many are expert. Few are wise.

Global Thinkers, Global Tools

But many visual thinkers have been outsiders or, at best, reluctant participants in this specialist culture -- especially the energetic, global-minded ones who seem always to be interested in everything.

They are often unable to settle to a "serious" (and therefore highly specialized) area of study. Many, because of verbal difficulties, may be unable to complete years of disciplined study and intense examination. Others find it impossible to apply themselves to the dull repetition of a properly conducted specialist career. Or, even if they do settle to an acceptable specialty area, they (like Albert Einstein or James Clerk Maxwell) become known for addressing the widest profusion of topics -- from light particles to river courses, from cybernetic devices to the rings of Saturn.

While many of the "best and brightest" have taken comfort in their own successes, digging into the warm, insulated safe shelter of their chosen specialty -- the global visual thinkers remain in the bracing, changeable winds on the plain. The minds of these visual thinkers have been as restless and vibrantly alive as their transcripts and resumes have been varied and erratic.

The most successful of these do seem to learn how to still this restless curiosity to some extent -- just enough, at least, for them to focus their passion for a time and finish a few of the many projects they have started -- or the many more projects that emerge from their imagination. More than others, such people probably need to know how to manage and discipline themselves and their attention -- when to rein in, and, when to let go.

But, in time, these same creative visual thinkers with verbal difficulties often have learned, by inclination and necessity, what their unaffected fellows cannot have learned -- how to gain the most understanding with the least information, how to learn as much from what they see as what they read, how to be savagely selective in their reading, how to guess what is inessential and focus only on the really important. Like Einstein, they may have a better chance to learn what they don't need to know.

The more verbally proficient specialists may be able to work far more rapidly and retain more of what they have read, but too often the specialist is prone to wasting time without being aware of it. They do what the professor wants or what the employer expects them to do. They may be too well-focused and disciplined to see what nature invites them to discover.

In any field, or any subfield, there is so much to do and so much to know that one can easily squander a lifetime (career or material success not withstanding) without results of real consequence. There must be a sensitivity to some sort of inner guide to avoid the continuous acquisition of comparatively inessential information.

The visual and global thinkers seem rarely to have the inclination or the temptation to stake their claim to one tiny hoard of knowledge, as specialists do -- holding off all comers with a barrage of facts, minefields of technical language and bulwarks of prerequisites and qualifications. You have to study for years and pass all these exams before you can even begin to think about or discuss the topic -- or, so they say.

The Advantages of Limits

But visual thinkers with verbal problems often experience a different necessity. They learn the value of their own limits. Whether their particular difficulty is with reading or memory or something else, from the outset many of them have had to learn how to judge what is worth knowing and what should be left aside. They have had to learn how to select -- first for teachers, but then for life and the world.

Many have had to integrate knowledge with what they already know in order to learn and retain it -- for unconnected knowledge quickly slips away. They have had to learn basic concepts well enough to be able to generate and regenerate factual material that would not, alone, remain still and accessible and unchanging in their minds.

Often they have had to learn how to constantly check the validity of their imagination and the accuracy of their conclusions against some really reliable standard -- then check them again, remaining ever vigilant to ensure that yet another error does not creep in to spoil the result.

The specialist has long been comforted by knowing 95 to 99 percent of what he needs to know. No critic can challenge the completeness of the knowledge. In contrast, many visual thinkers have had to learn to survive being able to survey, absorb and retain only, say, 20 or 30 percent of what they are expected to know.

As information and knowledge grows by orders of magnitude and orders of magnitude again, in ever decreasing periods of time -- how long before the specialist will have to be content with 85 percent, then 75 percent, then 65 percent or less of an ever more narrowly focused specialty -- an awareness of the larger whole constantly receding?

Which experience is likely to be a greater help in coping in the coming years and in the coming decades?

Visual thinkers with verbal problems have had to develop methods to sift, sample and select because they can never read and absorb at the rate that others are able to. One might be able to, say, digest a single article in the same time that the specialist can cover, say, 10 or 20 articles. But what happens when the specialist has to cover 100 or 1000 or 10,000 articles in limited time?

Of course, in the long run, we will always need both the specialist and the global visual thinker -- or the rare individuals who somehow combine the strengths of both. The problem is not essentially with specialization itself. Rather, the problem is with the way education and work is organized -- the way we are often led to believe that only the specialist knows anything, the way the specialist approach is believed to be adequate. "We are nearly there," they say. "We just need some more time and some more money."

But sometimes a whole different approach is needed before the answer can be found. Sometimes we need to back off some distance -- rather than burrowing in deeper. Sometimes the answer is sitting right in front of us but we refuse to recognize it. Sometimes we would need a whole lot less money for research if we could just see the larger patterns.

Thomas G.West is author of In the Mind's EyeFrom a family of artists and engineers, he has long been interested in the connections between mixed abilities, technological innovation and visual thinking in various occupational and cultural settings. He is conducting research for a new book with the working title, Insight -- Computer Information Visualization and the Visual Thinkers Who are Reshaping the Future of Business and Technology.

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.
National Dyslexia Research Foundation

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Long tradition has often forced us to go the wrong way toward greater specialization. It now seems, however, that we may soon observe a reversal in this trend. The new visualization technologies, coupled with the natural propensities of visual thinkers, may help to turn the flow so that we may begin to find ways of dealing with larger problems and with more enduring solutions.

In a book called The Image, Kenneth Boulding pointed out that professors have always wanted students to learn as much as possible. The students, on the other hand, have always been interested in learning as little as they could get away with.

The irony of it all is that, in the end, the students, as Boulding points out, are clearly in the right. The more so now than ever before. The more so in the future than now. And the greatest irony may be that the path may be led by those who have been forced to excel in understanding more from knowing less -- those who know what they don't really need to know.


This column is largely based on chapter 10, "Patterns, Implications, Possibilities," from In the Mind's Eye [5]. Part of Einstein's observation was referred to briefly in the August 1997 "Images and Reversals" column which dealt with unexpected discoveries in DNA research and inexpensive innovation by the Wright brothers.


  1. Boulding, Kenneth. The Image, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1956.
  2. Corcoran, Elizabeth. "Brain Teasers That Matter -- Top Researchers on Five Questions Whose Answers Could Change Our Lives," Washington Post, December 21, 1997, pp. H1, H4.
  3. Einstein, Albert. Autobiographical Notes, Paul A. Schilpp, editor, Open Court, Chicago, IL, 1949, 1979.
  4. Price, Lucian. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, New American Library, Mentor, New York, NY, 1954, 1964.
  5. West, Thomas G. In the Mind's Eye, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1991, 1997.