The Overview Effect

Printed encyclopaedias as dusty Atlas books are slowly disappearing, replaced by digital equivalent. Wikipedia and Google are now the two leading services used when you need to know something. Soon, thanks to the data, we won’t even need to search, questions will be answered right away. Nobody will dare to deny that Google and Wikipedia clearly made our lives simpler in many ways.

But when I recently skimmed “The Times World Atlas”, I was stunned by an overview effect. Let me explain, a printed Atlas and Google Maps offer almost the same content (Google being way more precise and detailed). But the frame of the book, the selection of zoomed-regions changes the whole experience, you’re not distracted on scaling the map, moving left to right or up and down, the perception of space completely changes. Your eyes easily go through regions you have never heard of before.
A similar feeling can be experienced when you go through an encyclopaedia. The knowledge is organised, but put in a way to facilitate the serendipity.

How do you google what you don’t even know the existence of a place, person or fact? How do you know something if nobody gives you a complete plan ? That’s maybe the other side of the coin.

There is one skill that I especially value, the capacity of put things into perspective, realizing that somehow, everything is connected. I believe that the overview effect mentioned by astronauts when they first had a glance at the earth from space, is a similar effect when you look at human knowledge in a different way.

I just found that wonderful infographic printed in the first encyclopaedia edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert in the 18th, during the French Enlightenment period. A Map of the System of Human Knowledge, just the fact they mentioned “Understanding” make us realise how little we know, like when the astronauts realised how little the earth was.


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